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Scotty Zwicker
Art teacher and mentor

Scotty Zwicker, high-school art teacher at Indiana School for the Deaf, spearheaded the effort to design and build the Deaf School Plaza on the Monon Trail just outside ISD’s western boundary fence. The Plaza’s centerpiece is the Outdoor Sculpture Project, a symbolic gateway designed in collaboration with VSA Arts Indiana’s Barb Zech and ISD students. Under Zwicker’s and Zech’s guidance, students created ceramic tiles and mosaics that were incorporated into the professionally-constructed gateway. A massive fiundraising campaign helped make the ambitious project a reality. The results are glorious. The OSP celebrates ASL, the manual alphabet, Deaf history, ISD, and the creativity of Deaf people.

Scotty Zwicker is from Cincinnati, second-generation deaf; he has one deaf sister, Sally Ann. His mother, Frances, was the only deaf person in her family; his father, Len, is from a Deaf family, so he grew up with lots of deaf relatives. Frances’s relatives lived on the same street, so there was a close-knit kinship. “It was a tremendous experience for me because there was no language barrier at home. All my relatives were able to communicate through gesture and sign language. When I was young I thought all my family were deaf!

“Both my parents attended an oral day school; they didn’t attend deaf school because their parents didn’t want to send them away.” When they found out Sally and Scotty were deaf, there was confusion and uncertainty. “At first, they didn’t want to send us to an oral school; they wanted us to have a better education than that.” But he did end up in an oral school—a brief and unhappy experience. He hated being labeled “slow” for not being a good speechreader. “Other things that I didn’t appreciate: they put soap in my mouth and slapped my cheek with a ruler for not speaking right. Today, as a teacher myself, I’m wondering how those teachers could walk away with that kind of behavior! Did they ever realize that oralism is not the best tool to teach deaf children, and if so, then why couldn’t they find other communication methods to help me improve my reading and writing skills? I wish I could bump into those teachers someday and ask them if they were forced to teach me speech, or was it that they didn’t know what else to teach me?”

He finally rebelled. During one session, his speech therapist covered her mouth with a piece of paper, then pressed his cheeks hard, making him gasp for air. Furious, he jumped up, ran down the corridor, pulled the fire alarm, and locked himself in the boys’ restroom. “They had to call my mother to come over and rescue me.”

Scotty and Sally were then transferred to St. Rita School for the Deaf, only 7 miles away. They were residential students and came home on weekends. “It was very hard on my family. I’ll never forget our first day of school. All my relatives—I mean each family member—came all together to drop us off.

“St. Rita was an excellent school. They used Total Communication, so I was able to use my hands to communicate with my friends and teachers. I picked it up really fast. I had several deaf teachers. I enjoyed going there, and am grateful for what I learned. My favorite teacher was Sister Julia ‘Seton’ Tenerowicz, who taught art class. She was something of a deaf Sister Wendy Beckett. When it was time for her class, I was always the first student in the room. She taught me everything that I’m still practicing today.

“One day, I was in a mischievous mood and showed Sister Seton a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s famous drawing, Vitruvian Man”—the ink drawing of a male nude with outstretched arms standing in a circle and a square. “I wanted to see her reaction. Perfectly calm, she looked at the picture and at me. She asked, ‘You like this picture? Do you know who drew this?’ I suddenly felt foolish. I replied, ‘Sister Seton, no, I don’t know who drew this.’ And right then and there, she gave me a big homework assignment: to research and write a 4-page paper on Vitruvian Man, due by the end of the week. I went to the school library and began researching Vitruvian Man and Leonardo, and dived in with all my curiosity. I learned about him and other Italian Renaissance artists such as Raphael, one of whose Madonnas I recognized from home. I completed the paper and handed it to Sister Seton on Friday. She smiled and asked me, ‘Did you learn something new? Please spell the artist’s name and title.’ so I spelled it out L-E-O-N-A-R-D-O D-A V-I-N-C-I and V-I-T-R-U-V-I-A-N M-A-N. She smiled and patted my head, then said firmly, ‘Don’t show any picture without including the artist’s name and the title. It is important to show respect to the artist.’ Believe it or not, I’m still practicing this with my students in art class today. What’s more, Leonardo is one of my favorite artists. I’m left-handed, too.

“My parents were concerned about my spending too much time during my weekends at home drawing. They wanted me to focus on other subjects. So they met with Sister Seton on Sunday when they dropped me off. She told them that they should not worry about it and there was nothing wrong with me; the way I kept drawing, and that I was artistically gifted. ‘Don’t stop him now that he’s found something that he loves. Art is also very important for his future.’ My parents were dismayed. And why? A few years ago, my Dad explained what happened to him. He too was a gifted artist who wanted to have an art career—but this was in the 1950s. He couldn’t find a job, so he gave up on art. The art community was elitist and wasn’t very friendly to the Deaf community. So now I understood my parents’ reaction; they didn’t want me to go through that. They wanted the best for my future. And they worried about it.”

He graduated from St. Rita in 1988. Sally entered Gallaudet University, and it was expected that Scotty, like his classmates, would follow her there. A field trip to NTID made such a stunning impression on him—visiting Bob Panara’s class, seeing NTID’s production of Macbeth, browsing the art and design programs, asking questions about careers—that he had second thoughts. He applied to NTID and was accepted.

