Harness, 35 years CCHS' art teacher, retires
Mary Beth Harness’ retirement may have taken place in much the same manner as her more than 35 years of teaching art at Culver Community High School: quietly, but with significant and lasting impact.
Harness said farewell to the school on the final day of classes last Thursday, ending a career here she began in 1974, just six years after the school opened in its present location.
Hailing from the southern end of LaPorte County, Harness heard about the position opening through her uncle, a custodian at the school at the time. Former CCHS art teacher Angie McCullough was moving on to Plymouth, and Harness became her replacement.
Entering the art room, still where it’s always been at the western end of the building, many are struck by how little has changed there. And of course, students have been doing many of the same things in that room through the decades: learning about, and making art.
“I’ve tried to convey to kids an appreciation of art, an awareness of what art can be,” says Harness. “At this location, they’re not exposed to much. I’m trying to get them to see that being an artist is not just painting. There are a variety of careers in art.”
And, she adds, the art room has been for many students “a kind of a safe haven.”
“There’s not the academic pressure here. They can relax, unwind, and chat with their friends if they keep it under control. Most kids enjoy it.”
Students who stayed in basic classes through the years would learn drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture and pottery.
“I run the gamut of what you could do,” she adds.
And in this era of drastic cuts education and bottom lines that may leave arts and music programs on the chopping block, Harness argues there’s much more value in what students learn in her class -- and others like it -- than many might assume.
“A very basic thing I’ve found is that art makes them better problem solvers,” she explains. “It helps teach students how to think through processes they’re unfamiliar with; to get to step “C” you have to go through “A” and “B” first.
“And, a lot of kids don’t seem to do hands-on things anymore. They’re not out fixing things with dad or cooking with mom. (That’s) kind of a void in their lives. That tactile experience of touching things: junior high kids, when you get modeling clay out and mess with it, they’re excited about it.”
Further, she stresses the value of appreciation and awareness of art from a cultural point of view as well, referring to annual trips to the art museum in Indianapolis, among other efforts.
“It’s surprising how many have never been there,” she says. “They ask if the (art there) is real, or a reproduction. I have to tell them it’s the real thing!”
Another important component of CCHS’ art program has been the annual selection of a student artist to be honored in memory of one of Harness’ past students, the late Todd Tusing, whose parents used memorial funds following his untimely passing to build the display case adorning the school’s main hallway, which showcases standout student art. In addition, a plaque there bears the name of an outstanding senior art student from the school (this year’s was Clare Baker).
Besides making that selection each year, Harness has kept busy at the school in a variety of capacities, from National Honor Society to several faculty committees, to coordinating student art contributions to beautify the school and its students’ efforts on and off-campus.
Harness’ efforts have clearly paid off in the lives of students. For one thing, there’s the list she keeps of her former students who have gone on to careers utilizing their artistic abilities. To name a few, there’s Shane Lowry (a Ball State Art Education major teaching high school art himself, brothers John, Paul, and Dan Bickel (who have gone onto careers in visual arts, two in the film industry), Bill Vantwoud (Herron School or Art and Design, specializing in furniture design), Beth Rakich (IU, Art Therapy), Sarah Drang (fashion design), Cory Reiss (commercial art), Heidi Tanner (interior design), Nikki Floyd (fashion design), Sean Surrisi (a DePaw graduate and artist), Ryan Davis (Ball State, landscape design), Dan Ledsome (art major at University of St. Francis), Adam Harrington (graphic arts), Jon Huhn (Grace College, art major), Jessica Scutchfield-Bules (Valparaiso University, teaching art), Adam Vantwoud (Ball State, sculpture), Susan Boswell (interior design), Ginger Peterson (art education), Shelly (Master) Schrimsher (graphic design), Alyssa Allyn (Purdue Northcentral, art major), among others.
“You can’t say that (this class is) just the recess of the day,” Harness points out. “It’s given people jobs; it’s furthering their education.”
She points out here retirement has nothing to do with political changes affecting education at the state level, though she’s seen things change in her three-plus decades of teaching.
“Class sizes have increased,” she notes. “When they brought the junior high in (to the high school building, in the 1980s), that really changed things. I went from six classes down to four and it made larger high school classes.”
She also notes the state has stipulated a “core 40” education requires one arts credit (which could be fulfilled by either music or art). She says the result was “kind of nice” as she previously missed those students aiming for core 40 completely.
Her retirement, says Harness, comes about more just because it’s time.
“I’ve seen too many colleagues not make it to retirement, or pass away right after. My mom said to retire while you’re healthy enough to enjoy retirement. I don’t want to work until I can’t enjoy working anymore.”
She’s been pursuing her own art in the summertime, such as stained glass, watercolor, and weaving, and she plans to immerse herself more in those pursuits after retirement. She also plans to enjoy her two young grandsons more, and perhaps do some traveling.
“It’s been fun,” she recalls of her CCHS career. “I’ve enjoyed it. To work with the faculty and administration in this building is wonderful; they’re my second family, and I will miss them.”