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Middletown Life

New artists in historic Odessa

Mar 27, 2018 05:30PM ● By Steven Hoffman

Sophia Sweetman has been a student of Brianna Shetzler, an art teacher at Middletown High School, since Sweetman was in the eighth grade, so in a way, their journey into the development of Sweetman's life as a young artist has been an alliance between student and teacher.

Sweetman is not alone. As a student in Shetzler's Advanced Placement Art Studio class, she is one of a half-dozen seniors who are in the middle of a rigorous, year-long project to complete a 24-piece portfolio of of their art under Shetzler's guidance, the best of which will be showcased at the Visitor's Center Gallery at the Historic Odessa Foundation in Odessa, from April 13-29, 2018. The show, which is expected to feature a large representation of each student's work, will be coming to the Foundation for the first time this year.

“It has been amazing to watch Sophia and my other current students grow as artists, many of whom I've worked with since I was at Meredith Middle School,” said Shetzler, who is now in her eighth year of teaching in the Appoquinimink School District. “I've been honored to have a really great group of artists who push themselves, and we work together to push each other.”

Upon entering Shetzler's AP Art Studio class at Middletown High School, one is not likely to see a small group of students waiting around aimlessly for inspiration to strike. Instead, the class hums with a factory-like churn of creativity, and for good reason: Every project has a deadline. Under the class guidelines, each student is required to finish a piece of artwork every week and a half.

“I run the class just like it's done on the collegiate level,” Shetzler said. “There is a sense or urgency there, because they know that they have to meet deadlines, and if they don't, they know that those deadlines will snowball, and they will quickly become overwhelmed. I work on sharpening their sense of time management in order to keep them on a schedule.”

The first half of the academic year in class is spent engaged in a variety of mediums -- drawing and painting; working with chalk and pastels; printmaking; developing projects by using cut paper; and fabric dyeing. The second half of their year allows them to develop 12 pieces of art, using a common theme.

“I try to expose them to as meany mediums as possible, so by the time they begin their AP studio art class, they've got that comfort level with other mediums,” Shetzler said. “We want them to begin thinking as artists and about a body of work and how they would produce it, so by the time they get to the college or art school level, they've already begin to think about components of art that interest them, and what they would like to concentrate their focus on.”

Before completion, each piece must first go through a formal critique stage done with Shetzler and the other five students, and then tweaked according to the recommendations the student is given.

“Every time they have questions, they can come over to me and say to me, 'I'm struggling with this part. I'm not quite sure what to do,'” she said. “It allows me to open their question up to the class and ask them, 'What do you see about this student's work? Where would you take this?' It turns that moment into a teachable moment.”

There is not a creative artist alive who, if asked to do so, would not be able to immediately reel off the names of other artists or teachers or mentors who inspired them. Given that fact, the student gallery found its way to the Foundation for the first time this year not by accident but by design, one that owes its good fortune to the close-knit fabric of the arts community in the Middletown-Odessa-Townsend area. In searching for the proper venue to house the 2018 show, Shetzler reached out to Brian Miller, her former art teacher at Middletown High School, and now an assistant curator at the Historic Odessa Foundation.

“I had the pleasure to work side-by-side with Brianna for one year, before my retirement, and after the retirement of [former art teacher] Jayne Riblett, and I quickly realized that Brianna had found her dream job,” said Miller, who taught art in the Appoquinimink School District for 28 years. “I attended the Studio Art class exhibit at the Gibby [Gilbert W. Perry Center for the Arts] last year, and found the space kind of small. I knew that Brianna was looking for a new venue for this year's show, and we both made the recommendation to have it at the Foundation.”

Miller said that the show's appearance in Odessa is another example of how the Appoquinimink School District works to bring student art out of the classrooms and before the eyes of the general public.

“I designed two galleries in the district and in main offices, so that student artwork can always be showcased,” Miller said. “This upcoming exhibit is another way to get their work professionally shown in a museum setting.”

Very often, while she guides her students through each of their projects, Shetzler sees a reflection of her own development as an artist which, ironically, began on the very same tract and crystallized when she was in the same AP Studio Art class as a student at Middletown High School.

“I knew then that I wanted to teach AP Studio Art, and it's been a true blessing for me to be here,” said Shetzler, who is a working sculptor and also teaches ceramics and sculpture classes at the high school. “I found so many benefits of the art program, and it inspired me to want to give back to the kids who don't necessarily get appreciated for their skills, and show them that it is special and it is something that they should be rewarded for.

“They are really putting a piece of themselves out there when they are creating their art, and it takes a lot for them to be able to show it for others. Having their name beside their work gives them further recognition.”

Four of the six students in this year's class are interested in pursuing art as a career and are planning to attend art school or major in art in college. The two other students have expressed an interest in pursuing psychology and early childhood education, respectively, while minoring in art during college.

“I remember that feeling of knowing that I had my future in front of me when I was their age, and determining which way I wanted to go with my own artistic pursuits,” Shetzler said. “Being able to watch their current journeys of where they're going to study and what majors they want to enter, it's wonderful to see them weigh those options.”

No matter how it manifests itself, creativity is infectious. Often, Shetzler works on her own projects during class, so that students can glance up and see another artist at work.

“Even when I'm not required by deadlines, I want them to see that art is something I still pursue,” she said. “Having that creative force around them, helps quite a bit.

“I love be able to see how they work. It's always interesting to watch any artist and see their progress – not only how they approach problem solving techniques and how they are going about it in their sketchbook – but how they attack the piece in general. It's amazing for me to watch their maturity as artists, especially when marked against the growth I have seen in them for so many years.”

The Middletown High School Advanced Placement Art Show will be held in the Visitors Center Gallery at the Historic Odessa Foundation from April 13 through April 29. An opening night reception with the artists will be held on April 13, from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. The Foundation is located at 201 Main Street, Odessa, De. 19730. To learn more, visit

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