Interview with Matt Appling, author of Life After Art, by Mrs. Anna Nichols

Editor's note: The following interview contains comments about religious subject matter, specifically Christianity. If you find this offensive, please skip reading this post. We in no way wish to alienate any of our readers due to conflicting religious beliefs.

“It’s four o’clock in the afternoon and my office is a mess. Scraps of paper litter the floor, as if a windstorm has blown through the room. The walls are smudged with fingerprints. My own hands are stained and my fingernails are caked with paint and chalk and ink. I wear an apron with dozens of colorful scars. I hang the apron on its hook, flip the light switch, and lock the door with a sense of satisfaction. The mess around the room is evidence of the day’s accomplishments.”

This is the opening paragraph of Matt Appling’s wonderful new book, Life After Art…. what you forgot about life and faith since you left the art room. Matt Appling teaches kindergarten through 6th grade art at a private classical school in Missouri as well as high school art history. He is also an ordained pastor with a congregation of his own and maintains a blog, The Church of No People. Life After Art is brilliantly written from his perspective as an art teacher and tells of his thoughts about everything from creativity, to failure, to beauty and ugliness, to motivation, to child development, and even the purpose of life. I am delighted that Matt has agreed to tell us more about his life and work! 

I got to read his book quite by accident when our school media specialist brought it to me on an especially trying morning (she had no idea what a hard day I was having.) This book truly was a breath of fresh air as well as an answer to prayer! After I read it, I loaned it to my dad, a former teacher, who was duly impressed with the ideas in the book. He was at a point where he had become quite cynical about books, but after reading Life After Art my dad was encouraged that there were still fresh ideas to be found and he was inspired to read again.  I believe that this is a very important book. 
1st grade Student Art; Matt Appling
Thank you so much for sacrificing a bit of time to tell us more about yourself! Your book has been a very positive influence in my life, and I hope to see more of your work in the future! 

Q. How did you get to the point where you got to publish your musings? It is so rare that we get to read books written by art teachers!

A. Getting published was very providential. A well-connected friend asked if I had a book in mind to publish and I told him I did. He said, "Well, I looked up 'literary agent' on Wikipedia and I think I can do that for you. I already know people in five different publishers.' So I wrote the manuscript and we worked on a proposal - just following Michael Hyatt's formula in his ebook on writing proposals. About six months after we started approaching publishers, we had a deal with Moody.

Q. Will you tell us about your family and your hobbies? Is your wife also an artist/teacher?

A. My wife is a veterinarian, but she also has her own creative pursuits. For a while, she took culinary classes at our local art institute - serious stuff! And she loves to sew. For me, my classroom is both my job and my hobby, but in my free time, I enjoy writing of course, as well as watercolor painting. We also love to go camping and we love photography. We have been known to take a weekend away to some remote place, just to take pictures.

Q. What is your favorite medium when creating your own art?

A. I've gone through a few different phases. I taught myself how to paint landscapes in high school. Then my first degree was in design. These days, watercolor really grabs me. I love the play of light and dark that watercolor allows. I've been tinkering with Asian watercolor techniques lately. I even got some bamboo pens and brushes for my classroom.
5th Grade Student Art; Matt Appling

Q. What is your favorite project(s) to teach to your students?

A. Some of my favorite projects are the collaborative ones. My third graders make "cave art" in teams. My fourth graders make giant food a la Claus Oldenberg out of paper mache. This year, I'm thinking of having my fifth graders make giant Olmec heads, because that just sounds awesome. I love making big, surprising things that really show off and grab attention.

Q. One of the most important themes of your book is your philosophy of helping your students develop good habits (building character), and trying to help them hold onto the artist within. Can you tell us more about that?

A. There are a lot of conflicting opinions about what the art teacher's job is today. Plenty of teachers swear by the "free choice" model, where students are more in control of what they do when they come into the room. That is just not the kind of teacher I was made to be, and I also think that model misses out on some important advantages. First, children already have all kinds of choices in their lives. When they go home and play with their crayons, they can do whatever they want. But they only get me for an hour a week, and I tell this to them. We are in the classroom to learn, and they take what they learn from me and use it however they wish. I am trying to set them up to have the tools they need to express their real ideas. That's the practical side of it, but on the more emotional / intuitive side of things, I just make a point to try to build each child up, to tell them that, yes, what we are doing is challenging, but that they can be successful. I believe in them. Even when I criticize their work, I do it in a restorative way. I tell them that I would not criticize their work if I did not think they were capable of more.

Grades 4-6 Student Art; Matt Appling
Q. I have made many mistakes as an art teacher. Once I dropped a cup of yellow paint and it exploded all over the floor, covering me with yellow paint drips. I even had paint on my face and in my hair! It is ironic that happened a split second after I admonished two students to “Be careful!” with the paint! Another time I thought it would be a good idea to let my students store their paint colors in glass baby food jars. The kids kept dropping them and I would inevitably wind up on the floor cleaning up glass shards covered in paint. (I wouldn’t let the kids do it.)
What is one thing/decision/experience you wish you could “do over” as an art teacher?

