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Thinking Eyes: La Jolla’s Gillispie School teacher speaks out for art education

“Now is the best time to be an artist,” opines longtime Gillespie School art teacher Susan Walters. “When you think about it, everything today is based on the image. Everything is on screens and we are bombarded with visual imagery. As artists, there is a lot of opportunity and technological advances that help get our images out.”

That’s why her 20-year teaching philosophy is oriented to developing a “thinking eye” in students to help them better analyze and produce the images around them.

“When you look at something to draw, you really get to know that object or person. You notice things you would have never noticed before you focused on that thing,” she said. “That’s having a ‘thinking eye.’ Even just walking or driving down the street (as an artist) you look at things and you see things with different eyes.”

Susan Walters stands with tiles her students have made in her Gillespie School art room.
Susan Walters stands with tiles her students have made in her Gillespie School art room.

Parent and classroom volunteer Claudia Metcalfe couldn’t agree more. “Lucky is the child in Susan Walters’ art room,” Metcalfe said. “In her room, one just seems to notice more. More color, more twists and turns of a line, the power of a circle. The nice thing is that ‘noticing’ — that ‘thinking eye’ — goes right out the art room door and into the rest of the world. It usually does.”

Walters said it’s through art education that children develop these skills. “I know a lot of parents who don’t take art seriously, but when a child has a blank page, think about how many executive decisions he or she has to make to create a picture,” she said. “It really develops a higher intelligence.”

Plus, having art in school is the draw that keeps some students interested in learning. “Some kids like math, some like writing, but some just love art. If they don’t have that, they don’t have that hook to stay in school,” Walters said.

Having grown up in a handful of states across the East Coast, Walters said her most enjoyable childhood moments were spent drawing. When her father said she needed to get a job in her teen years, she offered to draw pen-and-ink sketches of homes for purchase. One of seven children, she also frequented art museums.

“Art allows you to connect with people,” she said. “When you look at art, you connect to somebody. That person could have been dead for 500 years, but you still connect with them ... they are alive again in their art.”

To share that connection with her students, Walters often takes her classes to the Stuart Collection of Site-Specific Art at UCSD, to La Jolla Cove to sketch or take photos, or to the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego sculpture garden.

The extra effort is appreciated. Courtney Coyle, whose children have had Walters as a teacher, said they especially like her summer school program. “When it came time to sign up for Mrs. Walters’ classes, my husband would get in line at 4 a.m. to make sure our daughter got in,” she said. “That’s how special she is.” Daughter Alex, now 10 years old and a student at La Jolla Elementary School, said she liked that Walters would give students space to let their creativity run wild.

Coyle added, “Her attitude is geared toward creating a creative community of children in La Jolla, and that is a wonderful thing. For our kids, art with Mrs. Walters isn’t an extra for them, it’s a pillar of their education.”

Metcalfe said Walters has expectations of her students: “the simplicities of kindness and politeness, and that you always try your best. Nothing more, nothing less, just your best,” she said. “There are a few rules to keep things civil. Scissors must be handled carefully and hands must get dirty, sometimes clothes get soiled, the tables and floors are meant to be made a mess of, because, as anyone in Mrs. Walters’ art room knows, there are no mistakes in art.”

Walters said she came to La Jolla from New York with her then-husband and two children. Son, David, went to school at Gillespie, and his first-grade classroom is now her art room. Her daughter, Maura, is an assistant to the director at the Athenaeum Music & Arts Library. “It’s nice to be on this side of Girard while she’s on the other side,” Walters joked.

In her free time, she paints and travels. Her most recent venture took her back to New York for the “Henri Matisse: The Cut Outs” exhibit. She also takes weekly painting classes at the Athenaeum.

“There is tons of art in La Jolla,” Walters said. “This is a great community that supports art and that’s really good to see.” (Especially through ‘thinking eyes’ like those of Susan Walters.)