BEMIDJI -- Molly Wiste approaches teaching the way she approaches her art . . . she looks for the potential.
It’s proven to be an effective method for the Bemidji Middle School art teacher. In fact, Art Educators of Minnesota named Wiste as the middle school art teacher of the year. The organization will recognize her at a ceremony on Saturday, Nov. 2, in Mankato.
Wiste’s father, Keith Polus, who’s a teacher in southeast Minnesota, will introduce Wiste at the ceremony. He isn’t the one who nominated her for the award, but he still has a clear idea why she rose to the top of the list.
“Molly can look at something -- or Molly can look at someone -- and see something much better than what’s in front of her,” Polus said. “Seeing beyond what’s in front of her eyes makes her not only a great artist, but it makes her a great teacher.”
Late on Thursday afternoon, her classroom at the middle school was buzzing with activity, and Wiste was bouncing back and forth between her students. It was Wiste’s 2-D art class, meaning the students were working with things like painting and linoleum printing.
At one table, eighth graders Aleah Shogren and Ava Michalicek were working on separate painting projects. Wiste gives a lesson at the beginning of the class, but both students said they enjoy having so much freedom to work on their own projects.
Across the room, eighth grader Loriah Kuemper was working at a table with a slew of other students, adding details to their art while also cleaning up for the day. Like Shogren and Michalicek, Kuemper said she appreciates how they're able to focus on their own creations rather than follow a step-by-step process of what they're supposed to do.
"We’ve learned that your first idea might not be your best idea,” Kuemper said.
Wiste tries to expose her students to a variety of art mediums. When a student complains that he or she can’t draw or paint, she tells them that she knows amazing chainsaw carvers who can’t draw either. One of her students wanted to learn how to knit. Wiste didn’t remember how to knit either, but they pulled up a YouTube tutorial and figured it out.
Outside her own classroom, Wiste has a hand in guiding art teachers across the state. That’s because she’s been a part of the Minnesota Art Standards Review Committee.
Wiste is in her second year teaching in Bemidji. Before that, she taught in Pequot Lakes.
As an art teacher, she said Bemidji seemed like a natural place to be, what with its thriving arts community. Wiste’s even had the chance to leave her own artistic mark on the streets of Bemidji.
Her sculpture “Last Child in the Woods” was selected for the Bemidji Sculpture Walk and is on display near the corner of Sixth Street Northwest and Beltrami Avenue, right in front of the plaza at the Beltrami County Courthouse. She’s also a member of the Sculpture Walk board of directors.
“There’s so much cool stuff going on in this community that it’s fun to teach art here,” Wiste said.
Last year, her students had the chance to display their work at the Watermark Art Center.
For Wiste, though, teaching art is more than just passing along technical skills in a classroom, although that’s certainly part of it. It’s more than paint and canvas, pencil and paper, or any other tools of the trade for that matter. It’s about the creativity.
“I really like helping them find their personal voice,” Wiste said about her students. “Even if they never paint again, being able to figure out who they are and what they want to say is so important.”
Wiste’s father, Polus, wasn’t surprised the Art Educators of Minnesota decided to recognize her. He was hoping something like that would happen. And, he knew that if anyone was paying any attention at all, they’d be bound to come across her eventually and see her impact.
When Polus gets up on Saturday to announce Wiste, it’ll only be the most recent time that they’ve shared their love of education with one another. Whenever she had a day off from classes while in college, Wiste would go with Polus to his classroom and watch him teach.
“He was so inspirational, and he could reach students that didn’t like school for any other reason,” Wiste said. “He’s kind of why I teach.”