May 11, 2015 | Phil de Haan

During her 14-year tenure at Calvin, Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk has demonstrated a commitment to her classroom and her students.

When Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk was a 1970s high school student growing up in Ontario, the daughter of a pair of Dutch immigrants, she often felt like a stranger in a strange land.

“High school,” the Calvin art education professor says now, “was pretty awful.”

But she found sanctuary during those years in the kindness of a teacher, Fred Riemersma, a Calvin grad teaching in the public school system, who allowed her to carve out a space in a small area off his classroom where she could do her art.

A decade later at Calvin College, where she came to study after working for seven years at her dad’s insurance agency, another art teacher, Calvin’s Helen Bonzelaar, also made safe space for the older-than-average student who said she often felt more than a little out of place among what was then a pretty traditionally aged Calvin student body.

Perhaps it’s no surprise then that Van Reeuwyk’s latest project is an investigation of how teachers across the continent turn their classrooms into what she calls “sacred space.”

Nor is it a surprise that her own teaching at Calvin during her 14-year tenure has been marked not just by top-notch teaching, but also by first-class hospitality, the creation of sacred space in her own classrooms and studio for the students who someday will go on to become art teachers around the world.

For all of this and more, Van Reeuwyk is the 2015 recipient of Calvin’s highest teaching honor, the Presidential Award for Exemplary Teaching.

The award was established in 1993 (the first honoree was English professor Ken Kuiper) and includes a one-of-a-kind medallion and a financial stipend from the George B. and Margaret K. Tinholt Endowment Fund, established at Calvin by a donor in honor of George Tinholt, a former member of the Calvin board of trustees.

More importantly the award is testimony, said Calvin provost Cheryl Brandsen, to the fact that the heart of a Christian liberal arts college is the teaching by its faculty, who embody the goals of forming a Christian mind and shaping students’ lives.

“Award recipients not only have exceptional teaching skills, they also consistently influence the lives and careers of Calvin College students in lifelong Christian ways,” Brandsen said.

Commitment to students

Those criteria fit Van Reeuwyk to a T, as evidenced by the words of those who wrote letters of support for her nomination.

“At every turn I’ve been impressed by her commitment to her students,” wrote art and art history department colleague Craig Hanson. “In the midst of doing everything else, she manages to make her students an absolute priority.”

Another art and art history department colleague, Elizabeth Van Arragon, wrote that Van Reeuwyk has shaped an art education program that enables students to learn to find their voices as artists and teachers.

She added: “Jo-Ann’s own work demonstrates a quality that is expressed in her teaching: a sense of wonder at the unique surprising character of God’s creation.”

And education professor Debra Buursma, who has been working with Van Reeuwyk for almost five years on the sacred space project, wrote: “Jo-Ann understands and believes in the power a teacher holds through words, images and actions to heal or hurt. She cares for all living things small and great. She holds deep respect for people. And she automatically weaves in a mentoring aspect within the relationships she develops.”

Such praise from colleagues, and the award itself, are humbling and make Van Reeuwyk a little sheepish.

But the Calvin award is also not the only time others have recognized Van Reeuwyk’s talents as a teacher. In 1998, while still a high school teacher in Seattle, she received the State of Washington Teacher of the Year Award as well as an award for committee work at the national level. And in 2007, while at Calvin, she was honored with an Award of Distinguished Service from the Michigan Art Education Association. 

A lifelong pursuit

While she appreciates such external recognition, she’s not one to rest on her laurels. Teaching for Van Reeuwyk is a lifelong pursuit, a craft, and she continues to work both at great teaching and at creating classrooms that are places of both sanctuary and risk taking.

“Teaching continues to be my reason for being, and to be able to teach in a Christ-infused, Reformed setting is truly exciting,” she said.

Teaching, she said, is miraculous, noting that Albert Einstein once opined that one could either live life as though nothing is a miracle or as though everything is.

She has chosen the latter and consequently, she said, the profession of teaching daily brings her in touch with miracles.

Beyond that she has tried, as a Christ-follower, to open the possibility of a life filled with miracles to her students.  

“I delight in the fact that many of them will go on to have their own classrooms, where they in turn may open up such a world to their students,” she said.

Former students present evidence that her approach is working.

Emily Derusha graduated in 2009 and now works as a west Michigan art educator. She wrote: “Jo-Ann does not simply help her students choose a class or job, but instead leads them to seek their professional passion. (In the classroom) she facilitated an environment that encouraged communication and cooperative learning.”

And Grace Ghent, a 2012 graduate and Minnesota art educator, wrote: “Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk became a mentor, my favorite professor and a friend. She told me I could succeed, and she helped me excel as a young woman pursuing (and now fulfilling) my God-given vocation of art education.”

Creating sanctuary

Those comments warm Van Reeuwyk’s heart, especially the notions in her former students’ words about classroom as sanctuary.

“Sanctuary has been a developing concept for me,” she said. “The first time I stepped into a cathedral, I got an inkling of what such a space means in terms of personal emotion, physical presence, deep meaning and ultimately theology.”

