Tara Hufford Walker has a saying: “It’s all about the art.” That mantra has guided her through 35 years of teaching. An artist first, she has always aimed to imbue a sense of uniqueness in her students’ creative pursuits. As her teaching career comes to an end, Walker has invited her former students to exhibit their own works in a collective show for Final Friday. Her retirement party at the Go Away Garage on Commerce Street is a celebration both of her classroom tenure and the talent she has inspired.
“When I love something so much, I want to tell everyone about it all the time and push it to them…that’s why I knew teaching would be a good profession,” Walker said. “There’s a great quote attributed to Picasso that says ‘The meaning of life is to find your gift. The purpose of life is to give it away.’ I always think about that quote because it’s got such awesome meaning. That’s what teaching is about; or at least it should be.”
Walker, who has been an art teacher with USD 259 for 23 years, said she’s always wanted to retire while still relatively young and healthy so that she could focus on creating her own art full time. She got the idea for the show last summer, when she knew this would be her last year teaching. She keeps in touch with several of her former students and invited them to take part in the show. At least 47 will exhibit, each bringing one piece. Walker will also have a new work of her own. Some of her past students have begun their own creative ventures such as starting clothing companies or working for high-end designers. Others are regular exhibitors around town. Many are professionals in non-art related fields, but continue to paint, make pottery or draw.
“Rather than have a party, I wanted to bring back other students that I’m still in contact with and who are out there doing art. I want to promote them,” she said. “This event is not just about me. It’s about the future and what’s next. It’s not my show, it’s our show – other artists sharing their talents that I have a connection to.”
Walker has worked with preschool children at the Wichita Art Association, as an elementary school teacher in Andover, at Marshall Middle School in Wichita, and most recently at Wichita North High, where she has taught for the past 13 years. Last week was her last as a teacher there.
“Tara Walker has inspired me in many ways,” said Ashley Ofuokwu, a former student of hers who graduated from North in 2006. “She encouraged me to challenge myself when it came to my artwork and not to focus on what other people’s artwork looked like, but rather to create my own masterpiece. I found my comfort when I would exchange my lunch break to do art in Mrs. Walker’s classroom. She welcomed students to create on their lunch breaks, not knowing that some of the students just needed an escape from the high school environment. A hand full of us students would gather around, eat lunch, laugh and create art.”
Kacy Crider, who was a student of Walker’s from 2005-08, said that Walker’s classroom direction helped hone her own creativity. This will be the second time she’s taken part in a Final Friday exhibit curated by Walker. She’ll be displaying a series of black and white photographs called “Hot Tea Girl Party.”
“Mrs. Walker validated my identity as an artist and was an open and available resource for additional support whenever needed,” Crider said. “She also hired me for one of my first photography gigs. She was constantly supportive and positive. She taught me that negativity invalidates creativity.”
Walker said she’s most excited about the collaboration. She’s looking forward to being able to share with the community the depth of her former students’ talents.
“Everyone has something in them,” Walker said, in reflecting on what her students have taught her. “There’s so much talent and creativity. Seeing that talent makes me want to get out there and do my own thing even more. Every part of our lives are touched somehow by artists – from buying cereal at the grocery store, to going to the museum, to buying clothes. That’s all art. The people who make that, they had an art teacher at some point who helped push them along, inspired them, and supported them creatively.”