For most of the last 36 years, artist Debby Phillips has had as her proverbial canvas hundreds of Bright School students whom she has tried to make shine simply by encouraging them to express their art skills independently.
“What I teach children is to be natural explorers and inventors,” she said. “If you give them projects where they are able to make a lot of choices, that is very important.”
Recently, Ms. Phillips was the one who made a choice about art, and she has decided to retire from the independent elementary school in North Chattanooga where she has worked for parts of the last five decades.
Due to the fact that she has reached retirement age and wants to devote some time to her own art career -- and desires to spend more time with her four grandchildren in Pennsylvania and Las Vegas -- she decided to leave after the school year ended.
“I’ve been thinking about it for awhile,” she said. “I love the school and love the children, but I think I’ve been there long enough.”
Replacing her is Mrs. Thankful Davis, who has taught at Ivy Academy in Soddy-Daisy.
As Ms. Phillips looked back on her career recently while cleaning out the Bright art room – which looks like a piece of art itself with colorful supplies and samples of art work from students -- she said she found the dream job at Bright.
There, she simply wanted to replicate – at least in the enjoyment and opportunities to be creative – the excitement she enjoyed under her art teacher, a Ms. Natalie Cole, at Woodland Elementary in Oak Ridge, Tenn., back in the 1950s.
“That was the place I was looking for,” she said of Bright. “I wanted to teach elementary art and that was because of Ms. Cole. I wanted to be her.”
But before Ms. Phillips was hired at Bright in 1978 by then-headmistress Mary Ann Neale, she spent roughly 25 years developing her own art making and art teaching skills.
Her father, Milton Kaylor, was a high school principal and science teacher who moved with his wife, Eugenia – an English teacher, swimming instructor and violin and piano player – to Oak Ridge from Ms. Phillips’ native Missouri. There, he began working as a chemist.
Continuing to enjoy art under a man named Ira Grossman as she grew older, Ms. Phillips graduated from Oak Ridge High School in 1961.
She then enrolled at the then-University of Chattanooga. She had first visited Chattanooga on a bus traveling to see her Oak Ridge Wildcats play football here.
At UC, she developed her art skills under art department head George Cress, art education director Gail Hammond, and such other instructors as Tallie Johnson and Hubert Shuptrine.
As an indicator of how powerful the influence of art could be on elementary age students, Ms. Phillips said she, older sister Pat K. Gay, and younger brother Philip Kaylor all majored in art in college because of Ms. Cole at Woodland Elementary. Ms. Phillips was the only one who taught art, but all three became painters.
After Ms. Phillips married the late Jay Phillips, an industrial engineer/contractor, and began raising sons Sam and Hal, she decided to try to find some part-time teaching positions. The reason was to allow for flexibility regarding her parenting and own art career.
As a result, she taught some at Thrasher and Signal Mountain Elementary Schools, Signal Mountain Presbyterian Church, the Hunter Museum of Art, the downtown YMCA, and Girls Preparatory School.
“During that time my car trunk was my art supply cabinet,” she said with a laugh.
Also, at the urging of then-GPS headmaster Nat Hughes, she began directing in 1974 a GPS summer program, a job she continued for eight more years after starting at Bright.
She also eventually found a fulltime job as an art teacher at East Lake Junior High, seeing her students design and decorate the winning float at the Armed Forces Parade.
She also continued to develop her own skills as an artist in a variety of media, and that along with the variety of teaching experiences had her ready for the Bright job when she learned from art-teaching friend Betty Thomas at GPS about the opening.
“I walked into that school and thought this is what I’ve been working toward,” she said about coming to the school.
In contrast to Bright’s manual training class that has seen multiple generations of students make many of the same wooden items – such as the Santa Clauses -- she had no specific instructions other than to teach the students general art skills.
And this was despite the fact that she was replacing a respected Bright veteran, Elizabeth Jackson, who had started teaching at the school beginning in the early 1950s when it was still in Fort Wood.
