By Bob Bahr
The public school district where Ken Shanika lives is well-funded, and it is relatively serious about art. But his private students win about 80% of the awards given in that area. What’s up with that?
Shanika is not going to toot his own horn, but he is happy to celebrate the wins his students get. Truth be told, he’s a big part of their success. Just recently, one of his students, Jared Brady, won First Place in the 5th Congressional District Art Competition, in Colorado. This means Brady gets two airline tickets to Washington, DC so he can attend a reception attended by his Congressman, Doug Lamborn. Brady will be in the audience for a speech about the program given by his congressman, then will pose for photos with him in the Capitol. Brady’s work will hang in the tunnel that connects the Capitol Building to the congress building for one year.
Brady is the second Shanika student to win this top prize. In 2015 Grace Medran won First Place, with SKBer Kayla Liller taking Second. The competition, which has been running for more than 30 years, is something of a nail-biter. “You turn all your artwork in and they hang it, then a jury by committee chooses the winners,” says Shanika. “Then Elizabeth Tapia, the congressman’s assistant, sends an email to all the teachers to announce that the student has won an award. All are asked to gather at the 21st C library in Colorado Springs for a ceremony. There are a few guest speakers, and the judges talk a lot about the selection process and the winners. No one knows who the top winner is until then.”
Brady isn’t the only student taught by an SKB instructor to win this honor. Tanner Hodgkinson, a Western Art Academy participant who studied with Nancy Foureman and Wanda Mumm, won First Place in Texas’s 8th District. Hodgkinson won with a bold acrylic painting of a Little Leaguer swinging a baseball bat.
Shanika says Brady’s win was something of a landslide. “He won People’s Choice as well,” says Shanika, a longtime SKBer who the Rose Award from the Susan Kathleen Black Foundation in 2010. “Tapia announced, ‘And of course everybody knows who won—Jared Brady!’ His piece was head and shoulders above everything in that show. Everything. The piece is called ‘Wrapped in Rose,’ and it’s a portrait of his sister in Civil War garb.”
Brady’s honor also comes with a scholarship to the Savannah College of Art & Design, but it’s a small cash amount, so most students don’t take it. In fact, the high school senior plans to sit out a year from college—and intensively study with Shanika. “I have mixed feelings about that, but I’m thrilled that he wants to study with me intensively for a year to take his art to the next level,” says Shanika.
Shanika’s students are largely homeschooled. Shanika says that although homeschooling generally puts an emphasis on a well-rounded education that includes the arts, the biggest advantage is the flexible schedule. “With that flexibility, the ones that succeed are the ones with a lot of discipline,” he says. “Homeschoolers can come to their art lesson anytime. I find that the high school kids can only come on Saturday mornings, and they don’t want to give up their Saturday mornings. They tend to not stay with me as long.” Shanika has built a reputation in the Woodland Park/Colorado Springs area as the go-to person for art instruction among homeschoolers. This includes David and Caleb Yarger, and Kayla Liller—whom SKBers know from their presence at past Dubois workshops. In fact, Shanika says there are some similarities between David Yarger and Jared Brady. They both showed a large amount of talent early, they both possess discipline, and they both play the piano “at a very high level,” according to Shanika. In general, the homeschooled kids Shanika interacts with have a strong interest in theater, music, art, dance, and sports.
Shanika shared his curriculum and approach for his students with us. The Colorado artist does not just teach oil painting, or landscape painting. He makes sure that his students get a comprehensive education in being an artist. That includes marketing, photography, and administrative work—and even how to title a painting. “There’s not going to be any ‘Untitled #3s’ in any show that I’m involved with,” says Shanika. “The title sets the stage; you gotta have one. It’s like a title for a play or musical. If you try to sell tickets to musical like that, one with no name, nobody would show up! The title is a bridge to help people understand what you were trying to do. It lets them know a little bit about what you were thinking.”
The studio instruction features a rotation of media, with each medium getting six to eight weeks of attention. Oil painting, watercolor, acrylic, drawing, pastel, and mixed media each get a turn. “I have designed it so they get a chance to taste everything,” says Shanika. “The focus is on landscape oils because that’s what I know the best. Students do at least two pieces in each rotation.” Shanika has been teaching high schoolers for about 10 years, and he loves it. “It’s the best part of my week,” he says.
Shanika attends every Dubois workshop and every TexArt workshop that SKB holds. “I’ve pulled valuable information and ideas on instruction from SKB,” he says. “I use things I’ve heard from Mort Sohlberg, David Rankin, Laurin McCracken—I try to pass on what I’ve learned. This is my in-service teacher training week. That’s what’s valuable about SKB, the passing on of information.”
Brady will be at the Dubois workshop in September, along with Hodgkinson and Andy Wei, the 18-year-old who dazzled SKBers at last year’s workshop. Shanika is excited that Brady will get the opportunity. “Jared is not shy, but he is quiet and reserved,” says Shanika. “He’s a sponge. He’s going to pick up this stuff so fast.”
Until September, Shanika will be concentrating on a new batch of wunderkinds, and he assures us that the next group may be the strongest yet. They will be challenging the sharpest kids in the public school system next year for the awards and accolades. Shanika is up for the challenge.
“They have lots of resources, so I like to beat them,” he says with a grin. “It’s all good natured and it’s very positive, but the bar keeps rising, especially when my kids start winning. Because we are the little guys.” Ω