Meet Karen Stinnett
Seemingly at home in her bright and bustling classroom in the Michael A. Hughes Center for the Arts, Upper School Arts Teacher Karen Stinnett has been inspiring, encouraging (and occasionally cajoling) her students to push themselves beyond expectations.
Q. Tell us a little about your life before Highland School
A. After graduating from Western Carolina University with a Bachelor of Fine Arts, I graduated from Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan with a Masters of Fine Arts (MFA) in 1980. Cranbrook Academy is a renowned art college that has been home to influential artists and designers including Eero Saarinen, the architect who designed Dulles Airport.
Growing up in Atlanta, Georgia, I always had connections with the art and music scene in Athens. While the art scene in Athens was exploding at the time with bands like R.E.M. and The B-52’s gaining popularity and bringing attention to the area’s artists and musicians, I wanted to live in a big city with a better art scene than Atlanta. Friends who worked at the National Gallery of Art convinced me to come to Washington, DC where I started teaching art at The Owl School.
Q. You first came to Highland in 1982. What initially brought you to Highland School?
A. While I was in Washington, I met Hildy van Roijen. Hildy was also an artist with a huge studio in Georgetown. The van Roijen family owns St. Leonard’s Farm in Warrenton and also played a prominent role in the history of Highland School. Six of Hildy’s children graduated from the school, which at the time was only Kindergarten through 8th grade.
Hildy encouraged me to come out to Warrenton to teach at Highland. While I enjoyed living in the city, I had a horse, named Mr. Smart, back in Georgia that I wanted to bring up to Virginia. This was an opportunity to reunite with Mr. Smart and move out to the country.
Q. What originally brought you to teaching?
A. When I graduated with an MFA, I knew that teaching art was on the horizon. Also, from the 1950’s to the 1980’s, my grandfather, T.M. Stinnett, was a prominent education advocate who played a role in abolishing teaching colleges. Back then, teaching colleges were central to a system that treated teachers as second class citizens. My grandfather wanted to recognize teachers and elevate the profession.
Thanks to his lifetime of work as an education advocate who wrote many books on the subject, education has always been a prominent part of our family. Not only did his work elevate the work of teachers and the teaching profession, but it also lifted our family as well.
Q. When did you move to the Upper School?
A. I came to the Upper School as soon as it opened. While I have taught every age group at Highland and while I love little kids’ art – I find it hilarious and interesting – I relate to teenagers the best. I am most interested in working on long-term projects that develop over time instead of something that is put together quickly.
I came to the Upper School as soon as it opened. While I have taught every age group at Highland and while I love little kids’ art – I find it hilarious and interesting – I relate to teenagers the best. I am most interested in working on long-term projects that develop over time instead of something that is put together quickly.
Q. What did the opening of the Michael A. Hughes Center for the Arts in 2003 do for the arts program at Highland?
A. The opening of the Michael A. Hughes Highland Center for the Arts allowed us to do so much more as a department. The chance to add pottery wheels and kilns transformed the 3D room into a dedicated ceramics studio and the etching press and darkroom spaces allowed us to become a lot more specialized.
The gallery changed the way we were able to show students’ works. Hanging artwork on a bulletin board is not the same as hanging artwork in a gallery. Showing your artwork is the same as performing a play instead of just learning the play. Art is about communicating. For an artist, there’s so much more to get from showing your art than just creating it. Showing is like performance for introverts. People are looking at what you did, not you directly.
Q. Head of School Hank Berg refers to you as an artist-in-residence. How does your career shape your teaching?
A. The best art teachers are artists. While I don’t have as much time to paint as I would like these days, I always have a piece I’m working on by my desk. Students like to see the progress and it gives me a chance to bring a form of experiential learning into the classroom. For some students, there’s real value in seeing and not just being taught. Modeling is a real thing.
Being an active artist also keeps me connected to other artists. I reference samples of other artists’ works all the time. And while we currently don’t offer a specific art history class at Highland, I am always referencing historic works. It brings a connection to the classroom. All art comes from other art. As you are creating, you’re pulling in influences from other art and artists.
As an artist, I can also put myself in a student's position. For example, our AP students have to deliver 24 major works in one academic year. That's a lot of projects in a short period of time. I tell them that when they become professional artists they can spend as much time as they want on a piece. However, getting through the AP requirements is like a game with specific rules that need to be followed.
I am also able to do more for our AP students than a teacher at a bigger school would be able to do. Due to our small class sizes, I can spend more time on the details like matting, framing, and photographing works to make sure that they are presented as nicely as possible. I know how critical that is.
This article with Highland's artist-in-residence Karen Stinnett originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Highland Magazine