Ms. Phillips said she never knew Mrs. Jackson other than meeting her during a brief friendly conversation when Mrs. Jackson came back to the school to be recognized after her retirement.
One suggestion Ms. Phillips made to the school before being hired was not to have to give students grades for their work, as she found that cumbersome and distracting for the students while at East Lake.
“They let me develop the curriculum and I didn’t have to grade,” she said.
Among the basic areas of art development she taught the students from pre-kindergarten through fifth grade were tempera and water-color painting, primary color mixing for various compositions, clay sculpture and pottery, paper sculpture, and still life, cartoon, architectural and figure drawing.
Her basic class routine, she said, was to give the students a little background like art history, briefly demonstrate for them, and then allow them to explore on their own.
“Exploring, changing and layering continued to be the foundation of making art at all levels,” she said. “The art projects advanced with process, skill and student interest level.”
Although she did not have to give grades to the students, the entire Bright community over the years has had an unofficial opportunity to give an approval of the students’ work. The reason is that Ms. Phillips has often gladly displayed the projects over the years not only in different corners of the school, but also in hallways a good distance away.
Among the places have been the downtown Chattanooga Public Library, where the American Tall Tales mural has been displayed, and the North Market Street Post Office branch, where a mural of the Frazier Avenue area was done.
At Bright, she has also let her students develop a special installation art area in the small hallway leading from her class to the 1970s-era gymnasium. As a result, what was once a simple hallway that everybody passes through regularly became a fantasyland of everything from Vincent Van Gogh’s bedroom to a “machine city.”
Ms. Phillips said she developed the idea for the installation art area more fully after taking a sabbatical during the 1986-87 school year to complete a master’s degree in art at New York University after already taking a few classes at UTC.
Just as she has tried to encourage her students to do, her time in New York was one of much personal exploration, she said.
Not only did she have to visit numerous New York art galleries to participate in the discussions that would begin her art classes each week, but she also learned under a number of accomplished artists. They included simultaneous color intaglio printmaker Krishna Reddy, abstract artist Marsha Hafif, and photographer Jerry Pryor.
While she was away that year, Elizabeth Worthington filled in for her at Bright, she said. That was also the year her classroom was extended to the window side a few feet during a remodeling.
But at Ms. Phillips’ wishes, in part because the students enjoyed working with the chalk, the old early 1960s-era green chalkboard was kept over the years, and it is the only one remaining in the school. The original sink and wooden cabinets are also still in place.
Also consistently familiar is the aesthetically pleasing wooded area seen from the art classroom window -- even though it has changed slightly as it has matured into a small mini-forest from the barren slope when the school was constructed. Ms. Phillips’ said that the graduating students’ final project has been to do an impressionist-style painting of the wooded area.
And Ms. Phillips has also been a familiar face at the school since 1978, the longest tenure of any current faculty member. Shop teacher John Allen, who had been at the school since 1987, had announced his retirement this year as well, but before the school year ended.
After learning of Ms. Phillips’ planned retirement, Bright headmaster O.J. Morgan sent out an email to alumni and patrons praising her and pointing out the excitement about art – and life -- she has instilled in her students.
“She has given students the confidence to trust their personal interpretations of life, affirming the worth of every child’s imagination,” he said.
Ms. Phillips – who has also been the artist as well as the teacher at Bright over the years helping with stage designs and a now-covered painted map of the United States -- said she certainly leaves with mixed emotions.
“I’ll miss my friends there, my wonderful faculty friends, and I’ll certainly miss the children,” she said. “The administration has been fabulous, and the parents are so supportive.”
But most of all, she said, she has enjoyed the students, and seeing the satisfaction of daily completing her abstract art concept of letting the students come up with their own ideas after giving them some introductory background and guidance.
“When you have nine or 10 students just waiting to do something and you’ve got a plan for them and know that they are going to like it, that’s pretty exciting,” she said. “It’s been a great place to teach and I’ve learned a lot.”
To hear an audio interview of Debby Phillips talking about her experiences teaching at Bright School, click here.
To hear an audio interview of Ms. Phillips discussing how she became interested in art, click here.