Unsung Heroes: A passion for teaching art

Artist Valerie Wrage always found school a challenge, which is one of the reasons this long-time classroom volunteer relates so well to the students she teaches at Shell Beach Elementary School.

“When I see a kid who is challenged at school, I can just keep pushing him along and keep guiding him, and seeing his potential. It gives me hope,” she said.

Eight years ago, the Pismo Beach resident began volunteering to teach her son’s art class at Shell Beach Elementary School. She discovered a passion that doesn’t show signs of fading.

“They’ll be pushing me out in a wheelchair,” said Wrage, who at a youthful 50 continues to give her time to two sixth grade classes every Friday.

Wrage understands that art does not come easily to every student, so she emphasizes personality and effort.

“Put you in that picture,” she urges her students.

A recent class was dedicated to Ming Ming, a new student from China who has yet to learn English. To make her “feel at home,” the class made watercolors of tall mountains in China, emphasizing layering of shapes to create perspective. The students used supplies donated by Wrage, teachers, and other parents.

Wrage studied art at UCSB and gives private art lessons, and does not shy away from teaching complicated topics like perspective, color mixing, or the math in Kandinsky paintings. The trick, she told The Tribune, is to break it down.

“It’s like going to A.A.,” she said. “One step at a time.”

“It feels like they’re getting quality learning,” said teacher Steve Kukovich, who acknowledges that without Wrage the sixth grade art curriculum would suffer.

Wrage said she hardly hears words of discouragement from the students these days, who have designed their own signatures to personalize every work, and who enthusiastically parade their finished watercolors in front of the class. “It’s amazing,” she said, “to see the kids at the beginning of the year who don’t appreciate art — and at the end, they love it.”

Nolan Elias, 11, said he likes Wrage’s class because “We don’t have a command that ‘You have to do it like this.’ She wants you to have your own expression and she’s really nice and funny.”

As Christiana Gross, 11, put the finishing touches on an impressive, whimsical landscape, she confidently stated: “I am going to paint these mountains blue, and there’s no such thing as blue mountains.”

While Wrage admits she’s dreamed of pursuing a degree in art therapy, her infectious enthusiasm has already empowered hundreds of students to follow their personal visions. The impact of this teaching is immeasurable, and for that we honor Valerie Wrage as an unsung hero.