Mari Beth LaRose has a soft spot for teaching children. She’s been the art teacher at Manteo Elementary School (MES) for 15 years. “I just love the little ones,” LaRose says, citing the energetic and loving nature of children.

LaRose long has been involved in the Dare County art scene, teaching sip and dips at local restaurants, hosting private adult and kids’ paint parties and providing painting lessons for children at the Dare County Arts Council (DCAC) where she spends time not only as a paid employee but also as a volunteer.

While the DCAC kids — ages six and up — come together to paint from a prompt during the summer, they always are invited to think outside the box. “If they want to change the color of something or the shape of something, I encourage them to do so,” she says. Prompts can include painting a turtle one day, or a dolphin on another. The children are taught how to hold and clean a brush, and various techniques. It’s more than making pictures, though. “Art is expressive,” LaRose says. “It’s a way to relieve their stresses and anxieties. I want it to be a place where they feel good, relax, and have fun.”

They must be having fun because LaRose has a lot of repeat kids. In fact, she has helpers who started painting with her in kindergarten and now are in middle school. “They went to all my classes,” she says. “They are great. The little ones love the middle school aged kids.” Along with instruction comes food, drink and all their supplies with a slightly lower fee for arts council members than nonmembers.

LaRose comes to teaching with a BFA in art education from Virginia Commonwealth University. She’s an artist in her own right with watercolor her specialty. She uses her education and experience to help all her students have a positive experience. “They open up to you,” she says. “They share their feelings. It’s a lot of preparation and hard work, (but) it’s so rewarding.”

She is particularly excited about a new project she introduced to her fifth graders at MES. It’s called #obxsketchbook. Using a piece of 11”x 17” paper, the kids fold it multiple times to divide it into pages. The children design their cover, and LaRose gives them a suggested outline to use over the summer of things to draw in the sketchbook during the vacation. She wants them to hone their skills. “Drawing is like reading,” she tells her students. “The more you do it, the better you get.” She shared the idea with DCAC director, Chris Sawin. He saw its value and ordered a quantity of small sketchbooks that tourists could pick up at the arts council and use during their vacation time, as well. He’s promoting it to visitors and their families through rentals on the beach, LaRose says. She encourages the kids to post their sketches — with the permission of their parents, on Instagram at obxsketchbook. This way the kids can see each other’s work as can LaRose. She started the program at the end of May, and, so far, has 37 followers. Some of the drawings they have submitted are images of shells, rainbows and suns. If they are not old enough for an Instagram account and don’t have parental permission, they can e-mail the drawings to LaRose. She wants visitors to know that while they can buy the mini sketch books for a small fee at the arts council, they can submit drawings to Instagram on any kind of paper and share it.

Another favorite project La Rose was involved in was guiding students in collaborating on painting large wooden butterflies for the new butterfly garden at the Elizabethan Gardens. They were doing such a wonderful job, LaRose stood back to let the kids work out their paintings solo.

You’ve got to have that kind of instinct to be a good art teacher, as well as be creative. Creativity comes naturally to LaRose. Her father paints nature and wildlife acrylic paintings, and her grandfather was a furniture maker. Her family ran a motel business in Virginia Beach when she was growing up. Her grandfather made all the furniture for the motel, called Carriage Inn. LaRose says she’s always had the natural inclination to create. “It’s just a way to express myself and my feelings,” she says. “I would write, or I would draw, or I would paint.” Her goal this summer is to create a body of work to submit to the arts council in the fall for possible inclusion in their gallery.

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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