Visual Artist/Musician/High School Teacher Chris Yee
Chris Yee grew up in rural Connecticut and Long Island. He earned his BFA in Cartooning/Illustration at the School of Visual Arts in NYC in 1994, with a minor in Art Education. There, he learned from many industry legends and personal heroes such as Walt Simonson, Klaus Janson, and mentor, Carmine Infantino. Yee completed his K-12 Art Education Teaching Certificate a semester later. After art school, he used his skills and made some things, freelancing as an illustrator, while moonlighting as a teacher. Perhaps, it was the other way around. Yee has served in public art education since 1996, in the Sewanhaka CHSD, all at Elmont Memorial High School. Yee founded A2K Media INC. in 2000 and published a few books and zines in a 10 year run. In 2001, Yee earned his Masters of Science in Education (Secondary Education- Art) from Queens College CUNY, graduating with honors in thesis research, and two years after that, earned his School Administration and Supervision Certificate. He has been the chairperson of the Art Department since 2001. In 2012, Yee rebranded as Rock Toonz to create original art and music. Yee is a cartoonist, a painter, a graphic designer, and the bass player in original Long Island bands, MHZ and Kill The Sun. He resides on Long Island with his wife, Jodi, and children, plus two dogs and a clutter of cats- all rescues.
Your artistic abilities cover illustration, painting, graphic design, comics, and music. How do you focus your mind on one thing when you have the ability to go in so many directions?
Truthfully, focusing on one thing at a time has always been a problem for me. I jump around way too much and really want to do them all. A lot of things inspire me such as fine art, cartoons, comics, sports, pop culture, movies, science fiction, mythology, loud music, etc. I love each of these various genres and their inherent media… they are all just different vehicles for storytelling, communication, and expression. Each medium has their own set of possibilities and limitations, unique nuances that affect my artistic voice in different ways. So how do I focus on just one thing? I don’t! I have lots of unfinished projects around the studio! Art-making is mostly spontaneous and I just have to feed whichever idea is hungriest at the moment.
On top of all of the above, you teach. What does your typical day look like?
A typical weekday can be pretty crazy. The word I like to use a lot is “frantic,” at least in regards to its pace. I come to work, most days, with a list of things to do, and by the time first period is over, it’s usually already derailed! In my district, the Chairpeople of Visual Art teach four classes, and this year, I teach three preps. The teaching periods, where the magical moments occur, go by pretty fast. With 9 period days, I spend 4 of them in the classroom (regular teachers teach 5), leaving one for lunch (or my midday email check period), one prep period, and the rest is undefined to complete administrative duties. But they all bleed into each other.
This year, I teach two Art 8 classes, one Digital Design 1 and one Digital Design 2 classes, so my day is split between our regular Art classrooms and our Mac Lab. Various meetings, phone calls, and extra help occur throughout the day and week during my administrative duty periods, filling up those undefined spaces quite nicely. I also am an executive board member of my union which spices things up on occasion. I rarely work an 8 hour day. Let’s just say my car is usually one of the last in the lot. After an average 45 minute commute home, dinner, and decompression, I try to do something creative.
By the way, my children are older now. I didn’t always have time to do all of this, specifically music. But nowadays, usually, twice a week I have rehearsal, one with each band. Gigs, average once or twice a month. If I don’t have practice, commissions come first, and if none, there are plenty of aforementioned personal projects to work on. Between my own artwork, band flyers, promotion, branding and maintaining my presence on social media, there’s always plenty to do. Three to four hours of sleep and repeat. But each day is absolutely filled with creativity, fulfillment, and unique challenges in some form or other!
How do creating music and creating visual art relate? Does the creative process overlap at all?
I think music and art overlap, because I believe that the visual arts permeate all things. I do believe that Art and Music, as subject areas in education, are extremely different and administrators should not be in any rush to put them together because it makes a lot less sense than people think. They are philosophically and pedagogically different when it comes to modern education. But as far as images and sound as communication and expression, that relationship is symbiotic, much in the same way as art and math or art and language. I see shapes and patterns in sound as much as I hear sounds and beats from the imagery. It’s all about frequencies and vibrations. On a more literal level, when I make band logos and flyers I try to match the vibe and identity of the band and their music, or the theme of the show, to the visual, be it a photo, graphic, or illustration. The image and the sound should be entwined. An idea can be communicated through many means and it just depends which tool the artist feels like wielding that particular day.
