Friday, May 27, 2016

Colette Stemple: Art Teacher Extraordinaire!

Ms. Stemple was my IB Photography teacher at Coral Reef, and she ignited in me a love for darkroom photography. My father was a photographer in the Belgian Army and I’ll never forget his excitement when I brought him into our darkroom at school. Even though it had been 30 years since he’d developed photographs, the smells of the different chemicals brought back many fond memories for him, and we made many of our own memories working side by side in the darkroom. That was the kind of teacher she was—opening up the darkroom in the evenings, staying late after school, letting us spend our lunch hour in her classroom. She was constantly pushing us to enter competitions and get our work out into the world. I’ll never forget her infectious enthusiasm towards her students and our creative pursuits—and that enthusiasm continues to this day. 

 Over the years, Ms. Stemple and I have kept in touch. After retiring from the Florida public schools, where she started three different art programs (the commercial art program at the International Fine Arts College, and the magnet art programs at Southwood Middle School and Coral Reef High School), she moved to Austin, Texas to be near her children and grandchildren. Around this time, several of my good friends also moved to Austin, so I’ve been lucky enough to visit this liberal Texas oasis several times over the years. I always make a point to spend a few days with Ms. Stemple, catching up with my friend, and each time, I am more and more amazed by this woman. To me, she was just my photo teacher, but to the rest of the world, she was a great artist.


During this last visit, I learned that she received an Olympic medal for creating glass windows that were showcased during the 1980 Olympic games in Lake, Placid, NY. She also created a book of photography with her students after Hurricane Andrew called “The Eye of the Storm through the Eye of the Child”, which was presented to President Clinton. I found out that she won many scholarships to study art abroad, including at the Villa Schiffanoia in Florence, and she was the VP of an art company. I took this opportunity to ask her a few questions about her mentors and her work as an art educator. Here’s a peek into our conversation…


Olympic medal!

Ms. Stemple meeting President Clinton

Original Abstract by Ms. Stemple!
How did you get interested in art?

In grade school, the art teacher came and the regular teacher left. She used to draw something on the board and whoever copied it best got the best grade. But I just started drawing everything in sight. And this teacher let me do whatever I wanted to do, which gave me a lot of confidence. She could have squelched me, but she encouraged my creativity instead. That’s the best thing a teacher can do. Creativity is what makes a person unique.

Who are some of your favorite teachers?

Ranulph Bye (transparent watercolor), Dolya Goutman (oil painting, drawing), Leonard Nelson (printmaking, drawing), Hoffman (photography), John Hanlen (painting, drawing), George Sklar (heavy-duty drawing). In Florence, Sister Giotto Moots was very encouraging. Steven Posen from Yale said all my abstracts were ugly, but I knew they were true. If they were ugly, that was the way he perceived it. Does anyone really do ugly on purpose? When he found out I was married and going to have babies, he wouldn’t talk to me. He said I wasn’t an artist anymore.
Portrait of Ms. Stemple by fellow artist

What mediums have you taught?

I’ve taught photography, sculpture, encaustic wax emulsion, ink drawing, oil, watercolor, drawing, furniture design. It’s hard to say what I haven’t taught. I don’t care what you give me. Put me on the beach and I’ll play with the sand.

You’ve taught at colleges and art schools. You designed the curriculum for the art programs at both Southwood Middle and Coral Reef High School, and you taught at each for 15 years. How do you feel about your work as an educator?

I never took an education course in my life by choice. I never wanted to be a teacher. I never had a garden, never wanted to grow anything. Teaching was planting a seed and watching it grow. What a heady experience. I got hooked. I’d been written up on interior design in NY Magazine. I’d done art for commissions. I had plans to run my own business. But the joy of watching my students far exceeded any joy I ever experienced marketing my own work. I found out I loved teaching. I really believed—if you can’t do it, teach it. Then I found out there’s a vocation called teaching. I fell in love with my students. My greatest joy are my kids – my own and my students.
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The teaching doesn’t stop. These days, she does artwork with her grandkids and teaches painting in the community. She spent a morning teaching me a few watercolor techniques while I was in town. It was hard!!!! I have so much respect for that art form now! And I continue to feel so lucky to have such a passionate, patient, and encouraging teacher as Ms. Stemple in my life! 

