Ask Justin Paxton how to succeed with his art students at Cape Hatteras Middle and Secondary schools, and he has a short list. Number one: “Make kids feel welcome.” This allows students to feel safe enough to expose the inner self where art originates.

“They are very stressed throughout the day with English and other classes,” Paxton said. “I’m not gonna make a Leonardo, I just want them to have an open mind, and think outside the box.”

The 2020 Teacher of the Year at Cape Hatteras Secondary School and for Dare County says it’s all about “being yourself.” This concept hearkens back to a national study that was published in 2002 called Champions of Change: The Impacts of The Arts on Learning. The study revealed the many advantages to offering the arts in public schools, including connecting students to others and building self-esteem.

Paxton provides the environment for all this to happen. The 31-year-old Frisco artist abandons hierarchy to better engage the students. “I don’t sit anymore at my desk,” he said. “I am walking and sitting at their desks.” He teaches that art is about learning to adapt to what is on the paper or canvas, or as Champions of Change found, learning to make decisions.

As students relax and open their minds, an outpouring of self-expression occurs, for acceptance allows them to be fearless. Images from a realistic mallard to an abstracted clown with a geometric background have blossomed from his students. The mallard painting went on to win an award at the recent Waterfowl Festival on Hatteras Island.

Paxton even dissolved the classroom walls and took his students outdoors and into businesses to paint murals. He was excited by a student trip to Spain and France where they were exposed to murals. “I came back inspired,” he said. “The pop, the color, the openness.”

A community board gave him permission to approach businesses about doing murals throughout the island. It wasn’t for pay, but donations toward paint were accepted. At first, he did multiple murals alone, then invited his students to join him. In all, there are 13 murals with more than half being collaborative efforts. A marlin chases baitfish on the wall outside the Village Red & White Market in Hatteras Village. A scene of a charter boat catching marlin graces Jeffrey’s Seafood down by the docks.

“What they get out of it is a feeling of belonging,” Paxton said. “I get a lot of kids who don’t know how to paint and draw.” But they want to help, he said, so he guides them to fill in predetermined areas with color.

Students even play a role in the art Paxton creates. He’s gotten into painting pet portraits. Some of his students have supplied him with photographs of their animals. Using mural spray paint, which he encourages the kids to use for backgrounds, and acrylic paint, he renders expressive images of dogs and cats that he calls Pop Expressionism. “Because I use a lot of pop color for these,” said Paxton, a fan of painting with opposite or complementary colors such as blue and orange, red and green, or purple and yellow.

The owner of two dogs, Emmet and Abner, Paxton has an affinity for animals. His wife, Alex, has a horse named Gus. “The reason for painting animals right now, we have a connection with animals more than anything else,” he said. Animals remind him to breathe and they bring joy and laughter into his life. “You get a flutter in your heart … . They look up to you and love you the way you are,” he said. Like Paxton with his students – he accepts them as is.

Paxton, a Norfolk native who spent summers on the Outer Banks as a youngster, brings to his craft a Bachelor of Fine Arts in metal design and a BFA in art education from East Carolina University. He started in the Cape Hatteras schools as a substitute teacher, moved on to be an assistant teacher, including working with special education students. He became the full-time art teacher in 2015.

While he is primarily a painter, he said metal design taught him to “marry your craft.”

“Work the hours, devote to it, and treat it like a job … and be proud,” he said. He remembers an art adviser asking him what he wanted to do with his art. Paxton responded, “I like helping people.” He had the opportunity to work with ECU art professor Cynthia Bickley-Green, who was working with children on the autism spectrum and with Angelman syndrome.

“She was studying these kids and what art would do for them,” he said. Would they improve or not? “And we did see a lot of improvement that year,” Paxton said. A young teenage girl, who had never spoken as much as a single letter, but could draw and point at letters, started drawing her family members and identifying colors.

“I don’t think I will ever forget her … what she did for me,” he said. “It enhanced my love for kids, no matter the difference. It really opened my mind. Art really opens that door every day.”

Mary Ellen Riddle has been writing the Coast’s art column for more than 20 years and brings to her work a BFA in painting from East Carolina University and a profound passion for the role the arts play in society.

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