Tom Roberts was teaching art at R.B. Russell High School in the 1990s when he inspired a generation of students to cover the North End with enormous aboriginal murals.
Ann Rallison was bouncing back and forth between England and Canada around the same time, when she found herself gaping at the huge, sunlit art room at Sister MacNamara School -- and told principal Jack Solomon that he needed her to teach art.
The two have been named Canada's two top art teachers by the Canadian Society for Education through Art, the first time that the elementary and high school outstanding art teachers have both come from Manitoba.
Roberts is now at Dakota Collegiate in Louis Riel School Division, while Rallison shares her time between Laura Secord School and Machray School in Winnipeg School Division.
Of course, what artist or art teacher was ever a superstar as a rookie? Both Roberts and Rallison struggled, maybe not starving in a loft in an abandoned warehouse, but facing frustration and a lack of public huzzahs as they ventured into teaching kids about art.
"I started in 1986. I was 33, I was going to be a prof," said Roberts, who applied to 117 art schools without finding a job.
Trying out various faculties, he finally wandered into education: "Birds were chirping, skies had opened up," he said with a laugh. "My first job was teaching five-and-six-year-olds at the art gallery Saturday morning."
He landed a job at St. James-Assiniboia School Division, half-time art, half-time Grade 9 math. "I got a job in St. James in a division which was not supportive of art," he recalled. "I said 'it's crap.' I hated it."
Then he got the job offer at R.B. Russell, and stayed for 12 years, teaching a bunch of aboriginal teens and young adults whose school was often besmirched because of the neighbourhood's poverty and violence.
Those students eventually painted 40 huge murals, earning $1,000 apiece from Take Pride Winnipeg. Better yet, they graduated and got jobs.
Rallison, who grew up all over the United Kingdom as "a navy brat," began teaching near Portsmouth during the Falklands War in 1982. She was a general classroom teacher with little opportunity to use her specialized training.
"I taught a lot of navy kids," she said. Whenever a ship approached, "they'd go running down to the beach to see if they could see their daddy."
Later came a teacher exchange to Manitoba.
"I was assigned to a Hutterite colony. I was told it was a little village outside the city."
Rallison eventually found herself in Sister Mac. "I walked into this huge art room" with windows facing south to welcome the sun. "It was great, it was fantastic."
They've loved every moment in their classrooms, but they despair over art education in the public schools.
"There's always cutbacks," Roberts said. "After the librarian is cut, the art teacher gets cut."
"I don't understand why schools don't promote the arts," Rallison said. Students who are encouraged to be divergent thinkers and problem-solvers do far better in life.
Said Roberts: "Sam Katz is always talking about crime in the inner city. If they're going to be engaged in art and music and sports, they won't be in gangs."
And don't get them going on art suppliers or art classrooms.
"We have a $25 art fee," said Roberts. "By the third week, I stop asking" because some kids can't or won't pay.
Winnipeg School Division doesn't charge for supplies, said Rallison, but there's no point in going cheap on supplies. If a teacher says, "'I got this at the dollar store,' you might as well chuck it out. If you want good art, you need good materials," Rallison said.
A good art classroom should be double-sized with at least one sink and lots of light, they said.
Her classroom at Machray has no windows, said Rallison, and at Laura Secord, "They want an art program, but there's no space. All the materials are stored in the basement in a space I call the art dungeon," she said.
"I love my job, I love the kids -- it's the politics, it's the lack of space," said Rallison.
Art in Manitoba schools
THE Manitoba curriculum does not specify any art courses for students, said Aileen Najduch, assistant deputy minister for school programs: "We do mandate arts, but we don't specify whether it's art, music, drama or dance."
The arts are 10 per cent of class time in kindergarten through Grade 6, eight per cent of class time in grades 7 and 8, and entirely optional in high school.
For grades 7 to 12, new schools can have a specific art room, while in K-6, "Art classes are taught in a room with a sink," often a multipurpose room, said Najduch.
An art space can range from a minimum of 1,000 square feet to 1,600 square feet.
The most recent report on teaching the arts in Manitoba schools was in 2006. You can read it at: