Young Art Writers Project: Interview with Art-Ed Hero Dee Dee Melton

By Michael Mitchell


Dee Dee Melton with McGavock High School students


Michael Mitchell: Where do you teach and what grades do you teach? How long have you been teaching art? 


Dee Dee Melton: I’m entering my seventh year of teaching and my fourth at McGavock High School in Nashville, Tennessee. I currently teach 9th through 12th grades. My classes include Intro to Visual Art, Drawing and IGSCE Cambridge 2D Art & Design.



What is your favorite time of the school day and why? 


I am just a morning person. Everything is better in the morning. Fresh coffee, fresh start.


Morgan Haye, McGavock High School Student, Zine, detail


What is your favorite lesson or concept to teach? 


Mixed Media. I love it when my kids blend techniques and start playing with different mediums. I think their creativity blossoms and it helps them get away from the preconceived concept that all art is skill and raw talent. Mixed media is the epitome of a growth mindset.


Work by Dee Dee Melton



What has you underwater right now? 


IGSCE Cambridge Art and Design. I have not yet attended training, and no one else has taught it in Tennessee. I am seeing where the wind is going to take me on this one. Buckle up, Buttercup.



What is saving your life in the classroom right now? 


The Advancement Via Individual Determination (AVID) program. My school invests in AVID, a nonprofit, national professional development program that is applicable across all classes I teach. Everything I have learned and am learning from AVID is worth it. If you work in urban education you need AVID in your life.

Also, my coworkers. I work for a kick *** faculty and administration. Their trust and kindness makes my job tenfold better than yours.



What is your favorite memory of seeing a student you taught who is older now and no longer in your school? 


Recently, I had a student graduate and ask me if we could get coffee together. That was very flattering. I felt liked because I am a person! I live near where I work and getting to see my students, current or former, in the community is so nice. I mean, they now know I buy Q-tips, and that is weird for us both initially. I will say, sometimes I feel the need to identify myself to onlookers, because, stranger danger! I’m a hugger. I try to not be. It is more awkward.



Who is your favorite artist to teach kids about? 


Local Nashville artists and Shepard Fairey.



What does your studio practice outside of the classroom look like and how does it make its way into your classroom? 


Chuck Close has that fantastic quote: “Inspiration is for amateurs. The rest of us just show up and work.” This is always a driving force for me with my students and in my own practice. I don’t paint nearly the amount that I should, although, in the past two years, I have been making more progress in my practice. A majority of that has to do with letting go of an expectation that my painting has to be revolutionary as well as driving the idea home that in order to have work you must make work. I have been making small dog paintings for family and friends for about two years now. I kept thinking “It’s lame that I like to paint dogs”. Then, I decided I’m okay with being lame. It’s just where I am right now. I need to paint the dogs out of me. Why do I feel the need? I think because I cherish how much I identify with my pet and how others identify with theirs. I also have fun doing it.  That has transformed my teaching. If my students aren’t having fun realizing their ideas through their chosen media, what am I teaching them about art? What am I teaching them about work? So, what if you want to paint your dog? Just promise me you are painting your dog, the way you want to paint them. Besides, we live in Nashville. Would you like a customized dog portrait?

I have also been painting more abstractions and plants. I recently made a clay dog sculpture, did some throwing, and have gotten into more bookmaking. Working small rocks when you don’t have a lot of time and feel intimidated. Sketchbooks are more important to me now. I use my sketchbook as documentation of my thinking and my life. This fuels my big ideas. Therefore, sketchbooks are becoming a bigger component in my classroom. I use the same supplies that I have the school purchase for my students. If I wouldn’t use it then I don’t ask them to. For example: Crayola watercolors. WHY? I buy my own and my students’ supplies from Jerry’s Artarama. The manager, Amanda, cuts us great deals and things are reasonably priced. I want my students to understand that crap paper means you will have crap watercolor painting, but I don’t want them to spend a fortune. No one has dreams of being starving.



What’s your least favorite thing you get asked to do by your colleagues? 


I think you can guess!



Do you let people borrow your glue guns (or art supplies)?


Glue guns: Yes.

Paper: Yes.

Color Pens, Markers, Sharpies, watercolor, paint brushes: If you are currently my student and you are having fun/ making work. ( Yes, a lot walks away.)

Paint: No one. Is it possible to have too much paint?

Random Miscellaneous Crap: Probably.

Define “people”. McGavock student I’ve never met before? Probably not. You know your project is due next period anyways and that paint isn’t going to help your apathy.

Teacher? Yes. I am a sucker for my underpaid friends.

Administrator? Absolutely. Also, I have been needing more……



How often do you collaborate across disciplines and what is a collaboration you are excited about right now? 


The AVID team is always collaborating. Currently, I have been collaborating with the art teacher at John Overton High School on IGSCE Cambridge art and design. I am looking forward to seeing what Kim and I accomplish this upcoming school year with the IGSCE students. Mike Mitchell and I are collaborating on bringing in some Nashville artists to speak and make work with our students and do some exchanging.



If you had the stage in front of administrators and art policy makers, what would you want to say about why art education is essential? 


We know that education is the most powerful weapon we can give our students in order to better themselves and this world. Art is the most powerful weapon we can give our students in understanding themselves and – in turn – how to sympathize with the world. Art meets our basic needs of belonging, power, and freedom, but it also brings them to light. If we aren’t meeting our students’ basic needs, and guiding them to trust themselves, are we putting them at any advantage in the world?



Who was your art-ed hero growing up? 


Melanie Anderson was my art teacher in my senior year of high school. She was the one who helped me remember why I love visual art. I believe she still teaches. She was kind, smart, and happy. I was always impressed by her and her ability to teach and be a successful painter. I just looked her up. Guess what? She paints now! Ironic.


How are you using Number in your classroom? 


Last year, I used Number during a Zine project.  I have a close artist friend who has been making zines for years. I knew I wanted to do something more with Number than just have my students read it. My students get easily frustrated with reading and there are huge differences in reading abilities in my classroom. I have life skills students, Cambridge students, and a mixture of 9th to 12th graders. I wanted to use this newspaper in a functional way. I had an epiphany one day that I could have them create zines while thinking about collage and literature. Having my student create a zine seemed like a functional way to use Number. I used it when I introduced the idea of a zine. I spoke about how zines are sometimes fan art or cheaply made, playing off the idea of the word magazine. I gave my students parameters of 6+ half pages and that the zine must have a theme, or tell a story, or set a tone, convey a mood or emotion. They could use really anything they wanted to create it. I threw out all the supplies for them to use: watercolor, acrylic, magazines, the Number newspaper, glue, ink pens. Then, they got busy. I am not sure they are really zines anymore. I keep referring to them now as “handmade artist books”. They got so in depth they didn’t really want just newspaper. They wanted color and paint. Some have the zine quality though and I still love them. I love the uniqueness to all of them. This year, I plan on using the articles written for class discussions and colleges.



What has student response been to using Number


Students are often not going to read much until you make them. They found the artwork interesting that was showcased. I plan on making them dig deeper into the paper this year. While working on his Zine Marvin had this to say:

 I love dark colors, or as in art terms, neutral colors, because they go well with anything. Since my theme was supposed to be on depression, I would need black and white, and the newspaper (Number) had that. What a coincidence that colors such as green and orange go well with black and white. I collaged the cover of Number: 91. The left corner had some black and green. I had to take some of that out though. LOL


Michael Mitchell is an artist (aka mikewindy) and educator in Nashville, TN.