Local art teacher finds new inspiration by looking down

South Charlotte Middle’s David Theissen completes McColl Center residency

by Dee Grano

David Theissen, shown here working in his studio at the McColl Center, will soon return to teaching at South Charlotte Middle School. Photo courtesy of Ben Premeaux

If you’re a middle school art teacher, being selected by the McColl Center for Visual Art for an artist residency is like reaching a “creative nirvana.”

David Theissen, who teaches art at South Charlotte Middle School, has spent the last three months working as an artist full time in a studio – no students, no grading and no faculty meetings.

As part of the same program, he leaves Friday for Washington, D.C., where he will experience some of the country’s most important museums and artistic collections, like the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, The Corcoran Gallery of Art and the National Gallery of Art.

“It’s astonishing and invaluable,” he said of the entire experience. “I can hardly believe my luck.”

Theissen’s sabbatical is made possible through a partnership with the McColl Center and Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools by the Gail Thomas Peacock Art Teacher-in-Residence and Travel Awards. Theissen is the 12th art teacher to go through this program, which included his own studio space in the McColl Center complete with artist amenities like a darkroom, woodshop and printmaking studio. In addition, he received a stipend for materials and a paid release from classroom duty. His residency ended March 27; he’ll return to teaching after spring break.

“We’ve certainly missed him, but what an honor to be selected,” said Lisa Bailes, the principal of South Charlotte Middle School. She’s covered Theissen’s classes with a substitute teacher. “We know he’ll bring so much knowledge back to us,” she added. Post-residency art teachers share their experiences with their peers through in-service workshops.

While at the McColl Center, Theissen has felt a shift in his personal artistic process. “I’ve been thinking about human activity, how we impact our environment and the idea of sustainability. How do our environments work for us? How do they not?”

Theissen is a landscape artist, who until recently painted mostly still-life environments and regional scenery. Recently he has tightened his focus, turning his frame of reference literally downward to “where we stand.” His latest work interprets closely cropped views of subject matter like pavement and parking spaces. The result is a double-take on the seemingly mundane grey and yellow gridiron seemingly everywhere in American “car-centered” culture.

Theissen’s urban landscapes feature realistic details like cracked concrete and rusted manhole covers formed from simple modeling clay. He experiments with texture, mixing craft sand and screening gravel with acrylic paint, even using a comb to create a perfect replica of grooved pavement. Theissen’s use of color – subtle pinks and blues – transforms these utilitarian driveways into art.

Most of Theissen’s recent paintings are rendered from snapshots taken around the block of the McColl Center located Uptown at the corner of Tryon and West 11th streets. This urban landscape is different from most artist-in-residency programs found in secluded areas where creative minds can make retreat. McColl Center artists work in full view of audiences who can meet them and see their work on exhibit.

Theissen says the arrangement at “the McColl Center encourages dialogue and pulls people in for discussion,” which reminds him why he teaches art. “It’s equal part content and communication. What is it that inspires us and how do we express it?”

“Art teachers don’t just teach technique that you can learn from a video,” said Cheryl Maney, the visual arts and dance curriculum specialist for CMS, said. “We teach students to ‘live as an artist’ (and) observe their environment, make connections, think creatively (and) solve problems. As artists, we take the risk to expose our thoughts, ideas, responses to life through our art and in this way can lead our students to do the same.”

When school lets out for the semester, Theissen and two other teachers selected for Travel Awards will leave for New York City where they will tour the Guggenheim and the Museum of Modern Art, among other cultural experiences. The awards were made possible by Gail Thomas Peacock, a former art teacher who made a substantial donation to bolster the McColl Center’s program.

“I suppose there are only so many pavement pieces one can do in a lifetime,” Theissen joked. He’s unsure how long he’ll continue his current work. Upon finishing a painting, he looks at it and “if it delivers itself to me, I let it go.”

Experience the work of artists like David Theissen at the McColl Center for Visual Art, where nine studios rotate artists seasonally. The gallery is free and open to the public Thursday and Friday from 2 to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Learn more about the McColl Center at www.mccollcenter.org.

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