WAHS Fine Arts Spotlights Arts and Letters Pathway

WAHS Fine Arts department chair Laura Chatterson and photography teacher Cass Girvin. Photo: Lisa Martin.

The Fine Arts faculty at Western Albemarle High School is ramping up its promotion of the school division’s Arts & Letters Pathway, which provides an avenue for dedicated creative writing, drama, music, and visual arts students to connect with artists in the community, to explore arts-related careers, and to build their portfolios and professional resumes. Though the Pathway has been available for several years, WAHS Fine Arts department chair Laura Chatterson said a new website and refreshed options will make it easier for students to explore and participate.

“We started doing the write-ups of the courses back in 2014, so we really needed to update and edit those documents and give them a more consistent look,” said Chatterson, who teaches ceramics. “During the pandemic, we didn’t really advertise the Pathway much because we couldn’t send kids out into the community. Our focus now is to make the program more accessible, having students out in the community making connections but also making the experience more user-friendly.”

The requirements are simple: a student in the Pathway will take four (or more) courses in their chosen discipline—three required in their specific strand and an additional related elective—and will also engage in three projects/experiences out in the community. “The community service piece is 10 hours and the internship requirement is 15 hours, and then there’s a capstone project as well,” said Chatterson. 

The Pathway’s latter three components are flexible and may be fitted together as a series of activities. For instance, recent WAHS Pathway graduate Carissa Jackson merged her community service and internship as she worked with the Charlottesville Mural Project, which is part of the Bridge Progressive Arts Initiative. Jackson interned with local artist Anna Marie DeMio Dowen to paint a Blue Ridge-themed mural that covers three walls of the UVA Breast Care Center. A student’s capstone project can end up being a portfolio of their work from classes and other projects.

Jackson, now a student at JMU, said the Pathway allowed her to take a variety of different art classes which exposed her to many different mediums of art. “The program helped me grow my skills through assignments that nudged me out of my comfort zone, yet weren’t overwhelming, which helped me gain confidence,” she said. “I was fortunate to work alongside established artists who gave me insight into how art is used professionally. Through my capstone [mural] project, I gained a much better understanding of how my art can have a positive impact on the public.”

Former WAHS student and Arts & Letters Pathway completer Carissa Jackson, who painted the mural behind her for UVA’s Breast Care Center along with local artist Anna Marie DeMio Dowen. Submitted photo.

It’s even possible to pursue multiple interests, as Casey Lockledge did when she completed both the drama and visual arts strands last year, and she is now exploring tech theater at VCU. Another “completer” is Laura Bendick, who followed the visual arts strand and graduated in 2018. For her internship, she illustrated a children’s book called Let’s Explore Lighthouses in collaboration with local author Flora Wyatt, then used her fine arts portfolio to attend VCU where she majored in communication arts with a minor in art history.

“I think our administrative team with Jenn [Sublette, principal] and Doug [Granger, assistant principal] is so supportive of this effort,” said Chatterson. “They’re really wanting us to actively share info about it and spread the word in our classes. Also, I think that parents can be the ones to start this conversation with their own children, so we’re posting about the Pathway on social media like Facebook and Instagram.

“I think it does benefit students when they’re applying for college, because they have something extra to put in their portfolio or on their application,” Chatterson continued. “Then, depending on what school it is, some schools take outside recommendations. So, if the student has worked with an artist, and that artist sends a letter of recommendation along with their guidance counselor’s letter, then I think that’s a benefit for sure.”

Another interesting aspect of the Pathway is its emphasis on encouraging students to “put themselves out there” by participating in auditions, entering contests, and submitting work in shows or for publication. “There are two good reasons for this,” said Assistant Principal Granger, who is a former band director. “One is, you get great feedback in a contest. Even if you don’t win, often they are adjudicated in a way where you get incredible feedback from people who aren’t just your teachers, who are actually practitioners. 

“The other part is, we’re trying to help the kids see that it’s not ‘kid art’ that they’re doing, it’s art. You take the kid part out of it, and that art is meant to be displayed. Art is for you as a creator, but it’s also for an audience. And by getting it out there, it actually speaks to other people’s souls, too. If they’re going to be adult practitioners, then this is their practice, so we’re pushing them out of that nest a little bit.”

Chatterson says students’ mental health can benefit from exposure to artistic disciplines as well. “Besides the normal verbal and written communication skills that we want all high-schoolers to have, I think our [creative arts] students have some extra communication skills. They’re working with their hands, or they’re taking pictures of endangered species, and they’re using their artistic voice and developing that voice to where it’s a really productive avenue for self-expression, rather than doing something potentially harming or destructive like, say, graffiti. So here in class we’re painting, but it’s productive, and it’s shared with the community in this positive way.”

Photography teacher Cass Girvin is optimistic that students will give the Pathway a try now that the division no longer uses weighted grades. “Because fine arts classes were not weighted like Honors or AP classes in the past, I think that was a huge impetus for kids to not take electives,” said Girvin. “Now that that incentive has been removed, I think more and more kids are going to want to fill their free time with a class like an art or ceramics or photography, where they have this creative outlet. They can work independently, calmly, productively. I don’t think any of our classes are particularly stressful, you just work at your own pace, and create something you’re proud of.”

Chatterson said that WAHS will need help from people in the community to provide opportunities for students to do their internships and community service. “We would love to connect with working artists or musicians—even if it’s not their main profession but maybe it’s a part-time thing that they could use additional help with—to work with students so they can see how their interest could be something they continue. My plan would be that the kids would probably do the community service part in the summer between 10th and 11th grade, just because kids are so booked during the school year.”

The WAHS fine arts teachers are hoping to build on what is already an arts-minded populace. “I think our community is a community of artists and a community that supports arts,” said Chatterson. “We have the Arts in Western Education parent group, which is a huge support. With the Pathway, we can make sure students and families know that this is a real opportunity that you can take with you throughout your life.”

For more information, visit the WAHS Arts & Letters Pathway website at bit.ly/TakeFineArts or contact Laura Chatterson at [email protected]. 


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