44 Years Advocating for the Arts: Q&A with Dr. Karen Sangren

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“ … the arts have been an inseparable part of the human journey; indeed, we depend on the arts to carry us toward the fullness of our humanity. We value them for themselves, and because we do, we believe knowing and practicing them is fundamental to the healthy development of our [students’] minds and spirits. That is why, in any civilization — ours included — the arts are inseparable from the very meaning of the term ‘education.’”

— National Standards for Arts Education

Dr. Karen Sangren, chair of the Department of Art & Design, has served at PLNU since 1973. Over the years, she has been an influential leader in the art department and on university committees, and has worked to advocate for the learning of the arts among local and national school districts. We sat down with her to learn more about arts advocacy, her deep passion for art, and her constant work to make it accessible to countless children and students.

Q: What is being done to advocate for the arts, both nationally and locally?

A: Arts advocacy goes back a long way in American history. When reading, writing, and arithmetic were viewed as the most important subjects to learn in school, arts educators lobbied on behalf of the visual and performing arts. Over the decades, learning in the arts was often pushed to the edge of the school day. But there are current reversals of this, related in part to the national common core. Its curriculum encourages creative thinking and process learning in schools.

On a local level, San Diego Unified School District (SDUSD) has worked over the past year to develop the new Strategic Arts Education Plan to bring the arts back into schools and integrate them into the broader curriculum. In 2016, I was honored to participate with very talented, passionate SDUSD artists and teachers in strategic planning sessions. A plan was developed as part of the county’s Arts Empower Initiative, so that “… all students in San Diego County will receive a sequential, standards-based arts education that is rooted in all forms of the visual and performing arts.”

Q: Why are you passionate about advocating for the arts?

A: My kindergarten teacher commented on my report card, “Karen needs to develop interests in subjects other than art during work times.” If that teacher could have only known what God had in store for her young student’s life! I think of how many children may have had teachers who did not value the arts enough. Children of the past whose names were Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Julia Morgan, and I.M. Pei, along with many other artists and architects, grew up and changed history. All children need to have opportunities to grow in the arts from preschool forward. They may never become professional artists or designers, but the joy of creating, nurturing God-given gifts, and understanding the arts will enrich their entire lives.

Q: How have you been involved in arts advocacy over your 44-year career?

A: While many advocates become involved in local and state arts groups, my involvement came through promoting the visual arts on our own PLNU campus, teaching art in local schools as a volunteer (including eight years with homeless children), and serving with the California Commission on Teacher Credentialing (CCTC) to develop quality state standards for art teacher preparation. I was a member of the CCTC arts panel for 20 years, representing faith-based private colleges in California. The commitment we all had to ensure classroom teachers were prepared to teach discipline-based art in the schools was palpable. As part of the panel’s work, we served on assessment teams that visited university campuses statewide to make recommendations to the CCTC concerning the competencies of their art education programs.

Q: What overall impact have you witnessed?

A: A strong byproduct of the 2001 California Visual and Performing Arts Standards (VAPA) has been their influence on extended arts curricula in the public schools. Many of the teacher education students I’ve taught at PLNU have applied VAPA in local schools. These teachers found that children not only experienced the wonders of creating art, but were also exposed to broad-based art education. For example, an Emory Elementary School second grader was very excited when he learned about the Mona Lisa. When I came to visit his classroom, the little boy asked me if I had ever met da Vinci. I was impressed he knew who painted the iconic artwork!

Since fall 2004, more than 330 of my students have participated in our PLNU arts partnership with South Bay Union School District by teaching art at two elementary schools near the Mexico border. Their classrooms have been full of smiling, excited children making art together. Altogether, they have taught more than 9,000 children and made an enormous difference. Jil Palmer, former principal of SBUSD West View and Emory Elementary Schools, said of the partnership, “Over the course of the past 12 years, our future teachers from PLNU learned valuable lessons about teaching, while more than 9,000 SBUSD students were exposed to high-quality lessons around art and art history… I am also confident that for many students, it opened their eyes to a future filled with an appreciation for the arts or possibly even a career around the arts.”

Q: At what point did you first start working for PLNU’s art department?

A: I began my career working part time at PLNU in 1973, soon after graduating from Pasadena College (now PLNU) with my B.A. in art and just after the school moved to San Diego. I can easily remember the chapel service in Pasadena when I felt God calling me to a career in Christian higher education. Little did I know this call would lead to a 44-year career at my alma mater! After earning a master’s degree at San Diego State University and my Ph.D. in art education at the University of Oregon, I was ready for God’s work as a fledgling full-time faculty member and department chair in 1978. The department quadrupled in size over the years and has never had a stronger, more talented art and design faculty than now. Our alumni have attended highly respected graduate schools across the U.S. and moved into successful art-related careers. We are very proud of them!

Q: What has been your favorite part about teaching art, design, and art education?

A: “In the beginning God created …” As we create, we are more like our Creator. We are closer to His love, His heart, and His healing presence. The creative process can lead to a sense of well-being and provide the confidence to produce more. As I have worked with children, college art majors, and non-art majors, it has been remarkable to witness the satisfaction on students’ faces as they have surprised themselves with creating successful art projects. There has been a distinct shift in them, from fearing failure and thinking, “I’m not artistic,” to experiencing a sense of wonder at their creative abilities. It doesn’t get better than that for an art teacher!

Q: If you could leave readers with one thought about the creative arts, what would it be?

A: There is nothing quite like creating works of art, appreciating art forms, and understanding how the arts elevate the human experience. They ultimately ask the created to engage with their Creator. This takes courage, imagination, tenacity, skills, and the wonder of new ideas. These dynamics have been needed for my own work in clay and mixed media. Creativity has also been necessary in my work developing new department curricula, programs, and growth; fostering student curiosity and visual literacy about art history; and fueling a passion for the arts on local, state, and national levels. I have taught over 6,000 students at PLNU. They were the reason God called me to this work. I trust our grads love their Creator and the arts as much as I do, and they will continue to pass these gifts on to the next generation.

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