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Artistic Lessons

Cindy Van Lieu teaches students the possibilities of art

Art instruction has evolved over the years, and few teachers have witnessed those changes as closely and personally as Loy Norrix High School art teacher Cindy Van Lieu, who has been teaching art since 1971.

Van Lieu, whose own alma mater — Constantine High School — didn’t even offer an art class, though she longed to take one, grew up surrounded by a large family of knitters, crocheters, tatters and seamstresses. “My mother was a Depression-era baby, the youngest of 12. All of her sisters, herself included, were fantastic seamstresses.”

Those traditional skills now fall into the category of fiber arts, but back then they were considered practical crafts, worthy of praise and appreciation but not necessarily of display.

Van Lieu grew up learning at the laps of her relatives and translated her talents into costume and set design for school plays and parades. When she went away to college at the University of Michigan, her curiosity and love of learning were channeled into science — until she took an Art for Non-Art Majors course offered by the U-M Architecture and Design School, as it was called then. (Art students heading to Michigan now go to the Penny Stamp School of Art and Design.)

“In science, I was taking all the classes offered and not seeing any potential career. I took a career test, and it said research scientist or artist. Research science was what I was in, and that was boring,” Van Lieu says. “I asked my art professor if he thought I would have the ability to succeed in art school, and he responded, ‘Absolutely. Don’t even question it.’”

So her decision was made. “I still use science,” says Van Lieu, who was a ceramics/sculpture major. “I was a good math student, and you see math constantly in art. In graduate school, I studied photography, which is very scientific.”

Her background in science and math also prepared her for the cultural shift in art education’s focus. Nowadays, art class often involves design methods. The elements of design — line, shape, form, value, space, color and texture — are explored using the design principles of balance, contrast, rhythm, unity, pattern, movement and emphasis. Students must apply higher-ordered thinking skills to utilize these art concepts in their work, which is often inspired by such far-reaching and out-of-the-box thinkers as British artist and architect Thomas Heatherwick.

“In the old days you would tell someone you were an artist, and they would say, ‘Oh, so you’re a painter.’ Today the focus is on design. They’re learning to use art in a more commercial way,” Van Lieu says.

Consequently, a new breed of artists is being born, which includes students who are entrepreneurial in their approach to art. They design industrial products, furniture, jewelry and costumes for theater and more. A current student of Van Lieu’s has translated a love of art and aquatic life into a desire to become a designer of aquatic habitat, such as what one would find at Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium.

Who knew such a job existed? But artists of today are savvy, and, with instructors like Van Lieu who probe, guide and listen, they see possibilities to channel their unique interests and talents into viable, stimulating careers.

Add the Kalamazoo Promise into the mix and the potential for young artists is exponentially magnified. “I tell my students all the time, ‘You have no excuse not to major in art if you want to do so.’”

Thinking about art

For Van Lieu, who has been at Loy Norrix for 14 years, art and thought are inextricably intertwined, she says, so that when you create a piece of art, you need to know why you created it. “My students can give you a very precise explanation of why they did what they did,” she says. “’Were you looking at light and shadow? What was the reason?’ They can answer these questions in thoughtful, well-considered ways.”

“I’m your facilitator,” Van Lieu tells her students. “I can help you figure out what it is you need to get the idea done, but you have to have the idea.”

This method, Van Lieu acknowledges, involves “a lot of conversations, a lot of one-on-one conversations to get inside their heads to find out what’s going on, and then working with them for ways to express themselves.

“They surprise themselves sometimes. They’re shocked at what they come up with when they really consider their thoughts and their lives.”

This approach is particularly useful to students in Van Lieu’s Advanced Placement Studio Art class, who have to defend their work in order to earn college credit. And it has been an undeniable reason for why so many of Van Lieu’s students, especially those in her AP Studio Art class, win prestigious scholarships and competitions and often go on to major in art and design. Her 2013 class of seniors earned $153,000 in scholarships. Her 2014 class had already earned $45,000 by early December.

Van Lieu’s art classroom is a world onto itself. It’s a visually stimulating environment with shelves filled by looms of various sizes, a yarn room with floor-to-ceiling boxes of every color imaginable, and bookcases filled to capacity with art reference books. It also includes still-life setups, individual workspaces for advanced students, and the regular art supplies necessary to do projects in a variety of media. And there is always a bustle of activity.

Recently Loy Norrix Principal Rodney Prewitt dropped in to observe Van Lieu’s classroom. A couple of girls were painting. One student was in the back of the room designing costumes. Two others were working on photography. Later he asked Van Lieu to explain to him the day’s lesson.

“There wasn’t one lesson,” Van Lieu says, laughing. “There were 27 different lessons.”

A passion for travel

Lest Van Lieu’s contribution of energy and creativity to Loy Norrix’s art program isn’t enough, she has a complementary passion — travel — that dovetails with her interest in art. Thirteen years ago, during her second year at Loy Norrix, Van Lieu founded the Loy Norrix Travel Club, and it’s been going strong ever since, despite challenging economic times that caused many other programs to abandon their overseas tours. Not only does the club visit places such as the Costa Rican rain forest, Spain, France, Peru and China, but this summer the club will go to Paris, Rome and Athens. In 2015, there is a possibility of the club going to Cuba on an art cultural exchange.

The Travel Club is for everyone, not just art students. Other teachers and even relatives of students can join. One past trip to Great Britain centered on the school’s Advanced Placement British Literature Course. The travel is funded by innovative projects, for both the group and individual students.

Last summer, Van Lieu brought home an unexpected souvenir from the club’s memorable 2013 trip to China. While climbing the Great Wall, her leg fractured. “I was climbing up the steps of the Great Wall. The steps are large, which is a lot for a short person, and I’ll never forget it. The stress on the ligament across the joint cracked the bone. I just bandaged it up and kept going. Upon returning, I had surgery.” She’s on the mend and already planning a trip to Europe this summer to study ancient architecture and foreign language.

“I’m never without a plan,” she says. For the near future, her plan includes teaching at Loy Norrix another year or two and then indulging her love of travel by teaching English in another country, perhaps Central America.

Joys and demands

Teaching, as many have said and Van Lieu agrees, keeps one youthful. “You have to think about your students’ interpretations of the world. I know the new music. I still have the pulse on what the teenagers are doing, some things of which I personally wouldn’t approve of, like twerking. In the ’60s, you would never think to do anything like that. We were more prudish.”

Yet Van Lieu loves interacting with students and loves the environment where she teaches. An urban school like Loy Norrix, she says, offers advantages to all of its students. “You get a broader understanding of people and their issues. My daughter, who’s a lawyer now, went here, and she said it taught her to get along with a lot of types of people.”

Van Lieu says the job keeps her so busy these days that she really values her down time. “There have been so many changes in the educational system in the last couple years. The demands are so immense that I don’t have as much time. I live alone. I talk to 125 people every day. I’m hoarse by the end of the day. I need my down time, time to read a book.”

As for her own art, she doesn’t do as much with ceramics anymore because she has arthritis, but, when she can, she continues to work on her own weaving and photography projects.

“I never stopped doing art. It’s my life,” she says. “And so is teaching, which is why I keep doing it. I learn something every day. Absolutely.”

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