An artistic touch

Nomaan Merchant

As passing period comes to an end at Nichols Middle School, eighth-graders file into Room 102 and grab stools next to small tables piled high with art supplies and books, worn with use.

This is no ordinary art class. Aside from quickly introducing the day’s projects, art teacher Carla Kenney-Phillips lectures little. Students work on their own, sometimes interacting with peers but mainly experimenting with oil pastels or cutting out Valentines.

In January, sixth- and eighth-graders at Nichols, 800 Greenleaf St., learned an Asian brush painting technique known as “sumi-e.” Student work from the unit wound up inside Flat Top Grill, 707 Church St., and will remain on display until March.

Student work appears in two or three exhibitions per year, Kenney-Phillips said. Throughout the year, students in Kenney-Phillips’ class explores oil painting, watercolors and digital photography, among other things.

Students can take art as part of the fine arts rotation at Evanston/Skokie School District 65’s three middle schools, which allow students to choose a different fine arts class every trimester.

As class proceeds, Kenney-Phillips bustles around the room carrying art supplies and shouting encouragement at students. Meanwhile, students carry on with their own projects, which vary from glittery, colorful Valentines addressed to parents and friends to a rendition of the Chicago Bulls logo in oil pastels.

Eighth-grader Dominique Barber was one of several students whose work appears at Flat Top. Barber spent the class working on a card for her mother along with a few friends at one table.

According to Barber, Kenney-Phillips, who leads the district’s visual art department and has taught art at Nichols for 33 years, makes taking the class worthwhile.

“The teacher’s nice and she’s fun,” Barber said.

Eighth-grader Trevor Schwartz said art is one of his hobbies and that some of his greatest achievements have come in the class.

“Ms. Kenney really knows how to teach art,” Schwartz said. “I think art is interesting, and I like to make my own art.”

Students work in Room 102 surrounded by a medley of posters and art. On one wall rests a self-portrait of Vincent van Gogh, while student work occupies seemingly every possible space on the rest of the walls. Books covering different art techniques sit in stacks all over the room.

Amidst the colors of the room, three new Apple computers sit on a corner table, ignored and untouched. Another computer sits on the floor underneath the table. Although her classes spend some time on digital media, Kenney-Phillips prefers to eschew computer programs and designs in place of more traditional methods of art.

“I’d much rather work with our hands – maybe it’s because I’m an old-time teacher,” Kenney-Phillips said. “I believe in books and reading – and if they look through (them) they find something.”

Reach Nomaan Merchant at [email protected]