Mary Ann Stankiewicz draws a straight line to chickenpox for setting her on a path to being the National Art Education Association’s 2014 art educator of the year.
Stankiewicz, a Penn State art education professor, developed a strange rash as a Syracuse University sophomore. Unbeknownst to her, she had been exposed to chickenpox while at home over the Christmas break.
Back at school, a friend urged her to go to the campus infirmary. But Stankiewicz also needed the Dean of Women’s signature to change her major. Disappointed with her sole art education class, she wanted to switch to English.
She made a fateful choice.
“I went to the health center first, and they wouldn’t let me leave,” she recalled. “I think I was in there for about a week till my parents drove up and picked me up.”
As a result, she missed the deadline for a new major. But it all worked out in the end.
“The next semester, I was really very happy with the art education courses,” she said. “They were more intellectually challenging.
“Art education offered an opportunity to be engaged with art, which I loved, but also to work with people, to bridge that gap between art and life.”
Her own life has been linked to art ever since.
Specializing in art education history and policy, Stankiewicz has edited Art Education, the NAEA’s official journal, one of several professional publications that she has directed. She’s also in line to become the top editor of Studies in Art Education, the NAEA’s research journal.
The author of “Roots of Art Education,” a history of art education for scholastic art classes, Stankiewicz has been both an elementary art school teacher and the NAEA president.
Her award, which she accepted last month at the NAEA National Convention in San Diego, recognized “excellence in professional accomplishment and service by a dedicated art educator.”
“Mary Ann Stankiewicz exemplifies the highly qualified art educators active in education today: leaders, teachers, students, scholars and advocates who give their best to their students and the profession,” said NAEA President Dennis Inhulsen in a news release.
Stankiewicz said no one in her field has served as the NAEA president and edited both of its journals.
“I’m joking that this should be the crown of thorns award,” she said. “Or the glutton for punishment award.”
Though she knew a friend, a George Mason University professor, had nominated her, news of the honor was no less thrilling. Congratulatory notes, such as the one from her best friend since their toddler days in Keene, N.H., came flooding in.
“My email box was overflowing,” she said.
She traces her start to high school, where she was a self-described “art geek” who took an art course every year, hung out in the art room, and served as art editor for the school yearbook and literary magazine. Her influential art teacher went to Syracuse and recommended it.
After graduation, Stankiewicz taught art at an elementary school in the small Berkshires town of Lenox, Mass., for four years.
“I knew all the kids in town who were about 4 feet tall and under,” she said.
She returned to Syracuse for a master of fine arts degree, then earned her doctorate at Ohio State. Faculty and administrative posts at the University of Maine; California State University, Long Beach; the Getty Center for Education in the Arts in Los Angeles; and the Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, Fla., led her to Penn State in 2000.
Along the way, while marrying and raising two children, she realized that she preferred teaching and research to administration.
“I prefer not to be the star,” she said. “I like being in a supporting role. I guess that’s what’s part of why I like teaching. I like seeing students succeed and move forward.”
Still, Stankiewicz is proud of helping the NAEA grow. She urges her students to join the association for the networking and professional development opportunities, to help break the isolation many scholastic art teachers labor under in their schools and communities.
Art education, she said, has mattered since the latter half of the 19th century, when Massachusetts became the first state to require public school drawing classes and, in larger towns and cities, free drawing classes for adults.
“In the 1870s, learning to draw was a lot like computer skills are now,” she said. “Young people wanted to learn it.”
Men sought to draw for manly pursuits: scientific research, invention, exploration. But drawing was also “deemed appropriate for young ladies,” Stankiewicz said.
“At that point, people really envisioned that just as all children would learn to write, all children would learn to draw,” she said.
Sadly today, she said, the arts in schools too often fall victim to budget cuts — a shortsighted mistake.
“In art education, we talk about the importance of studying art, both making art and responding to art made by others, so that you understand your cultural heritage from the past,” she said. “And in a diverse society like the United States, it’s very important that you understand the cultural heritages of your fellow citizens.
“So we encourage people to teach art from all times and all places, all cultures, but also contemporary art. Because contemporary artists are asking questions about society today that really can’t be asked in any other way.”
A dream shared with her art education history classes continues to inspire her.
“I tell my students that my fantasy is there will be a student in that class, who at some point in time will be elected to their local school board,” Stankiewicz said.
“And when the question comes up of budget cuts and someone says, ‘Let’s cut the arts,’ they will speak up and say, ‘Oh I remember that class I took with Dr. Stankiewicz, and it’s important that we not cut the arts because they should be part of a balanced education.’ ”