Her latest project is an extension of that sanctuary concept from the cathedral to the classroom as she visits schools around the continent and in Indonesia, interviewing good teachers who make their classrooms a different kind of space for their students, a sacred space. The work, conducted with education colleague Buursma, is nearing completion with a special fall edition of Christian Educators Journal in the works to detail the pair’s findings.

The return to high school and junior high hallways has been a comfortable one for Van Reeuwyk, who has actually spent more time in those contexts than in higher education.

In fact from 1983–2001 she was an art instructor first at Abbotsford Christian in British Columbia and then at King’s Junior High and King’s Senior High in Seattle, before being recruited to join the Calvin faculty.

And before any of that, after high school and before college, she spent seven years as an administrator at Van Reeuwyk Insurance, the agency begun by her father after their 1950s immigration from the Netherlands to Canada.

She said those seven years taught her that she really wanted to be a teacher, but that they also were invaluable to who she is today as a teacher and administrator, especially to her work as the chair of the art and art history department for the past six years.

“I learned recordkeeping and I learned how to manage groups of people,” she said. “Those two things alone have benefitted me my entire career, as a teacher, but also in my work as department chair.”

It has been through that work as chair that Van Reeuwyk also turned into community organizer and arts advocate within the Calvin campus community.

When Calvin budget-deficit discussions turned toward the arts, she took a leading role in spearheading conversations among the different departments on campus that had the most interest in the topic, including art, music, dance, film and theater.

“Being chair afforded me the opportunity to help kickstart an arts council for Calvin,” she said.

The council, she noted, has been active for more than a year, has worked with an outside evaluator from the University of Michigan to help the college set goals for the arts, and has piloted a program with the Calvin admissions department called the Artist Collaborative. This program consists of 25 to 30 incoming students who stay together as a Calvin cohort and participate in collaborative events and art experiences, as well as taking classes and interims together. 

Leadership in the arts

Students receive scholarships and stipends for the first two years of their college career, and currently the plan includes a 2016 interim to Indonesia, where students and faculty will study “Leadership in the Arts” in a society that Van Reeuwyk said is steeped in all aspects in the arts.

The interim won’t be the first time Van Reeuwyk has journeyed to Indonesia. She first went there in 2008 as part of a Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU) trip, sponsored in part by the Nagel Institute for the Study of World Christianity at Calvin.

In Indonesia the North American artists connected with leaders of the Asian Christian Artists Association (ACAA), founded in 1978, and for two weeks the group traveled around Indonesia, learning more about each other as artists and Christians.

And in the summer of 2013, Van Reeuwyk was part of another Nagel/CCCU event that saw a team of 10 North American and 10 Southern African artists gather around the theme of “R5” for the five critical issues with which South African artists struggle: remembrance (the intertwined and contested histories of varied people groups); resistance (the old, vivid and continuing tradition of prophetic artistry); reconciliation (persistent questions over how to justly reconcile aggrieved people); representation (in a post-colonial, multicultural society, who may represent whom?); and re-visioning (how does hope factor into artistic imagination?).

Her travels outside of North America have shaped her in profound ways and have left a lasting impression on her, emotionally, spiritually and physically. Since South Africa she carries with her a small, black stone.

“I’ve been prone to carry around stones for years,” she said, “but Desmond Tutu and his daughter (Mpho Tutu) in The Book of Forgiving suggest a number of exercises that asks one to carry a small stone that is intended to help reflection and perhaps even forgiveness. Now that I have met Desmond, I cannot separate my natural tendency to pick up a stone from the notion of utter forgiveness.”

Helping humans know

Those trips are in keeping with her strong conviction that the arts can help humans know and that artists have a responsibility to demonstrate and prove that truth.

“Apart from the mandate we as Christian artists and teachers have to reform and cultivate, we also have a responsibility to demonstrate how the visual field broadens horizons, deepens understanding and creates new ways of seeing and exploring,” she said. “In a real way, the arts do epistemological work; they help us know. And we are less than whole when we ignore the visual.”

Her own art, Van Reeuwyk said, has helped her know and, she hopes, provided knowledge for her students.

In just the last six years, she has had numerous solo exhibitions, including with the Arts Council of Greater Grand Rapids; has entered five pieces in the five years of ArtPrize; has been part of two traveling exhibitions that came out of her South Africa and Indonesia trips; and has participated four times in a national show sponsored by the National Basketry Organization.

“My pieces are essentially related to vessel making and containment,” she said. “They are also self-portraits or intimate portrayals of personalities I am contemplating and care deeply about. Just as our personalities are multidimensional, and just as we need to peel away layers to discover the true essence of someone or something, these pieces reflect complexity.”

Doing her own art in addition to teaching art is something she said she still needs for her own survival. But it’s also an important component in the whole of who she is as a teacher.

“As both teacher and artist, I understand my role to be model and mentor,” she said. “The best way I know how to equip the future successful and effective art teacher is to model though my own example the life of artist and teacher, each role nurturing the other.”

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