Are you involved in any sort of support network of other artists or teachers?
The nice part about working at Elmont Memorial High School (grades 7-12) on Long Island, is that there is always support, especially where I work. I have four amazing teachers in my department (two are split between two buildings), and counting myself, makes five. I am very fortunate to have the best group of teachers working with me. It is fun to come to work each day with the group that I have, who are each extremely positive, super talented- as educators as well as artists, are outstanding people, and who genuinely regard each other as family. I do not take this for granted. Being a part of a five high school district is unique in that we have 22 Art teachers in one district. That is an amazing support network to have around! We have excellent Art leaders in each building and great teachers with different areas of expertise, throughout the district, that any of us may refer to when needed. We chairpeople are very supportive of each other and are just a phone call away. I am a member of several outstanding art education associations and groups such as Art Supervisors Association, NYSATA/LIATA, and National Art Education Association, etc. I also happen to have incredibly creative friends who are painters, photographers, cartoonists, musicians, movie prop restorers/ builders, framers, designers, writers, gamers, etc. I love being surrounded by creative and colorful characters!
Do your students see you making art?
My students see my teacher samples each unit, so they see how I interpret the same projects that they do, same materials, everything. Usually, my samples are in-progress so they get to observe me taking the same procedural steps that they do, as they do it. They get to watch me work when I perform class demonstrations, sometimes on video, and sometimes live. We all have iPads and each room has Apple/HDTVs. It has been a goal of mine to share more of my personal work with my classes, and I’m still trying to implement that into my teaching in an organic way. Before I became chairperson, I was the advisor for our National Art Honor Society chapter and Portfolio Prep, and worked beside my students more, afterschool. I used to create more artwork after hours while the club was working on banners and other projects. It’s important for students to see professional artists working and witnessing the creative process in action. There’s an immediate respect earned as well when the class witnesses the teacher’s ability in action.
What role does music play in your classroom?
It usually doesn’t, not on a daily basis. Ours are visual art classes, and beginning students do need to learn to have quiet minds and be focused when creating. So, foundation Art students are not usually permitted to listen to music in class, except for during special occasions. We often are more lenient with intermediate Art students, because at this point, music can help more experienced and motivated students focus on their task. I do have specific lesson units that utilize music as inspiration and influence, such as my Move to the City collage project inspired by the work of Stuart Davis, emphasizing the Principle of Design, movement. During this unit, we try to emulate Davis’ mindset by recalling our experiences of NYC and listening to jazz music, while creating sketches of the city. Those sketches are later interpreted as abstract shapes and color, cut out of color construction paper, personified to show movement and action, and eventually arranged on large paper. This project is performed in small groups, intended to be loud, energetic, and social in its creation. Music plays a big role in this particular project.
How has teaching changed the way you make art?
Teaching Art has shaped and continues to broaden how I make and think about art in countless ways. In order to teach my classes how to make something, I have to make the project myself, using the same exact materials provided to them, break the process down into manageable steps that students of different levels of expertise, experience and motivation can accomplish, to various degrees of success, during approximately 43 minute intervals of time. Tiering lessons is extremely important, and in order to plan differentiated instruction units, a solid understanding of Art education, as well as being a visual artist, is extremely necessary to determine realistic levels of expectation, pacing, and how to fairly assess each set of criteria.
So, to answer the question, learning how to be an effective teacher forced me to look more closely at my creative process and decipher the necessary steps to execute the work efficiently and skillfully. Articulating the artistic process to others helped me to be more masterful of whatever it was I was teaching, making me a better artist. I have also learned to be more disciplined as a designer and draftsman, which is a good thing, at least for me. Being an educator has also given me access to technology that I hadn’t had before, mainly computers, devices, cameras, and all of the art programs and apps. Being required to use and learn all of it has changed the game for me, big time. Teaching as many courses as I have, over my 23 years at Elmont, has greatly increased my artistic skill set and broadened my horizons, as well. To meet the needs of the students, I had to constantly grow, and will continue to do so over the next 9 years.
