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.

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