Art teacher wins MEA-MAEA Exhibition with self portrait

By Brenda Ortega
MEA Voice Editor

“Grow Where Planted,” a self-portrait in colored pencil by MEA member Amber Thompson, won Best in Show in the 60th Annual MEA-MAEA Art Acquisition Purchase Exhibition. Thompson is an art teacher in Genesee County’s LakeVille Community Schools.

The self-portrait in colored-pencil that MEA member Amber Thompson entered into this year’s 60th Annual MEA-MAEA Art Purchase Exhibition had very special meaning to her, but she didn’t expect it to win Best in Show.

News that her piece, “Grow Where Planted,” was selected for the exhibition’s top prize left the Otisville middle and high school art teacher speechless, she said.

“When I got the email, I was shocked,” Thompson said. “My family was with me, and they thought something was wrong because I couldn’t speak for a bit. I just felt very thankful that it kind of confirmed my work and that I really am able to do this.”

A graduate of Lapeer Community Schools, Thompson holds a bachelor’s degree from Kendall College of Art and Design, but “I think all artists have a little bit of imposter syndrome,” she said.

She always loved drawing and art class, but 11 years into a teaching career she had strayed from producing much of her own work until recently – beyond examples for lessons to share with students – because of classroom demands.

“You just get so busy that you don’t do a lot for yourself, especially those first few years,” Thompson said. “As I’ve grown into teaching, I wanted to show my students that I’m a teacher and I’m also a specialist in this work outside of school, and you can make a career out of this.”

She became an educator because art teachers in her youth encouraged her development, helped her discover who she was, and reached out when she needed connection.

“I still remember once when my eighth-grade art teacher knew I was going through a hard time with something going on in my family, and she stuck a little card in my backpack when I wasn’t looking. It’s those personal connections you develop with teachers that get to see another side of you.”

Pencil-drawn portraiture is her specialty, and she produced the winning artwork with inspiration from life events. She began working on the image of herself after receiving the emotional news that her husband – a career U.S. Marine – was being reposted later this year.

“I’m a military spouse, so my husband’s career dictates where we live and I wanted to create a piece to show where my mind was at that time,” she said. “We are going to be moving fairly soon again.”

Her husband’s career has taken them to North Carolina, California and Michigan – and next, their family of four will locate to Hawaii. In the art piece, Thompson framed her contemplative face with flowers native to the places they’ve already lived.

“I was surrounding myself with that idea of ‘grow where you’re planted,’ thinking how I might not be somewhere for a very long time – it’s usually four- to five-year periods – but I can make the best out of the time that I’m somewhere: creating a home, working on my career, building friendships.”

The 2024 AAC: Nancy Sly, Angela Chen, Jo Ellis (retiree liaison), Mary Owens (MAEA liaison), Christine Lakatos, Dan Slagter (co-chair), Heidi Posh (co-chair) and Erin Worden. Not pictured: Rebbecca Ernst (MEA liaison), Dawn Pierz, Shaun Bangert and Kathleen Kubczak (higher education liaison)

She’s proudest of how the flowers turned out in the drawing, she said: “Those took a long time to do.”

Thompson recently completed her fourth year of teaching beginning to advanced general art, ceramics and art history at Genesee County’s LakeVille Community Schools – mostly at the high school level. It wasn’t easy saying goodbye.

“It was difficult to break the news to my students—I’ve had many of them in class for several years now, and I will definitely miss them.”

She doesn’t see herself ever leaving the classroom to pursue a full-time career as an artist, she said: “Teaching is where my heart is.”

That feeling came clear when she saw a work of art displayed at the MEA-MAEA exhibition and noticed it was created by a beloved elementary art teacher of hers from Lapeer. “I said, ‘Oh my goodness—it’s Mrs. Fernandez!’ That was a full-circle moment for me.”

This year’s juried exhibition featured a streamlined digital submission process which drew a record 108 entries and 85 pieces accepted into the show, said MEA members Dan Slagter and Heidi Posh, who co-chaired the Art Acquisitions Committee.

“We tried to ensure that as many members as possible were represented from all over Michigan,” said Slagter, a Grand Rapids art teacher. “The pieces represent many, many, many, many different artistic media, probably the most representative of any show within memory.”

“For the first time, we had to have a back-up plan to expand the space at MEA Headquarters where we displayed all of the additional artwork,” added Posh, a Livonia art teacher.

The exhibition continues at MEA Headquarters in East Lansing through June 14th, or you can view accepted entries and various award winners in this digital gallery.

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