When Fiona Thompson came to develop the art program at The Friends School of Atlanta, she did so under one important condition.
“No popsicle sticks on construction paper. I teach the visual arts. Respectfully I don’t teach crafts.”
Fiona told this to Waman French, the head of school, when interviewing for the job 10 years ago. And sure enough, look around the art room today, you’ll see no popsicle sticks, or at least none used in a crafty sort of way, with rows and rows of similar-looking works lining the walls. In Fiona’s classroom, stuffed to the gills with art supplies, you won’t find such conformity. You instead find clay figures next to paintings next to a sculpture put together using pieces from an IKEA furniture box—sans instructions, of course.
There’s nothing wrong with crafts; it just doesn’t have much to do with what Fiona teaches. She doesn’t teach art appreciation. The act of appreciation implies a kind of separation, a proscenium between art and its audience. Fiona’s classes have no proscenium.
“It’s not just about what you see in an art book,” Fiona said. “It’s about the visual thinking strategies behind what you see, how you see, and why you feel like you do when you’re looking at art. It’s a unique moment.”
Fiona grew up in a household where inclusiveness and social service reigned. Her father spent time in India during World War II. Then back home in Derbyshire, after retirement, he worked to help recent Indian immigrants find their way within the U.K. She went to college to study art at Bath Academy of Art, taught art in London, then at 21 decided to leave the U.K. and travel. She landed in Egypt, worked at the Schutz American School in Alexandria, and taught art pro bono at an Egyptian school and within the Egyptian community. She wasn’t a post-grad on holiday; she was in the trenches, working and serving.
Life has since brought her to (among other places) the University of Chicago, the High Museum of Art’s Education Department, and then, at long last, to her home at The Friends School of Atlanta. The school’s Quaker philosophy fit Fiona’s perfectly, about channeling the Light Within—with a paint brush, sculpting clay, even assembling IKEA furniture assembled into a new creation—to make the world better.
She teaches artistic fundamentals that involve sophisticated concepts, including main ideas, visualizing, making inferences, perspective. She also applies what’s known as design thinking to problem-solving. In a nutshell, she gives students the artistic grammar not just to appreciate, but to create, perceive, and connect.
In Fiona’s view, artistic concepts are at the heart of humanity, the essence of which can’t be automated. The sensors on self-driving cars can “see,” but they cannot perceive. You’ll find Fiona and her students collaborating with instructors in the 3D printing Innovation lab. The best scientists, engineers, mathematicians, physicists—although they may not realize it, they’re artists and design thinkers too.
Even yours truly, something Fiona insisted after I told her that, well, no, I just don’t have the artist’s muse. She shook her head and dove into a speech I could tell she had given many times before. “I believe everybody can draw,” Fiona said. “There’s no reason why you can’t; you’ve just not been shown.”
Looking at the amazing creations lying about the Friends School art room, I believe her wholeheartedly.
By Tim Heston
Tim Heston has written for business magazines since 1996. He’s won some awards here and there, but his greatest achievement is being the proud parent of an FSA fourth grader.