Artist/High School Art Teacher/NAEA Vice President James Rees
Artist and high school art teacher James Rees currently serves as a vice president of the National Art Education Association. He formerly served as Pacific Region Secondary Representative. James is a Fulbright Memorial Scholar, a Teachers Institute of Contemporary Art Fellow, and an Art21 Fellow. He has also served as reviewer for the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities as well as the National Endowment for the Arts. He currently serves on the board of directors for the Utah Cultural Alliance, providing guidance educational initiatives and advocating for the arts and art education.
“I’ve always loved to make images. From early memories of drawing with my father until today, I like exploring things through visual expressions of various kinds. Having a sketchbook with me has been part of my life from the awkward Jr. high me to the present. I like the imagery from the poetry of others that I often use to find expression in my paintings and prints. I have an MFA in print making and a BFA in drawing. Because of this, my prints have a lot of drawing sensibilities, my mixed media works have elements of printmaking, and my paintings blend the two approaches.
“I strive to define what it means to be an innovative teacher, practicing artist, and advocate for arts education.”
Why do you teach?
Finding direction with my students is compelling in that I see them engage in the credit process that once steered me in the same direction when I was their age. I find great value in seeing how my students work within the constraints of a consistently uncreative environment and somehow find their own voice.
Why do you make art?
I’ve been making art all my life it wasn’t something I set out to do, it was just something that I actually did. Making art is a natural extension of the way I think and try to process the world around me. I found it important to push against the tendency for teachers to stop their own studio practice when they begin helping their students begin to engage in their own creative practice.
How do you balance art making and art teaching?
This is been the subject of an ongoing conversation I’ve had with many colleagues. Teaching is an emotionally and physically draining endeavor. It sometimes seems like it takes great effort to maintain time in the studio. Really, the honest truth is it just takes consistently going to the studio to make things. I find that a positive team helps reinforce my own practice. I buffer my classroom time through exercise and then it seems to be a natural segue to studio thinking. Finding a balance between my contribution as an art educator and working is kind of like juggling fish while peddling down a cobblestone road on a unicycle. I can be done, but it’s a constant challenge
What other artists influence your work?
I’ve been extremely blessed to have formed wonderful relationships with artists and art educators who are amazing and cause me to reflect upon my own practice within these areas. I had the opportunity to meet Matthew Ritchie while was in a teacher mentor at TICA studio program at the Arts Institute of Chicago. I’ve always loved his work. Meeting him and having him talk to me about my work while I was in my studio was very humbling, but demystified the process a bit. I like that he is not afraid of tackling difficult subject matter and just doing the best he can and expressing it.
Describe your favorite classroom project.
My favorite classroom project involves the students having input on the subject matter, media, and seeing where it goes. I like setting some creative constraints and seeing where students take things.
How do you stay motivated enough to make art after a long day of teaching?
By doing something completely unrelated. I jump on my mountain bike for an hour and half and find my Zen on a trail. This really helps me to prepare for the studio. I also set production goals, often surrounding exhibit dates. In my spare time, I actively engage in research where I strive to make meaningful connections between art, culture, and the human experience. This fuels my desire to engage others through my art work.
Do your students see you making art?
Yes, and I give them extra credit to attend my openings so they see my exhibit as well. I was fortunate to have had very supportive high school teachers that prodded me into working, reworking and exploring different media. I like my students knowing that I’ve not lost my way into the studio.
Do you think it is important for your students to know about your art career? Why?
For the past 20 years I’ve incorporated series of artist lectures around various creative industries to expose students to a variety of career options within the arts. I also have students curate exhibits in a galleries and museums.
Where is your studio?
I built my studio space into my house when we constructed it 20 years ago.
Any other thoughts?
If art is nothing more than the shadow of humanity, as Henry James stated, then it would seem that I love to linger in the shadows of life exploring the unknown and running into new obstacles. I also don’t like how I used to feel uncomfortable in art exhibits sharing that I taught art in a high school. I don’t know why, it seemed that others might not have taken my art making on face value due to my classroom experience. I now feel very comfortable identifying as an Artist, Researcher and Teacher.
Find James’ work at