The Mayor’s Awards for the Arts are designed to recognize community members whose contributions strengthen Juneau’s arts community in various ways — from volunteer activities to monetary support to artistic work. In the case of the late Jan Neimeyer, posthumously honored with this year’s award for Arts in Education, the award also serves as a strong reminder of how these contributions can extend beyond the honorees’ lifetime, becoming part of the fabric of the community in ways both obvious and subtle.
Neimeyer, a local art teacher who died in August, worked with students at both high schools and at the elementary level for nearly 30 years. Among her obvious contributions is her direct influence on scores of local children and teenagers in helping to make art a valuable part of their lives.
Former student Lindsay Smithberg said Neimeyer’s infectious enthusiasm for art and positive presence at Thunder Mountain High School — both in and out of the classroom — became a big part of her high school experience in ways that continue to affect her.
“She was always so uplifting, ‘Come on, we’ve got to do this, we’ve got to do that,’” Smithberg said, struggling against tears. “I don’t know where I would be without her today. She was really the one who pushed me.”
Smithberg, who at 18 has her work on display at Annie Kaill’s gallery downtown, said though she was interested in art before she took Neimeyer’s ceramics class at Thunder Mountain, Neimeyer made her believe in herself as an artist.
“I don’t know what I want to do (next), I just know I want art,” she said.
In addition to reaching students through her classes, which included a digital arts program she designed, Neimeyer came up with ways to engage students outside the classroom — and in many cases these efforts proved fruitful.
Some examples: Neimeyer’s student Lynzey Culver had one of her digital art pieces selected for a book of student art from around the world called “Surrealistic Me;” student Courtney Johnson took part in and won a contest to design the Juneau School District’s Voluntary Drug Testing poster; and student Geordey Sherrick was one of 40 artists selected out of 28,000 entries in the National Doodle for Google icon contest.
Her students also took part in Rotoball, an international program designed to help students learn to use animation software, and in multiple Vans sneaker design competitions. Thunder Mountain students made it to the regional finals for their Vans in 2010 and 2011.
Neimeyer’s class also designed the plaques that accompany the display of the damaged car of Taylor White, working with White’s family and friends on the concept.
Neimeyer did a lot of work behind the scenes to facilitate student success, said close friend Ronalda Cadiente Brown, from attending school board meetings to applying for grants to fundraising for art supplies, adding that she was often able to come up with creative ways to solve problems.
“Problems solving and experimenting — that’s what she did as natural as breathing,” Cadiente Brown said. “And she didn’t take no for an answer.”
Despite her fierce defense of arts programs, Neimeyer was “very calm and even-keeled and kind,” Cadiente Brown said, and consistently motivated by a desire to help students find their voices.
“She was by and large a ceramics teacher, but she did it all with the intention of reaching students and helping them fly,” she said. “She just loved to see her students get a spark and take off.”
Another less-obvious but lasting contribution to Juneau was Neimeyer’s work on the design of the TMHS building, which she intended to reflect the importance of the arts in education.
“I remember when Thunder Mountain was opening she gave me a tour of the classrooms ... the rooms were designed with the arts in mind, for efficiency. She was very excited and proud of the outcome.”
Cadiente Brown, director of the Preparing Indigenous Teachers and Administrators for Alaska Schools program at the University of Alaska Southeast, encouraged Neimeyer to apply for her first local teaching job in 1984 — a position with the school district’s Indian Studies program. Neimeyer started off working with kids in grades 3-5, developing place-based curriculum with input from Alaska Native elders such as Austin Hammond and Nora Dauenhauer. Soon after, she was hooked.
“I think she got bitten then, by students,” Cadiente Brown said.
The elementary curriculum developed by the Indian Studies program was eventually recognized by the U.S. Department of Education as a Showcase Award recipient, Cadiente Brown said.
After getting her master’s in teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Neimeyer worked for more than 10 years at Juneau-Douglas High School alongside Tom Manning and others before switching over to TMHS, where she taught through 2013.
Underneath it all, friends said, was a sense of fun. The Juneau Arts and Humanity Council’s Wearable Art show was an event she loved attending — and fittingly, her Mayor’s Award was bestowed during this year’s show on Feb. 9.
Her husband, Roger Healy, who accepted the award on her behalf, said being there without her was a bittersweet experience, adding that Neimeyer might have been a bit chagrined by the attention — but happy.
“She wouldn’t like to take credit for it, but I know she’d feel great about it,” he said. “It is certainly an honor.”