During a normal day of class, Carolyn Coker helps one of her AP Studio Art students staple a bed sheet to the wall. The queen-sized linen becomes the blank slate for a new piece and a much larger workspace than usual. But that’s what Carolyn sees her students do as they find their style and direct their own work—they take on challenges and, sometimes, go big.
“I get to watch magic happen,” Carolyn says. “The pieces they make reflect everything that’s happened to them up until that moment. It’s cool when kids feel safe to explore that.” As her Homewood High School students master basic technique, they also invest meaning and soul into each project.
Carolyn has a rich teaching experience in schools around the Birmingham metro area, including positions in the art departments at Hoover High School, Spain Park High School and Berry Middle School. When the position in Homewood opened up for the 2018-2019 school year, she saw the perfect opportunity to be closer to her children, Sid, who will be a junior at the high school, and Harper, who will be in fifth grade at Edgewood Elementary.
She teaches introductory and upper-level art, digital photography and AP studio courses and meets a wide range of skills and interests. “Being the art teacher, I get to know them and spend time talking to them. I find out what they’re good at,” she says. Whether through the projects themselves, class-wide critiques, or the other creative components of each class, she sees students discover the spark that sets them apart from everyone else.
Throughout her life, Carolyn has always remembered enjoying art, starting with her collection of pencils when she was a kid, and that passion became her constant. “I went to six or seven schools before I graduated high school. The thing I always felt good about is my superpower, what I could do a little bit different, and that was my art,” she says. During her graduate school courses at the University of Montevallo, Carolyn concentrated on painting and developed her personal style.
In her landscape pieces, skylines are hazy, soft, sometimes runny. “I love being on location, studying the nuances, the shades of green and the way light hits,” Carolyn says about her plein air work. “Then, when I take pieces into my studio, the subjects become more abstract.” She has a love for being outside, which she’s been reminded of daily over the last few months as she and her husband, Robert, walk miles around the neighborhood during safer-at-home measures.
Carolyn also paints figures and portraits, for which she’ll sometimes trade acrylic or oil paint for pastel. She hasn’t done quite as many shows recently, devoting her time to her family and classes (and even converting her old studio space into a bedroom for her two stepsons, Walt and William.) But, her passion still thrives in the classroom.
Through working with The Memory Project, her students get to explore the power of portraiture. The organization allows them to complete portraits of and for children around the world in orphanages who have very little personal belongings. The opportunity becomes many students’ favorite project because they get to reach beyond the classroom and use art as a language.
For any artist, but particularly young, student artists who are still figuring out who they are, producing work takes a lot of confidence that Carolyn admires. “When you make a piece of art, everybody sees it. You have to feel safe to be able to put yourself out there. I’m hopeful that my students feel that when they’re in my classroom. You have to be brave.”
Last May, a handful of Carolyn’s students contributed pieces to an auction for Impact Family Counseling and their Kalopsi(ART) event, and the pieces depicted what good mental health looks like. Students had the chance to explore the emotions and complexities associated with mental health and, then, shared that with their community—one that Carolyn finds constantly supportive of the arts.
This year, she will finish her term serving on the Homewood Arts Council, a city organization that helps encourage creativity and a diverse range of arts experiences throughout Homewood. And her tie to the area goes beyond that. Although she’s only taught at the high school for two years, Carolyn has been a part of the community for much longer.
She first moved to Homewood in 2001 and has stayed ever since. “I love the community feel, the sidewalks and the aesthetic. The architecture, the shopping downtown, the food—there’s a little bit of everything here.” At the high school, she can be even closer to all those things. Carolyn even had the chance to lead a Christmas painting workshop for Harper’s class at Edgewood since it’s just a few minutes away.
“I have loved having students I’ve known since kindergarten. They’ve been at my house, I’ve gone to their swim meets, I’ve been at their games. I’ve seen them grow.”
Plein Air Work
Plein air painting takes an artist outside of the studio and into the landscape. In “open air,” artists develop early sketches or a piece in its entirety while right in front of the subject. The impressionistic, hazy effect comes naturally with this style. Carolyn has done work with both the Alabama Plein Air Artists and the Emerald Coast Plein Air Painters, whom she’ll join when she’s ever vacationing on 30A.