Molding Young Artisits

Award-winning Carver instructor Terry McDaniel draws out the talent of her students, many of whom have received national acclaim


A recent morning in Art Mom's classroom:

Eighteen sophomores at Carver Center for Arts and Technology sit in wooden chairs dabbed with paint. The chairs' high, straight backs are reminiscent of church pews. An assortment of objects is arranged on a low table covered with scarlet and royal blue cloth: A roller skate. A cookie tin and an empty wine bottle. Two metal letters, about a foot tall: an N and a backward E. A broken telephone. A tea kettle. A trumpet.

Dozens of long metal hooks hang from the ceiling. They're there to display student canvases. At least, that's the explanation that teacher Terry McDaniel has provided to Joe Freed, Carver's principal. But she tells the kids another story.

McDaniel twists her expressive face into a comic, mock-threatening leer and tells the class: "That's where I hang students who misbehave."

A few of the teens giggle. The cool ones just roll their eyes.

Because McDaniel has been teaching since 1978 (the past 12 years at Carver), there could be dozens, if not hundreds, of former students walking around with hook-sized indentations in their necks. But no one's complaining.

Since 1989, Art Mom, as the students have dubbed her, has had a remarkable string of success. At least 70 of her charges have won national awards in the visual arts. The most recent is Orpheus Collar, who last month was named one of the three best teenage painters in the U.S. by the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts.

One of McDaniel's former students has paintings at the Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art and the Museum of Modern Art, both in New York. Another has a successful career as a film animator for Disney. Twelve have been presidential scholars. The NFAA named McDaniel as its teacher of the year in 1998, and she has been selected as an outstanding teacher five times in Scholastic's Art & Writing Awards program.

Last year, the Advanced Placement College Board in Princeton, N.J., named Carver as having the best studio art program in the world among similar-sized high schools.

Who says creativity can't be taught? More to the point, how in the world does she do it?

Both McDaniel and principal Freed are quick to say that she isn't Carver's only star teacher -- or even Carver's only star visual arts teacher. Freed brags about all six members of his studio arts staff. "I don't think you can get a better education in the visual arts than you can at Carver," he says.

But watching McDaniel in action might provide a glimpse into traits shared by other inspired educators.

At 54, she has the look of one of the strong-featured, lush women from an Andrew Wyeth painting. It is easy to picture her head ringed in a wreath of flowers, her dark curls tumbling about her shoulders, in the style of Wyeth's favorite model, Helga Testorf.

McDaniel likes to remind her students to create "triangles of color," and on this morning, she has followed her own advice. She is dressed entirely in black, except for three spots of bright red. The eye is led naturally along a path formed by these spots, from her small, cowboy-booted feet to her fringed suede shirt to her crimson-lipsticked mouth. Adding to the visual interest, her lips are continually changing shape. As usual, McDaniel is talking. And as usual, she's praising one of her students.

As she examines a painting of a girl's living room, McDaniel gently points out that a plant is hanging in space in an unconvincing manner. Then she directs the student's attention to the shine on the wooden floor.

"I like how you dull the colors here and make it more intense there. And I love the way you're finding the gleam in that floor."

Former students say that McDaniel excels at helping students develop their own vision without foisting her preconceptions on them.

"She is an unknown Baltimore treasure," Matt Saunders, who studied with McDaniel from 1989 to 1993, writes in an e-mail.

"Very early on, she encouraged everyone to believe that they have their own personal investigation to carry out. If you slacked off, it was not so much a question of not doing your school work, as feeling like you had disappointed somebody who honestly wanted to know what you had to say."

Saunders, 31, studied with McDaniel at Towson High School, where she taught before coming to Carver. Based in Berlin, he has shown his work recently in Munich, Germany; Paris; Geneva; and New York. The Whitney and MOMA own his artworks.

McDaniel, who was raised in Indiana, initially trained as a painter; her specialty is landscapes. After graduating from Indiana University Bloomington, she took her first teaching job in 1978 at a small school in Charles County where the students were so poor and the culture of casual violence so pervasive that one boy's prize-winning artwork was shot off the wall by his two drunken brothers.

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