“It’s very unique, and I love that you can do anything,” said seventh-grader Annie Durant. “It’s takes a little while, but I like how it turns out. It’s pretty important that people get to do something like this because it doesn’t happen everyday.”
At the center of the classroom is metalsmith and jack-of-all-trades artisan William Rogers, who zooms around the desks to answer any question and assist with any problem. Brought into the classroom through an “Arts in Education” grant from the North Carolina Arts Council, Rogers is making the most out of the two-week course at the school.
“My goal is to be aware of what my students are doing, thinking and trying to do, and to help them,” the 58-year-old smiled. “Teachers have to read their students, and if they can read their students, then can teach them. If you’re not responding to the needs of your students, you’re not really teaching them.”
Molding a vision
Wandering the classroom, student designs placed on the copper range from a basketball to cancer ribbon, Celtic knot to sandcastles — all representing something from their culture and heritage. That idea for incorporating tradition and creativity was put forth by Jenniffer Dall, an art teacher at Smokey Mountain.
“This is an opportunity for students to collaborate in a real piece of artwork that will be permanently displayed in the school,” she said. “Each student made a design based on their personal culture and heritage. We’re taking our Appalachian culture and making a [copper] quilt with the squares.”
The quilt will eventually be on display in the school’s lobby. For Dall, being able to bring a professional artist into her classroom is something not only special to her, but also much needed in bringing together community, art and education.
“I think it’s neat for the students to see that you can be a professional artist in this day and age,” she said. “And that they see they aren’t just fairy book people that magically create illustrations in a book — they’re real people with real personalities.”
At a nearby table, eighth-grader John Dall, Jenniffer’s son, is hammering away at his design. He picks up certain tools to make indentations, others to make specific shapes and lines, while an unrelenting grin slides across his face.
“I’m glad our school is able to bring in an artist to us interesting things,” the 13-year-old said. “I’ve always enjoyed metal working, and we’ve seen some pretty cool stuff. For one thing, this expands the range of knowledge you get, and it also makes school more enjoyable.”
And if John crosses paths with an issue, Rogers is never too far away to tap for guidance.
“Being excited about learning is great, and they’re gathering information,” Rogers said. “They aren’t just relying on the teachers giving them information. They’re taking the materials and applying what they’ve learned and seeing what the results are. It’s about gathering information and assimilating it into what’s appropriate for their specific design.”
Rogers assesses the situation with John, offering just enough advice to push the teenager towards the correct strategy in proceeding with his project without giving away the answer. It’s about giving the students the tools to succeed, but also letting them have the freedom in grasping responsibility within their own creativity.
“Because my classroom structure is a little more free than others, the students are more self-motivated and self-determined than in a lot cases where information is just handed over and they’re expected to hand it back,” Rogers said.
A lifetime of art
Rogers grew up in East Tennessee. Even as a child, he was fascinated with creating something out of nothing. Through encouraging art classes in high school, he pursued a degree in art education at Middle Tennessee State University. And since then, Rogers had led a lifelong pursuit of understanding ancient art forms, where he’s able to study the past and find the best way of translating those techniques into modern times through education.
“I do this as not an institution, but as a traveling artist,” he said.
This is Rogers fourth in-school residency. He did a workshop with Tuscola High School students last year to create a 12-foot tall sculpture made of steel and copper and is permanently installed in the school garden. He has taught the Cherokee ancestral art of hammered copper in Cherokee High School, where two of his sculptures have been installed. As a traveling art instructor, he has brought his workshops to Qualla Arts and Crafts Mutual, HandMade in America, John C. Campbell Folk School and The Bascom. In addition, he was involved in the development and construction of the blacksmithing studios at the Jackson County Green Energy Park.
Rogers has resided in Cullowhee for the last decade, always honing his skills in his studio and out in the world, sharing his knowledge and passion with others. His creativity is about constantly learning something new, always striving to discover something else about you as an individual and as an artist.
“If you’re not learning, you’re not doing much. If you’re not trying something new, you’re not doing anything,” he said. “If you’re doing the same thing over and over again, well, we have robots for that now.”
Finding your path
With the school dismissal bell only a few minutes away, the students are working hard at getting as much of their design done as possible. Following the two-week course with Rogers, Dall will spend some time with her classes interpreting what they’ve learned and being able to plug it into the rest of their curriculum and personal lives.
“They don’t want to leave, you have to make them leave,” Dall chuckled. “I’ve smiled a lot [during this course]. For the first couple of days, the students whine that they can’t do the project, but then there’s that ‘ah ha’ moment and they get it. They’re being able to persevere. If they stick it, they’ll adapt to it.”
“It’s about learning and creating,” Rogers added. “And that’s becoming more and more important to our culture today.”