First, though, he and a classmate visited Gallaudet on their own and accompanied Sally to her classes. “First class she took me to was Art History with Deborah Meranski Sonnenstrahl. I felt that I was already a student in her class. I was fascinated by her approach to teaching and explaining details. I also enjoyed the socializing at Gallaudet, which represents a strong Deaf culture. I visited the Art Department, too. I wasn’t very impressed with their program—no clear notion of what I could do after earning a BFA.”

At NTID, he majored in Graphic Design and received his A.A.S. in 1990. He enjoyed visiting the Bevier Gallery to see the exhibits by outside and faculty artists and students. A casual visit to RIT’s Interior Design department inspired him to take that as a major. “I found it fascinating because when I was young I loved to redecorate the house, which drove my parents nuts!” He found the “mainstreamed” classes a radical change from NTID’s, but had an interpreter and notetaker, and another deaf classmate. He won several awards for excellence in design, and earned his BFA from RIT in 1996.

His first job was in Chicago with a large architectural firm—“a nightmarish situation.” He coped with bad communication and worse, seeing his designs and ideas plagiarized. Although he loved Chicago—“an awesome city”—he quit after three months. His next job was with a small family-run interior-design firm in Bolton, Missouri, not far from Kansas City. It was a better situation, but he was unhappy about the way he was treated as a deaf person. After a few months, he quit and returned to Cincinnati. Then a friend suggested he apply at Indiana School for the Deaf.

He was hired as an elementary-school teacher’s aide, covering a teacher on maternity leave. During an informal interview, he said he wanted to teach art, and was told that no positions were open. “I didn’t mind; I enjoyed working with little kids.” He loved the accessibility, ASL used everywhere, the way both deaf and hearing staff treated him as a professional. “Coming to ISD was like finding the Promised Land.”

A few months later, the art teacher went on medical leave and he found himself teaching art to high-school students. It was a completely different challenge from elementary school—a big one. But he passed the challenge—exhausted.

In April 1997, the art teacher decided to leave ISD, so Scotty had a formal interview. “I was nervous, dressed in a suit and tie, carrying my portfolio. The interview went smoothly. A committee member told me, ‘No need to show your artwork. You’re fine.’ ‘I was dismayed and challenged them: ‘How do you know if I’m a good artist or not, and how can you trust me to teach art?’ What a moment! Everyone was talking among themselves: ‘True!’ ‘He has a good point.’ So I opened my portfolio. They were fascinated, even awed.” Two days later, he was informed that he’d gotten a job as art teacher at ISD’s high school. “I was excited and at the same time nervous. My parents and I were thrilled and celebrated for two reasons—first, to have me out of their nest; second, that I’d found work in the art field.

“I returned to college to pursue a degree at McDaniel College, which offers a good Deaf Education program, which I completed in 2006.

“As an art teacher, my greatest struggle is with some people’s attitudes toward art. They look down on it and think it’s ‘fun,’ ‘playing around,’ or ‘not an important subject.’” It’s hard to combat those, but “I notice there are more people appreciating art and the work that went into the OSP.” (This is highlighted in DEAF LIFE's November 2009 issue.) Other low points: the new education laws, like NCLB, that have had a negative impact on education.

“I’m disappointed with what I've seen in so many deaf schools—doing the wrong things and in the old ways. The lack of licensure for art teachers, the attitude that has led to so many deaf people not appreciating or understanding the arts. They often misinterpret art as crafts or a ‘for pleasure’ activity. Several deaf schools don’t offer any sophisticated art-education program—either that, or they’ve dropped their art programs entirely.

“We have a strong art program here at Indiana School for the Deaf. Art is a required subject. When I started here, we had one art class. Now we’ve expanded the offerings and have 2D Art, 3D Art, Art History, Digital Design, Media Arts, and Theater Arts.” Students also get practice in English by researching and writing about art history. So they gain enrichment in three languages: Art, ASL, and English.

“I know that I have inspired my students to enjoy, understand, and love art.” He’s seen students who really hated art at first transform their attitudes to become educated and creative. Some have pursued their interest in art in college. “So my dream for them to pass on to others this appreciation. The sad part of this: I’ve had many deaf people tell me, ‘I wish I could take art class with you, not my teacher.’ Art is an important part of life. Everyone can enjoy it—as a hobby, visiting an art museum, dealing in selling artworks, and so on. Art is ancient. It will never end. It is also an important tool of language to communicate to others.

“I tell my students, that I don’t allow any negative remarks like ‘I can’t draw’ in my classroom. It’s my pet peeve. I also tell them how lucky they have two hands, two arms, and ten fingers, while many people have lost their hands, fingers, and arms [or can’t control them]. They paint or draw with their mouths or feet. I show my students their beautiful artworks. Their jaws drop! If they still don’t get the message, I force them to draw with their mouth or foot. It’s fun to watch them to doing that. And it’s a good lesson to help our students to become better thinkers!

“I have been fortunate to work at ISD. The staff is very supportive and they appreciate my work with students. Their artworks are proudly displayed all over campus—murals, Hands Alive! Art Contest winners. The staff also appreciate and enjoy art.

“I didn’t intend to become an art teacher until a friend persuaded me to check out teaching at ISD. From there, my career path took a turn although it was still in the art field. I believe that there was a plan for me—my destiny as a deaf person was to have the responsibility of teaching deaf children.” It's about passion—and the thrill of seeing high-school ers get passionate about art.

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