 

Original Artwork by Colette Stemple

Monday, May 16, 2016

MFA Year Two Recap

My writing studio at the Art Farm
Hi friends. Since my last post, I’ve finished my second year of graduate school so I thought this would be a good time to recap the past year of my master’s in creative writing.

This time last year, I was heading off to my first artist residency at the Art Farm in Nebraska. In a few days, I’ll be joining some of my Art Farm friends on a farm in eastern Texas to recreate the magic! During my residency last summer, I spent delicious day after delicious day writing, the hours interrupted only by a passing bunny rabbit or thunderstorm. I breathed life into old pieces and conjured up new ones; I am happy to report that all of the writing I did at the Art Farm has found homes in various literary journals and online magazines. But I’m jumping the gun! 

When the fall semester started, I went full speed into submitting my work. This was a new world for me, but I was lucky enough to have an insider’s perspective by working as an editor at Saw Palm, USF’s Florida literature and art journal. Regardless, I dealt with months and months of nonstop rejection, but I used these “failures” as ammunition to keep going. I quickly learned that rejection is a huge part of a writer’s life, and the sooner we learn to deal with it, the better.

Eventually, I got my first acceptance in late October from The Normal School. Needless to say, I was psyched.  A few other acceptances followed, and my first pieces were officially published in early December on The Toast and Lunch Ticket.

All the while, I was enrolled in my first fiction class where I started the project that was to become my thesis. Of course, you might remember that I came into this program as a creative nonfiction writer, so this switch was a confusing but exciting decision. Regardless, I still write plenty of nonfiction, but I decided that I’d rather work on a novel for my thesis than a book-length memoir project. (At the end of October, I attended the NonfictioNOW Conference in Flagstaff and met tons of awesome writers!)

Over the course of the fall semester, I wrote a first draft of my novel and received great feedback from my professor and peers. In the winter, I turned an excerpt from the novel into a short story called “Mango Season” and sent it to a few places.

Oh, and let me not forget that I taught my first creative writing class in the fall. My students were delightful and we had a great time exploring fiction, nonfiction, and poetry together!

Okay, so I had a busy fall semester. The spring semester was no different. I went back to teaching composition, and I registered for four awesome classes: Comics (or graphic narrative), another Fiction Workshop, Craft of Creative Nonfiction (Reading the Lives of Others), and Environmental Literature.
Saw Palm's 10th Anniversary Issue!
[Also, I set some SMART goals in December to keep me on track. More on that later.]

I tried my hand at comics for the first time—and loved it. I set aside my novel and wrote a few short stories for my fiction class (and we properly inducted into the official fiction writer’s club). I read tons of amazing (and sometimes frustrating) books for my CNF and Enviro Lit class. Meanwhile, I was still sending work out like crazy, getting lots of rejections and a few more acceptances. I begin to shift my focus away from literary magazines and started sending work to more mainstream publications. I landed several freelance writing gigs for corporate and governmental organizations. I wrapped up a year-long memoir project with a private client. I gave my first reading in NYC and saw my name in print for the first time! (First in the Reader's Write section of The Sun and then in the Tahoma Literary Review). 

Towards the end of the semester, things started to pick up even more. I was awarded USF’s Anspaugh Fiction award for my story “Mango Season.” I embraced painting and made a full-length comic/children’s book. Then, I had an article published in The Washington Post that was then picked up by The Sydney Morning Herald—completely unbeknownst to me! I was driving somewhere in Alabama when I received a phone call from a strange number. It was a radio station in Sydney and they wanted to interview me on-air about my article. I had no idea what they were talking about, and they explained that my piece about not having wi-fi at my house had been featured in The Sydney Morning Herald that day. Of course, I was more than happy to talk to them about my internet-free lifestyle. J

Now, the semester is over and I’ve returned to my restless ways. I’m on a road trip around the south, visiting friends and family in Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas. In the midst of my trip, I got some super exciting news. My short story, “Mango Season,” was awarded the Charles Johnson Fiction Award by Crab Orchard Review! I am over the moon, and more than ready to get back to work on my novel—as soon as I get back home from my travels!


All in all, it’s been a productive and exciting year with lots of "firsts". I’ve done lots of writing, reading, editing, freelancing, workshopping, submitting, pitching, published, drawing, and dreaming. I’m so grateful for the support I’ve received from my family and friends, as well as from my awesome writing community at the University of South Florida! Although I don’t want my MFA to end, I’m excited to see what this last year holds.