Artists Profile: Jon Roark March/April 2016

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Occupation: Art Teacher, Heritage High School
Hometown: Lynchburg, Va. | Age: 61

How did your interest in art begin?
I have always drawn. It was my way of learning about history—one of my first loves. I would copy photos out of books as a way of getting closer to the subject. One era led me to another, etc., etc.

One of my issues may be that I have too many varied stylistic interests. It’s hard to find your own style when everything you see pulls you in.

Congrats on recently winning “Best in Show” at the Hill Center Juried Regional Show in Washington, D. C. Can you share about that experience?
Amazing to get in that show—even more amazing to win a prize. It was an absolutely phenomenal group of artists chosen by Mark Leithauser, Senior Curator for the National Gallery of Art. More than 600 entries submitted with [only]93 accepted. They told me my painting was number one from the first viewing.

I was also selected in 2014 for this show, which is a regional show encompassing six states. The Hill Center is an old Civil War Naval Hospital repurposed as a community arts facility and gallery not unlike our own Academy Center of the Arts.

Your art work is also showing up around Lynchburg. Can you tell us about your recent work with The Academy Center of the Arts?
I teach at the Academy in the summer, and they asked me, along with other artists, to interpret their new logo in a piece of artwork. I did a 3-D piece and had several of my students help in the spirit of old guild style work. The Academy has it hanging now at the entrance to their offices.

Did you always anticipate becoming an art teacher?
I absolutely hate speaking in front of a group of people so teaching was way down on my list of careers. I have made peace with speaking in front of a group but really love working one-on-one with students who have a passion for art.

What do you prioritize in the classroom?
Effort. Creativity and innate talent are great, but if you aren’t willing to work, you’re going nowhere fast. On the other hand, if you are passionate and willing to work, your innate creativity will serve you. Talent means very little to me. I was the student no one would have said could become an artist. In fact, I wasn’t allowed to take Art in high school until my senior year. But I have had great teachers take interest in my development mainly because they could see my interest. I try to be the same person to my students.

You and your students have done several community art collaborations. Tell us about them.
Last fall and winter we produced about 20, 4′ x 6′ luan panels (cheap plywood used in theatre) for Opera on the James. Each was a visual representation of an opera produced and staged by the Opera on the James. The Opera requested they be done in the style of Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. So the kids had to research Toulouse-Lautrec, then design and illustrate a panel per opera using cheap house-paint, and the panels were hung in February 2015 at the Opera’s fundraising gala at the Academy.

Jeff Wagoner, the Academy Technical Director, had them lit in a way that made them glow—they looked like backlit transparencies. Just beautiful. The Opera later did a First Friday opening just for the students, which was a great event for them.
We have also published three children’s books at this point. One was written by my brother-in-law, the other two by students. The fourth story is being edited and hopefully we’ll begin soon. The third book was about mice living in the Academy Theatre as a way of introducing our students to the Academy. This one is sort of a prequel, explaining how the ancestors of our Academy mice happened to make it to Lynchburg onboard a James River batteau.

So this one will have a James River theme running through it.
I want our students thinking about their locale, about how things came to be here and the difficulties of travel and just life in general in that earlier Lynchburg as well as our impact on what is left for the following generations.

When I started at Heritage, we were basically unknown for visual art, and now we have folks in town asking us to help. I really like that change.

What’s been your experience with Keys for the Hill City?
We painted a piano for downtown’s Keys for the Hill City the first year they held it. We produced a Beatles-inspired piece since it was the 50th anniversary of their first trip to the U.S. We listened to Beatles everyday.

The kids designed some amazing art and did a fabulous job painting it. They wouldn’t let me help, so I got inspired and asked our building trades teacher to add a panel to the top back, and I painted the “Let It Be” portraits on it. I was having so much fun watching the kids; I just had to play also.

I have some really amazing students. We have just begun our second piano. This time it will be a Vincent Van Gogh–inspired piece.

In your opinion, what’s the role of art in a community?
Art is a mirror into our soul. It is a record of our time—a visual representation of us. In education, I believe it improves academic performance and student discipline as well as exposes students to the beauty of our world. In our greater community, I believe it challenges us to think in new ways while celebrating the old and can act as a catalyst for change in a community.

What do you envision for our region and the development of the arts over the next few years?
I believe The Academy Center of the Arts restoration is going to lead to even greater investment and development of our downtown and the fact that the Academy has returned to its roots as a community center (key word “center”).

I see the Academy as a hub of downtown revitalization with more and more opportunities for artistic expression and community involvement.

I am very excited for my friends at the Academy and thrilled that the word “Center” has been brought back to the importance it deserves.

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