In high school, at a time when self-doubt and identity struggles tend to be at their most intense, one teacher can make all the difference.
It's impossible to say how many kids would cite Juneau-Douglas High School's Tom Manning as that teacher, but given the comments of former students and colleagues who nominated him for his recent Governor's Award for Arts Education, it's safe to say it's many more than a handful.
One such student was Sarah Elliott, who graduated in 2004. Now a practicing artist in New York, Elliott said she was hooked on art as soon as she took her first class with Manning. She worked with him to combine an upper level and basic painting class, and was soon hanging out in the art room as much as she could, even into the evening after school was over. Manning was always there, she said, and they'd talk comfortably about artists or art in general as Elliott worked on her projects.
"It was a really positive space," she said. "Having the art department be this place I could hang out and be totally immersed in my own thinking and my own projects is the only reason I got though high school."
Manning combined instruction in the principles of art with a broad acceptance of her personal path, she said, allowing her the freedom to experiment and build confidence.
"It felt like you could be an artist, rather than a student of art. That was my experience," she said.
Elliott went on to attend the Art Institute of Chicago on a merit scholarship.
Ben Brown, chair of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, the group that sponsors the awards, said Manning's nomination materials were full of similar stories about the impact Manning had made on students' lives.
"What his colleagues said, what his students said - it was mind-blowing," Brown said.
Manning received his award at a ceremony in Fairbanks on Oct. 21, and was also honored with an assembly at JDHS. All the praise was a little overwhelming for the art teacher, whom colleagues describe as a very humble person, but the experience of receiving the award turned out to be more enjoyable than he thought.
"I would have thought I would never give a damn about something like this, because it wasn't in my vision, but the way it happened was really cool and its been a neat thing," he said.
Manning said he considers himself very lucky to be an art teacher in a community as supportive of the arts as Juneau, and that he's been able to keep high standards at the high school thanks in no small part to the parents and others insisting the school have a comprehensive program.
"This district has been awesome in supporting art for many years. The people in the community have," he said. "I have one of the best jobs ever."
Juneau is one of the few communities in the state, he said, that has a graduation requirement of one year of fine arts, which includes visual art, music, theater and languages. Support for the arts also has lately included an elementary art program and a new full art facility at Thunder Mountain High School.
"Where the rest of the county has kind of been backing off, this community has been saying 'Hey, we want more,' and that's what really neat."
Jan Neimeyer, now an art teacher at TMHS, taught alongside Manning for 13 years at JDHS. She nominated Manning for the award, along with Cristine Crooks and others, singling Manning out for his individual achievements in making the art program strong.
"It is through Tom's knowledge and leadership, that the Juneau School District's art curriculum is exceptional."
Manning moved to Juneau from Portland with his wife, Marianne, also a local artist, in 1975. He has been teaching art through the school system and, for a time, through the state museum's education program, since 1977, and has now been at JDHS straight through since 1987.
In addition to drawing and painting classes, the meat and potatoes of the program, Manning has also taught Native art, boat and surfboard building, lost wax casting in bronze and photography, among other things.
Manning said the art program at the high school is "discipline based," regardless of what type of art is being taught.
"I use the words 'discipline-based' art education, but really it's art as skill building, visual arts skill building," Manning said "It doesn't matter if it's in drawing or painting, digital art or clay, that's our emphasis."
In addition to giving kids the opportunity to learn basic skills, Manning strives for a program that allows them to also build on their knowledge and progress though a sequential series of classes. This can be challenging, given the high number of students and low number of available slots in his classes.
"It's very difficult - how do you offer both an entry level class and maintain that developmental process?" he said. One way is by stacking classes, so that Painting 1,2 and 3 are all taught together.
Heather Ridgway, who currently teaches art at JDHS, said Manning is particularly adept at making this work, tailoring his instructions to guide advanced students toward scholarships, college credit and contest awards, while still making sure the beginners are learning the core lessons. And, she said, he spurs his students to the level of commitment he manifests in his teaching.
"He expects individual commitment from all his kids," she said.
Manning's contributions to the community go far beyond the classroom.
For example, he's organized and put on every All State Art competition held in Juneau for the past 25 years. He is a major advocate for the Arts for Kids Celebration and the Southeast Alaska Art Festival, both annual events. He's also taught colleagues how to incorporate art into their core classes, and hosted the Alaska Art Teachers conference in Juneau. He makes himself available to students outside of class, allowing them to call him on weekends and holidays.
Among those Manning has taught are his own children, a particularly artsy bunch. Manning's daughter Jackie, who recently moved back to Juneau from San Francisco, has an art show currently on display at the Alaska State Museum and has taught painting and drawing at the Canvas. His daughter Kylie is also an artist, currently preparing for a show in Germany. Molly, who is principal of Dzantik'I Heeni Middle School, used to teach ceramics at UAS. And Kelly and Joe also have a creative bent. When asked how he managed to raise five artistic kids, Manning shrugs.
"It's just been part of our family forever."
Manning, who is thinking about retiring in the not-too distant future, said he's looking forward to having more time for his own artistic pursuits. He's in the process of building an art studio for himself and his wife, who is preparing for a show at the Canvas in the spring. The Mannings also have an art space/surf hut in Mexico, which they set up when their kids were very young and have been slowly fixing up.
"We kind of have these two places where you can be an artist," Manning said.
Manning said he's of course pleased when his students end up pursuing a career in the arts, but he also feels the curriculum benefits those who may not take it as their chosen path, both for its emphasis on fine craftsmanship and for the expressiveness it allows.
"When you approach it the way we have, in that it's skill building in the principles of visual art, those skills transcend visual art. In other words, fine craftsmanship - you might learn about it in yourself in a drawing, painting or sculpture, but where you end up applying it professionally may be somewhere else."
Editor's note: The Governor's Awards for the Arts are awarded annually by the Alaska State Council on the Arts. This year eight awards were given, including two to Juneau residents.
Categories vary from year to year, with the exception of Individual Artists awards, which are given annually. Lifetime Achievement awards are only bestowed when an appropriate nomination has been made.
Six council members serve as the panel of judges, and they review all the the nominations before making a recommendation to the full council of 11 members. The council then passes those names to the governor, who gives final approval. The governor also distributes the awards to the recipients.
For more information, visit www.eed.state.ak.us/aksca/
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