"There. Do you see that line? There's no such thing as a line in the real world. You with me?"
The Cape Girardeau art students surrounding Judy Barks-Westrich nod their heads, but keep their eyes trained to her expert hand as it shades and blends away the definitive line around the drawing of a Crush soda can.
Most of these students would call the 32-year teaching veteran demanding. It's a label Barks-Westrich wears with pride.
"A lot of my students complain that art is hard," she said. "I say it's supposed to be. If it's easy, why do it?"
The Central High School teacher has been selected as the Missouri Art Education Association's high school art teacher of the year for 2004 and will be honored at a reception this weekend in St. Louis.
"I think the award means that I'm doing something right," Barks-Westrich said. "But the proudest moments of my career are when my students are recognized for their work."
In three decades of art education, Barks-Westrich has taught students in first through 12th grade as well as adults. She loves working with textures, especially fibers, and focused on basketry while working on her master's degree at Southeast Missouri State University.
Her classroom is all art; from floor to ceiling are objects that pull the eye in a hundred different directions at once.
Here, surrounded by peacock feathers, hubcaps, tropical plants and more, Barks-Westrich teaches awareness and observation through drawing, printing and painting.
In her class, students are sometimes pulled, sometimes pushed through the creative process. A first sketch or idea is never acceptable; idea begets idea begets idea, she tells her students.
"All my students have minds and imaginations, it's just a matter of pulling them out," Barks-Westrich said. "A lot of times you don't learn how to do something right until you see what you've done wrong right in front of you."
Although they admit the process can be frustrating, her students say they appreciate the lengths their teacher goes to in helping them improve their work.
"She expects the best from us," said 16-year-old Megan Staufenbiel, a third-year art student. "Our personalities come out in our art because we have the freedom to do that in here."
Covering the walls of Barks-Westrich's room, and sometimes even hanging from the ceiling, are her students' works of art either completed or in process.
Many of those students have won awards with the work done in her class, including a best of show at the recent High School Art Symposium at Southeast Missouri State University. Right now, a print by a student who graduated last year is on display in the Capitol building in Washington, D.C.
Her students, from the basic to the most advanced at Central, say they enjoy the laid-back atmosphere of her classes. The class is fairly unstructured, with a radio playing popular music in the background and students free to move about the room.
"It's challenging," said junior Bobbie Jones. "But I like this class because I can express my feelings. It's different from everyone else."
She was chosen for the teacher of the year award through a nomination process and then selected by a panel of seven former MAEA teachers of the year.
In a letter of recommendation to MAEA, Central principal Dr. Mike Cowan described Barks-Westrich as a consummate professional with a genuine belief that art is an essential part of education.
"She works diligently to educe from all of our kids levels of creative expression that many would not even acknowledge they possess," Cowan wrote in the letter.
Barks-Westrich operates on the philosophy that art is to be not only created but viewed and appreciated. She teaches her students to be critics of their own work.
"You can't get away from art, no matter where you go," she said. "And that's a good thing. It would be gray and boring if everything looked the same."
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