A. Just one? I shudder to think about my first year. Especially with the older students who were already feeling a little to "cool for school," I just did not have a super great repertoire of projects. Some things were pretty lame. But as far as a single moment goes, I took a student's chair one time and sat down while she stood behind me. She was goofily trying to pull on the chair from behind, and when I got up, it bonked her right in the forehead and knocked her down. I had to go to her mom and explain why her daughter got a head injury in Art class!
4th Grade Student Art; Matt Appling

Q. What is the biggest challenge you face as an art teacher?

A. I still feel this inner insecurity about whether I am really "equal" to my colleagues. Do I teach a "real" subject? Am I a "real" teacher?

Q. What has been your greatest triumph in the classroom? How about any classroom management difficulties you were able to solve?

A. This last year's Art show was the best I've put on and it really impressed my new boss. We even had a small dark room with glowing "Space Invaders" hanging from the ceiling like the video game from the 80s. That was cool.
Classroom management is tough and I'm still figuring that out, but I've just learned, most of the time, to not engage students who are being disrespectful. Art teachers ought to take advantage of the fact that while we want our subject to be thought of as "core," most students think of it as a fun privilege. Getting sent out of Art class is much more of a punishment than being sent out of Math class.

Q. Because you are a pastor as well as a teacher, have you ever purposefully studied the “classroom management” techniques of the Master Teacher in order to improve your own practice (outside of His commands to, “Love thy God and love thy neighbor as thyself”)? Recently I have been struck by HOW Jesus taught – he went up on a mountain so he could be heard, he told many stories, he asked brilliant questions of his students, and he truly valued relationships with people, even the “lowest of the low.” He also was brutally honest with his most difficult students, holding them to high standards. He was the most patient, the most compassionate, the most wise teacher the world has ever known! Do you have any thoughts about the ways Jesus would organize and present his lessons to his students?

A. Wow, I have never actually considered that! That is a humbling thought. :) Suffice to say, I know Jesus would teach my class far more effectively than I do. I think if I've got one thing that I'm doing right, it's how I try to live up to our model of Love and Logic. When I have to send a student out of my room, or otherwise offer discipline, I always let them keep their dignity. I go talk to them privately and ask if they know why they were sent away. They almost always do. And they agree that it was fair of me to punish them. I show them that I am not angry with them, and they are welcome back when they are repentant.
6th grade Student Art; Matt Appling

Q. What advice would you offer a beginning art teacher?

A. Keep your room clean. If it's piled with junk from the last teacher and you don't even know what it is, throw it out. Borrow and steal projects from other teachers and make them your own. Use the same skill at least three different ways for three different age groups. There's no payoff to teaching kids a skill if you can't reuse it at least twice more!

Q. You call yourself an “ambassador” or “evangelist” of art. Do you have any ideas about how we can advocate our programs in a more effective way?

I think we can be resources to our colleagues. For example, I have wanted to incorporate at least one topic from my students' regular classrooms into the Art room. This is really tough, since I'm not in their rooms everyday. So I've started offering to come to the regular classrooms, to collaborate with each teacher once a year. So if they have a unit that they really like, but they think it just needs something extra special and they don't know what that is, I can partner with them to help make that happen.

5th grade student art; Matt Appling
Q. The major theme of your book is quite poignant: the reason any of us are imbued with the ability to create is to bring beauty into the lives of others. This reflects the very nature of our Creator, the Master Teacher, and the Master Artist. He is, after all, the most copied Artist of all time! His awesome light paintings in the sky are always changing, breathtaking, and full of color, pattern, and movement. Psalm 19 says: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.....Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.” It is awe inspiring to me to ponder the connection between communication and art, how something that is silent can speak volumes. Images are so incredibly powerful! Do you have any thoughts about the relationship between visual art and communication?

A. It is really gratifying for me to teach my high school art history class, to see them ponder a work of art for ten or fifteen minutes and really let the artist's mind reach out from that painting or sculpture. I tell my students all the time that, sure, they may pay their bills by becoming doctors or teachers, but art can always go with them. They deserve to make art because they have a mind and they have ideas that deserve to be expressed!

In closing, here are my favorite quotes from Life After Art:

12th Grade Student Art; Matt Appling
“Human survival never demanded that a poem be written or a song be sung or a play be performed or a story be told or any number of other beautiful, emotional, moving things be created. Beauty is never essential to survival. Yet humanity has spent millions of hours on unnecessary, nonessential creation. God’s life is not just about existing. It is about beauty. And when God made human life, He made it to be not just about survival. Human life, in God’s mind, is about beauty and purpose and pleasure and recreation and love. We are uniquely fashioned to experience all of these things. It is why people work jobs they love even though the pay is weak or entertain hobbies or explore the unknown or get married or go to church or paint a painting.”

“What are you creating with your life that is timeless? What will matter about your life when you are gone? Will your life have a positive impact that is worth remembering?” Matt Appling, Life After Art

4th grade student art; Matt Appling

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