They came to her in a dream — a sea of flowers in which Jozett Diaz swam, later to manifest as sheets of brightly colored tissue paper, cut and arranged, tied with pipe cleaners.
She doesn’t yet know what she’ll do with the pile of mammoth flowers laying on the table, but Diaz seems happy to have made them.
Art class at Payson High School allows students to give ephemeral visions three dimensions in this waking life.
“If we can do it logistically, we can do it,” said teacher George Conley.
“It’s a good outlet for them.” Art class serves as therapy for the kids at Payson High who have succumb to depression. For some students, art powers them through the rest of the day.
From Popsicle stick statues to wall murals and carved linoleum blocks, Conley’s room buzzes with energy neither chaotic nor organized. Students just calmly create.
PHS offers both beginning and advanced art classes. At least two of Conley’s advanced art students will pursue art-related degrees.
Students say that they feel free within the confines of Conley’s classroom walls. High school can box you in, but art class allows you to bust out.
One recent afternoon, several students were outside the room dipping their feet in paint then delicately stepping on big pieces of paper.
“It’s all like squishy,” said Deedra Wayland of the feel of paint between her toes. “Very gooey.”
Wayland said she saw a similar picture of painted hands already hanging in the classroom. She wanted to create something more original.
“It’s like reverting to your inner kindergartner,” said Liz Romberger.
Some students come to Conley’s class to have fun. Other students plan to create a career out of creating.
Senior Victoria Pierce will study animation next year at the Art Institute of Phoenix. “I’m looking so forward to it,” she said. Conley said the institute offers the best program in Arizona.
Pierce has autism, and says that the disability slows her pace of learning.
“If I didn’t understand something in class, I would probably draw,” said Pierce.
Early criticism did not derail her passion. “When I first started art, I was pretty bad,” she said.
“I couldn’t even draw a straight line for a stick figure.” In second-grade, a teacher characterized Pierce’s drawing skills as rudimentary.
“I’d love to find that teacher now and show her my art,” said Pierce.
Student Cherie VanCamp, who also plans to study art in college, said creating calms her.
VanCamp had difficulty connecting to high school. “I just get so bored,” she said. “It’s just not a challenge.”
She added, “I know I’m doing math to get through high school, but that’s not a big enough motive.” Art “keeps me calm enough, at least during this time, so that I can deal with the rest of it.”
Conley serves as counselor and mentor to students like VanCamp. “It’s inspired me to want to do things,” she said about art. “I found something I really like.”
VanCamp creates beautiful images, like an impressionistic elephant in a series of dots that could hang at the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. if it wins a competition.
Meanwhile, Conley is helping VanCamp figure out how to pay for college. She’s thinking of working her way through as a hairdresser, maybe studying art therapy or becoming an art teacher.
Many kids at PHS find navigating through high school difficult — as they do anywhere.
Depression is rampant in PHS, Conley says, and the art teacher acts as a confidante.
“A lot of kids are in here because they’re depressed or they have emotional issues,” he said. Art provides therapy, or perhaps serves as the hobby of a kid who isn’t an athlete, a cowboy, or a mathematician.
At the start of another class period, kids line up to solicit Conley’s opinion on their projects. He offers advice or praise, or both.
“I see the potential that they have,” he said. “My whole thing is just to help people be successful.”