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Finding balance between teaching and creating.

Artist/High School Teacher Christopher Sweeney

Artist/High School Teacher Christopher Sweeney

2016 Pennsylvania Art Education Association Outstanding Secondary Art Educator Christopher Sweeney is a 1996 graduate of University of the Art’s Philadelphia College of Art and Design with a B.F.A. in Fine Arts/ Painting and Drawing. In 2012, he graduated from the Art Education department with a Masters of Arts degree.While enrolled at the University of the Arts as an undergraduate student, Chris majored in Painting and Drawing and held a minor in Art Education. He was also the recipient of several awards while attending Uarts including the Ernest W. Greenfield Annual Award in Painting, the Peter J. McCahill Memorial Award in Art Education, and a finalist for the Rohm and Haas Fine Arts Award, all of which were awarded in 1996. He was also awarded the prestigious position of giving the students address at the 1996 commencement. 

Chris has taught art and design to many different communities of students in the Philadelphia area, ranging from pre-K to adults from various backgrounds. He has taught at schools and/or organizations such as the Philadelphia School District, Foundations, Inc. at Christopher Columbus Charter School, Friends Central,University City Arts League,the Creative Artists Network,and most recently at University of Pennsylvania. He is an avid artist, designer, and educator who most recently was highlighted in DesignPhiladelphia’s “Best in Show” for his interactive design work with mycelium and LED lights.

Chris is a cutting-edge art and design educator whose students, whether at Charter High School for Architecture and Design, where he is a full time teacher, or at University of the Arts, are working on new and emerging technology for the art, design, and STEAM connections. Chris is a highly sought after speaker whose has presented at PAEA, NAEA, ISTE, and other educational conferences locally, regionally, and nationally. His art and design studio work with OpenPress Project 3D printed presses will be shown in Germany and the EU in the upcoming months. Chris created and teaches a course called 3D Printing in the K-12 Classroom through the Professional Institute for Educators (P.I.E.) at University of the Arts in Philadelphia.

In addition to his teaching responsibilities, Chris is an ambassador for MakeyMakey, Chibitronics, Morphi,and is a Fellow at Ultimaker 3D Printer’s Pioneer Education program. You can find links these sources at the end of the interview.

How do you balance art making and art teaching?

It is a very precarious balance that can very difficult, and it has ebb and flows throughout the years. It is hard to teach, have a family, and create art & design work. I make the time, and it also help to make the work with your students, and to share what I do. That way it makes for more authentic learning.

What other artists influence your work?

As far as fine art/painting is concerned right now, I would say Philip Guston, Picasso, Yves Klein,DeChirico, Duchamp,Van Eyck and Rauscenburg, to name a few. Design wise, I enjoy the work of Buckminster Fuller, Dieter Rams, as well as a handful of educators, designers and makers such as Corinne Takada, Erin Riley, Nettrice Gaskins, Josh Burker, and Colleen Graves and others I am probably forgetting.

Your work seems to contain a great deal of symbolism. What determines the objects that make it into your paintings?

My paintings are usually manifestations of things around me, memories, thoughts, and my life. A lot of it is metaphysical, some referential, others observations on life.

You use a wide variety of mediums. Why so many?

I am interested in materials and process, from an artist standpoint, as well as a designer. I am interested in pushing the envelope and the physicality of any material I use. I am also interested in the biology and science of materials, especially bio-design, which is my new area of interest.

What does your schedule for making art look like?

Right now, with my teaching schedule, it is usually at night, or with my students, since I like to share my digital artwork and my 3D printing with them.

Do your students see you making art?

Yes, 3D modeling/designing, and relief printmaking in class.

Do you think it is important for your students to know about your art career? Why?

I believe it is paramount as an art educator (and as an artist) to show them that you practice what you preach, and that you know what you are teaching them. Also, for my students, they will be in the same field as me, and that they can too be successful and have a career doing what they love.

How has teaching changed the way you make art?

It has changed it in many ways, especially making my work more community based, especially with the design work I do with 3D printing/interactive designs using awesome products like Chibitronics LED lights , MakeyMakey’s, Morphi and Ultimaker 3D printers and many others. I find when it is more personal and fun, and relevant, it makes for a better learning environment for creating art & designs.

My painting is still way more personal and not shared like my other work. In some ways, it will always not be accessible since it is more a selfish endeavor, only to be viewed in a gallery setting.

How has your own art influenced the way you teach?

I would like to say that my art education, especially as a painter and a fine artist, it has helped immensely. I don’t think my design work would look like it does if I wasn’t an artist first. I kind of fell into design via 3D printing, and I have taken my artistic tendencies to it. Without the core knowledge and discipline of being an artist, and by that I mean working hard for many years, I know that the design teaching would not be so easy. It was an easy transition as I said before, I practice what I preach. My work ethic, my sensibilities, my humor, and every bump along the way I bring into the classroom. I bring myself wholly into whatever I do.

What advice would you give other artist teachers?

Keep pushing, keep doing it. Make the time, start small, you never know where it will lead to. Perfect example is 3D printing for me. Learning about it and getting into it literally changed my life and opened up avenues and opportunities I never knew possible. Also, live in both worlds. Go to NAEA and your local art education association conventions, connect. Network. Throw yourself into it. It is super hard, but it can be done. Here is Picasso quote that I use quite often that sums it up better than I ever could:

“Never permit a dichotomy to rule your life, a dichotomy in which you hate what you do so you can have pleasure in your spare time. Look for a situation in which your work will give you as much happiness as your spare time.”

-Pablo Picasso

What advice would you give to a brand new teacher who wants to be an artist as well?  

This will sound harsh, but get your job down first.Look for the right situation that works for you. Then you can have a studio practice. Or vice versa. Both are hard. It is extremely difficult to be a beginning teacher, and trying to be an artist as well as a good teacher right off the bat will be dishonest to both your art and your teaching. Don’t short your students or yourself. Once you get the flow, then look into galleries, shows, etc. Still make work, keep your studio, make space. No one is holding your hand, so be free an experiment and make friends in the art and the art education community, there are many beautiful people in both. Have fun, but work hard and get out there and network like your life depends on it. The work will bring the success.

Describe your favorite classroom project.

Right now, there are so many that are just rocking out at school. My new favorite is the relief printmaking project I do with my junior students where we create radial designs looking at scared geometry and create them in Morphi, 3D print them, and make relief prints using the Open Press presses, which I highly recommend if you have access to a 3D printer, and don’t want to pay thousands of dollars for a printmaking press. I love creating these with my students, as well as designing my own. I will be in show in Germany that Martin Schneider, (who is the creator of the OpenPress Project) will be putting together that hopefully will be traveling across Europe, so I am really pumped I can share my art with people who might only get to see my work online.

Why is it important to you to continue making art?

It is extremely important, on so many levels I can’t put it in a paragraph. It takes us out of our element, it is another world. It makes us human. It is the act of creating, making. Whether it is painting, drawing, ceramics, electronics, dance, music, it’s all the same. Again, here is a great quote that illustrates it way better than I ever could:

“Painting and sculpture are very archaic forms. It's the only thing left in our industrial society where an individual alone can make something with not just his own hands, but brains, imagination, heart maybe.”

-Philip Guston

Anything else you would like to say?

I have always maintained a robust studio practice all throughout my 23 year career as an art educator. I enjoy what I do, both in the classroom, and in my own studio practice, whether it is fine art, or design.

Find Christopher Sweeney’s work at:

Important links:

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Artist/High School Art Teacher Christina Keith

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Artist/Mother Denise Gasser