Teaching in a diverse community has also opened my eyes to new experiences, cultures, and influences which all seep into my own art and widened how I view the world. Entering the teaching profession as young as I did, I have grown and matured as a person over my 23 years at Elmont Memorial. The school community, including my students, colleagues and mentors, have all profoundly and positively affected me as an individual, and ultimately as an artist. Being an artist and being an Art teacher, have always gone hand in hand, one influencing the other.
How has your own art influenced the way you teach?
Well, I believe my own art influences the way I teach because by staying active and abreast of what’s happening currently, keeps me charged up to make and share things with my classes. Teachers need to have passion and energy in order to motivate students! I need to keep my skills sharp so I can skillfully demonstrate. There are a lot of seriously good Art students out there with YouTube and Google at their disposal! I did not have these kinds of resources and tutorials growing up! Exhibiting and freelancing also keeps me motivated and relevant. Gotta stay young… can’t be a dinosaur! Not in the art world, and definitely, not in the classroom!
What advice would you give other artist teachers?
Always remember what a privilege it is to teach Art to the youth of America. We get to teach to a mindset that is often underutilized in other subject areas, spark imagination, elicit thought, teach how to problem-solve, nurture creativity and make beauty. These are largely exclusive to Visual Art teachers. And it is awesome. Ours are often not the majority and often not the popular, but we get to be the beacon for those who can slip through the rest of the school’s fingers. A strong Art department can be that haven for those who might sit alone in other schools, but in our school and perhaps your school, Art students find each other and become a unit of strength and admiration because of their individuality, diversity, and creative abilities. It’s our job to provide and cultivate that. It is such an important responsibility, to seek out our creative-types and provide equity to all kinds of students.
What advice would you give to a brand new teacher who wants to be an artist as well?
Balance. A new teacher needs to find it for themselves, but one must balance the two as each feed the other. As an inexperienced or less experienced teacher, that person must devote whatever time and energy necessary to learn and become an effective teacher first. That takes precedence. But that teacher will then need to continue to go to galleries and exhibitions, read, study, and continue to make personal art to stay energized and inspired and relevant. Being an Art educator is a special career choice that is constantly evolving as society, technology, and trends in pedagogy change, but I think it’s difficult to be a great Art teacher without first being an artist. Art teachers need to be creative souls and genuinely passionate about their subject area, and of course love educating children, to be successful for the long term. You can’t fake it. As you gain experience as an Art educator, and become comfortable, always remember the people who helped you along the way, and be that person for someone else. Give back to the profession. I was extremely lucky to have such awesomely dedicated Art teachers when I attended Hicksville High School, many of whom I keep in contact with today. To this day, I always aspire to help my students as my former HHS teachers have helped me and a few generations of artists and teachers.
Why is it important to you to continue making art?
We were born to create and make splashes. Too many people feel that they can’t or that it’s not necessary in their daily lives. Humans were absolutely meant to communicate in diverse ways, to express themselves, and to connect. There aren’t words for everything. Sometimes, things must be shown. It is important to me to keep exercising my creativity and to add a little of myself to society and to humanity. I have to constantly create. I’m driven to do so. With music, more collaboratively, with my drawing and painting or digital work, it’s usually as an individual. But however I choose, I want to keep tossing stones and creating those ripples in the pond.
Anything else you would like to say?
Actually, I think I’ve said too much! I’m a little long-winded. So in conclusion, to all in our profession, just keep at it and continue to learn from as many people as possible, taking what works for you. Learn from those outside our discipline as well, and adapt it to what we do in the Art classroom. There are cycles in life and in our careers. There will be times when you can do more and times when you will struggle to find the time to do what is necessary. That is okay. We all go through it. That’s when you make yourself go to the museum or gallery or read or doodle and recharge!