‘Art’ of the matter: Retired teacher, Marlene Johnson, keeps art alive in HOTL classrooms

Once a month, Marlene Johnson wheels her cart full of paper, pencils, books and other supplies into classrooms at Heart of the Lakes Elementary, and takes charge. It's time for an art lesson.

Elizabeth Huwe/FOCUS Thanks to a 549 Foundation grant and funds raised at the Heart of the Lakes Elementary School Carnival, retired teacher Marlene Johnson returns to the school once a month to teach students about art history and help them create their own artworks.

Once a month, Marlene Johnson wheels her cart full of paper, pencils, books and other supplies into classrooms at Heart of the Lakes Elementary, and takes charge. It’s time for an art lesson.

“All the teachers do wonderful projects with their kids, but art instruction needs to be present for the students,” said Johnson. “The teachers, in their curriculum, they don’t have time to do a complete art program. Plus, that isn’t their area of expertise. So it’s really important to have someone with some kind of art background.”

She did not originally train as an artist, but this isn’t the first time Johnson has brought in art at the elementary school level.

“I’ve taken a lot of art and painting classes on my own, because it is something that I love and do on my own,” Johnson said. “It’s one of my pastimes.

She started out teaching fifth, and then fourth grade in Burnsville, Minn., for seven years, followed by 12 years of dairy farming. After that, Johnson taught first grade in Perham for 20 years.


“That’s how I got involved in this,” she explained of coming back to the school now. “When I taught first grade, I did a lot of art instruction with my first graders.”

Johnson said that, when she was still teaching in Perham, sometimes other teachers would ask her to do a project in their class, too, since she had a better idea of what she was doing.

 “They gain so much more than just art appreciation,” Johnson added of the students. “Art is very inter-related with mathematics, science, history and all the different areas. I just feel it is a very important area that we cannot neglect.”

 “It also opens a different window, for all children, to see that there are other things they can do with their time, other than (playing video games) and TV, and actually entertain themselves,” Johnson said. “They can develop other interests, and have a balance.”

Of course, TV can sometimes help spur some extra interest in art. Johnson said many students perk up when she talks about the old masters Raphael, Leonardo, Michelangelo and Donatello. These are also the names of the popular Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles characters.

“I think our responsibility – as teachers, parents and a community – is to provide for all areas of a child’s development,” Johnson said, noting that art and music activities seem to be more limited than sports opportunities for students.

Johnson had a year off from her mission of bringing art to students after the district re-hired a full-time art teacher last school year. However, that teacher was covering kindergarten through 12th grades, a tough task.

“She was spread very thin,” Johnson said.


That was when Heart of the Lakes Principal, Jen Hendrickson, approached Johnson about returning for the 2014-2015 year.

Teachers at the elementary school decided they wanted to try to emphasize art more, and give their students more exposure to it, Johnson explained.

“I know funding is always an issue, I know that, but we also have to think about kids,” Johnson added, noting that there used to be two art teachers in the district. “I really feel that, if we do not direct our attention to this area of children’s brains and accommodate them... Everyone can learn to draw and foster creativity. I don’t feel the solution is not to have art.”

Johnson is compensated for most of her time at the school through a combination of a grant from the 549 Family Foundation and by funds raised by the school carnival. She plans to do some extra sessions, as a volunteer, to help advance the fourth graders’ portrait projects.

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