Mary Sue Foster’s office in the north wing of Wichita State University’s McKnight Art Center is full of stories.
The walls are lined with trinkets from decades of learning – a Japanese straw raincoat looks equally at home next to national awards celebrating her as a most outstanding art educator.
Her work experience is limited to about four separate gigs – a 51-year teaching career at Wichita State University, then a variety of jobs from her early 20s, including a summer spent as “crafts counselor” for a girls’ summer camp in Michigan.
Foster, 77, is retiring at the end of the month after a half-century-long career in the Wichita State Art Education Program.
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More than 90 percent of graduates from her program find immediate full-time employment after graduation, according to WSU’s School of Art, Design and Creative Industries – largely a byproduct of Foster’s development of the program.
“Wichita has art teachers because Mary Sue has trained them for the last 30 years,” said Teresa Covacevich Grana, an art historian and friend of Foster’s.
‘I could do it too’
Foster said she knew she wanted to be an art teacher since she was 16 years old.
But unlike many teenage aspirations, which fluctuate in the years following, Foster never wavered in her commitment to art education.
“I had an aunt who told me I was an artist and all that ... and I remembered thinking I could do this,” Foster said. “When I was in high school at Shawnee Mission, (my art teacher) was in his first year of teaching and probably was experiencing first-year challenges.
“I thought he was making it look like I could do it too,” she said with a laugh.
Foster graduated from the University of Kansas with a bachelor’s degree in art education in 1961, then immediately started studying for her master’s degree, which she obtained in 1963.
She spent a few years as an art teacher in DeSoto, then got an offer from Wichita State University.
She said she “had no idea” she would ever be an art professor at a university, let alone have that career for five decades.
Early on in her career at Wichita State, graduates would have a difficult time finding employment, Foster said.
Now, though, “if they make it through their senior year, they’ve got a job,” she said.
“There were 14 vacant positions in art last August in Wichita,” she said. “We’re not producing enough art teachers, that’s for sure. Already I’ve gotten phone calls – Augusta wants one, Pratt wants one, but all of my students have already signed contracts. And it’s just the beginning of May.”
Bethany Janssen is the visual arts curriculum coach for USD 259 – overseeing professional development for Wichita’s public-school art teachers. She’s also a former student of Foster’s at Wichita State.
She said “probably upwards of 80 percent” of the district’s 110 art teachers are products of Foster’s.
“The students trained at WSU are very well-equipped to work in Wichita public schools in particular – she does a great job of making sure the students are ready to work in an urban setting,” Janssen said. “She knows everyone. She knows what’s going on in the schools and has a great knack for connecting people to help further their career in art education.”
Makenzie Reichenberger, a 2016 WSU graduate, is about to finish her first year as Cloud Elementary’s art teacher, only the second in the school’s history. The previous teacher, who retired last year after 37 years at the school, was also a product of Foster’s, she said.
“She helped the other lady get this job, and she helped me get this job,” Reichenberger said. “It’s cool to see all age ranges say, ‘Oh, I know her, she was my adviser.’ It’s like a big family.”
Jeff Pulaski, interim director of WSU’s School of Art, Design and Creative Industries, said the university’s strong program “is the direct result of Mary Sue’s influence.”
“As we’ve gone through funding issues for the arts over the years, Mary Sue has done a remarkable job of keeping her program focused on what art teachers need to know and helping those teachers to foster creativity in young kids,” Pulaski said. “Her efforts to keep this program going, to grow it and teach people how to pull creativity out of kids is incredibly important for Wichita and our society.”
But Foster’s achievements go beyond the classroom.
One of her greatest accomplishments, she said, was an exhibition she helped curate in 1974, showcasing women artists.
The exhibition, which featured works by 40 women artists, opened at Century II and traveled to three other Kansas towns afterward, Foster said.
“We decided women artists needed to be promoted, so we put a women’s exhibit on,” Foster said. “We had a traveling exhibit of women artists in 1974, and you just cannot imagine how much of a difference that makes.”
Foster has also been a champion of Sue Jean Covacevich, a pioneering Kansas woman artist whose work went largely unheralded during a time when women artists were not given gallery space or much respect, she said.
Foster has traveled internationally, often bringing back items or techniques to augment her own teaching materials – children’s art books from Japan, weaving and textile techniques from Ghana, Turkey and Japan.
Foster plans on holding a garage sale of sorts to get her massive library of books and supplies into the hands of working art teachers, she said.
She said her “biggest fear is being bored,” so she plans to keep busy after retirement.
An artist herself, Foster works primarily with textiles. She said she’s looking forward to working in her studio and making more textile work after retirement.
“I’m looking forward to having some fun,” she said.