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Susan Metts is recognized for her approach for teaching art

Susan Metts enjoys making art and she enjoys working with and inspiring young people. So being an art teacher is a perfect job for her.

“I love interacting with kids,” Metts said. “I am still able to focus on art. I am able to teach them, and, hopefully, pass on a love of art.”

Her students at Kernersville Elementary School appreciate her approach to teaching and how encouraging she is.

“She inspires me to become an artist,” said fourth-grader Johnny Benitez.

“She lets us take time and she is really nice,” said fourth-grader Deisy Cruz-Martinez. “When I need help, she helps me. She is a very helpful teacher.”

Thanks to a scholarship that honors a long-time art educator, Metts is being given the opportunity to refresh herself as an artist this summer when she heads to Penland School of Crafts – which is north of Asheville – to take a painting workshop. The scholarship honors Tony Swider, who, during his 40 years with Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools, served as both an art teacher and as an arts administrator.

“When I found out that Susan had been chosen to receive the Tony Swider scholarship,” said Principal Shane O’Neal, “I was very happy for her and excited for Kernersville Elementary’s visual arts program. The award is very well-deserved and the experiences that she will have will benefit our students through her creative planning and instruction of student projects.”

Metts, who is a Nationally Board Certified Teacher, has been with the school system for going on 11 years. She joined the staff at Kernersville Elementary seven years ago after teaching art at Kimberley Park Elementary School for 3½ years.

In an art class for fourth-graders last week, Metts and the students opened class by exploring the history of pottery in North Carolina, focusing on “face jugs” made by African-American artists. In preparation for making their own face jugs, the students then drew different faces to see which face they might want to use for their jug.

Metts with all students Johnny Benitez Deisy Cruz-Martinez Keith Orta-Barrois Aaron Fruth Makaly Whitsett

“I want you to come up with four different faces,” Metts said. “Pick your favorite and put a check by it.”

As everyone worked on their drawings, some students took a break to talk about some of the things they appreciate about Metts.

Keith Orta-Barrois likes that Metts has them create many different kinds of art in class and that she treats them so well.

“She is kind,” Keith said.

“She has had a lot of experience in art,” said Aaron Fruth.

As for what she likes about Metts and about the class, Makayla Whitsett said, “Everything!”   

Metts, who graduated from Mount Tabor High School in 1989, has long loved the visual arts. While a student at Mount Tabor, she took advanced-placement art classes at the Career Center. “I definitely wanted to go into the arts,” she said.

When she headed off to Virginia Commonwealth University, she envisioned creating drawings by hand as an interior designer or architect. When she discovered that computer-aided design (CAD) was eliminating much of the hand drawing in such careers, she began to consider other possibilities. For a time, she shifted her focus to painting.

“When I went into painting, I didn’t have visions of becoming a teacher,” Metts said. “I was going to be famous and sell paintings in galleries.”

The painter at the top of her list of favorites is Henri Matisse, a French artist known for both his use of color and for fluid and original draftsmanship.

“He is my No. 1, all-time favorite artist because of the way his art changed over his lifetime,” Metts said.

She also likes Gustav Klimt, particularly his use of gold leaf.

Color is an important part of her art. Earlier in her career, she focused on still lifes. More recently, she has been painting buildings, often using a photograph as inspiration.

Metts found that painting is a good way for her to express feelings and to work out things going on in her life at the time. From looking at one of her paintings, she said, it might never occur to you that, for her, it expresses some her ideas about the issues that women face. For her, though, it’s there.

Metts took a while to complete her bachelor of fine arts (BFA) degree. After the married, she left Virginia Commonwealth before graduating. When she returned to college, she went to Salem College, completing her BFA in studio painting in 1999.

Along the way, she started teaching art out of her home. In retrospect, she said, teaching was a natural path for her. Before retiring, her father, Alvin, taught math at Forsyth Technical Community College. For 53 years, her mother, Evangeline, taught piano. Her older sister, Donna Fain, who lives in Cary, teaches piano.

At Susan’s Art Studio, as Metts called her at-home art school, she taught students individually and in groups. She later taught art at a charter school and at an academy for students being home schooled while earning her teaching certification. Working as a substitute at Kimberley Park led to a full-time job and here she is today.

Metts has four children. Her oldest daughter, Sara, is a junior at Salem College, and her daughter, Cari, goes to Forsyth Tech. Her son, Marco, is a freshman at Mount Tabor. Her youngest son, Isaac, is a first-grader at Kernersville Elementary.

Since Isaac was born, Metts has not been able to create as much art on her own time as she would like. Now that Isaac is older, she is looking forward to doing more of her own art again and is hoping that her time at Penland will help kick start that. Her parents live nearby, and Isaac will be staying with them while she is at Penland. 

“I am a little nervous but I’m excited to have an opportunity to get refocused,” she said.

She is also looking forward to it as an experience that will give her fresh ideas and inspiration.   

Arts supporters and educators established The Tony Swider Art Education Scholarship Fund to promote artistic growth, and the scholarship is now awarded each year through the Winston-Salem Foundation.

Brad Oliver, the school system’s director of arts education & summer enrichment programs, said, “This is a great partnership with the Winston-Salem Foundation to offer this scholarship each year to one of our art teachers.”

Penny Freeland, the school system’s lead teacher for visual arts, said: “Susan Metts is one of our phenomenal experienced art teachers with an obvious passion for art and her students. I am so excited for her to have this experience. Penland is a wonderful place to reboot, reflect, and rejuvenate. I know she will bring her experiences back to her classroom.”

Kim Underwood

Kim Underwood writes for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools website and Forsyth Family magazine. For 25 years, he was a reporter and columnist for the Winston-Salem Journal. He has written two picture books, which were illustrated by his wife Garnet Goldman: “His Dogness Finds a Blue Heart” and “The Wonderful World of Sparkle Girl & Doobins.”