Susie Belzer, art teacher at Rockwell Elementary School in Fort Atkinson, has received the top art education award in the state.
The Wisconsin Art Educator of the Year award was presented during the annual conference of the WAEA Oct. 17-18 in Manitowoc.
The honor goes to a Wisconsin Art Education Association member who has significantly demonstrated a long-term contribution to the WAEA and art education on the local, state or national levels.
The Wisconsin Art Education Association aims to promote excellence in visual art and design education for all students by providing professional growth opportunities for teachers, showcasing student talents and abilities, communicating with other art and design organizations, and offering lifelong learning opportunities on vital art and design education issues.
This marks Belzer’s fifth year with the Fort Atkinson schools. Previously, she served both Rockwell and Barrie elementary schools, but this year she is solely at Rockwell.
When the district upped its art time, giving students the opportunity for art instruction every other day instead of once a week, Belzer came to Rockwell full time.
Previously, she taught in the Stoughton school district, and before that, she worked in the 4-year-old kindergarten program at Fort Atkinson Preschool.
“Art has always been a big part of my life,” Belzer said. “My dad was an artist and we did a lot of art at home. I also loved school. In high school, when I was looking into career options, I couldn’t imagine not being in the schools, so I combined my two passion areas.”
Belzer said she was influenced by her art teacher in Janeville, Mrs. Cushman, who taught her to love drawing and helped her to see things in different ways.
“She helped me build more confidence in that area,” Belzer said.
Belzer grew up in Janesville and graduated from Janesville Parker High School. She then went on to the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, earning an art education degree in 2005.
She resides in Fort Atkinson now with her husband and twin 12-year-old girls, who attend Fort Atkinson Middle School.
“It’s nice to be teaching in the same community where I live,” Belzer said. “When I taught in Stoughton, I always felt like I had a foot in both worlds.”
As well as guiding students’ art skills, Belzer remains active as an artist in her free time. Primarily a fiber artist, she embroiders, sews and weaves. She maintains an Etsy shop (online) and sells her work at area craft markets, with some of her most popular creations being woven wall hangings and embroidered pins.
It’s only natural she’d pass along her love for fiber arts to her students, as well.
“My students learn to sew in third grade,” she said. “It’s a basic skill most people don’t teach anymore, but I see a big change in students as they learn to sew.
Students start out as their fine motor skills are still developing, so the work is challenging, but as they get a handle on sewing basics, they start using the skill on their own, bringing in clothing they want to repair and even coming up with their own creations.
The first fiber arts project Belzer introduces her students to is creating Emoji pillows. She teaches them how to do a running stitch and whip stitch.
In the fourth grade, students get to design and create their own sewing patterns for shaped pillows.
Belzer said the creativity she sees is amazing.
Another thing that Belzer has brought to the Fort Atkinson schools is collaboration. Her students have done a lot of collaborative art projects, completing one to two murals each year.
The collaborative mural projects usually involve between 12 and 20 students. Last year’s project at Rockwell decorates a wall just inside the entry of the school, featuring colorful circles and a quote from hometown poet Lorine Niedecker.
Belzer lauded Fort Atkinson’s support for art education, saying that having art every other day, students are able to do so much more. She also applauded the district’s healthy budgets and its support for the new “choice-based curriculum” that gives students much more leeway over the projects they choose to do.
“We are focusing more on teaching skills techniques and problem-solving, and then kids are able to plan out their own projects,” Belzer said.
As part of their plan, students have to present to her what they plan to make, the materials and supplies they’ll need, and how they will make the object/artwork.
Once they gain her approval, they can go ahead, making use of the classroom instruction they’ve already had that gave them the basics on how to do various types of art.
“I really enjoy my job,” Belzer said. “I love coming to work. Every morning when I come into my room, it feels very good to be here.”
Belzer has been a member of the Wisconsin Art Education Association for the past five years and has been very active with the organization.
“We hosted the state conference at the Fort Atkinson High School two years ago, so I was on the committee that planned for two years in preparation for the conference,” Belzer said.
For her work on that project, Belzer won the association’s President’s Award.
At last year’s annual conference, Belzer taught two courses for art teachers.
In addition, she has stepped into leadership roles with the organization, currently serving as the secretary of the association’s executive board.
She said the WAEA serves a valuable purpose in connecting teachers across the state, providing resources and workshops and hosting lots of regional activities so teachers don’t have to travel so far from their home districts.
The group also hosts a huge Youth Art Month project, for which each art teacher can submit five student pieces for display at the state Capitol.
In addition to her involvement with WAEA, Belzer has partnered with Nasco on numerous occasions.
She said Nasco originally reached out to her to do a presentation for the Fort Atkinson company’s global education conference, “The Art of Education.”
She has been a presenter at the past couple of conferences, giving workshops on printmaking and multimedia drawing lessons.
“The organizers of the Art of Education liked the workshops I taught, so then I got the opportunity to work directly for Nasco (through) Pro-Pack.
PRO is Nasco’s online platform, she explained. Teachers can get college credits for completing these online workshops, which also involve some independent work.
Belzer said she was nominated for Wisconsin Art Educator of the Year by a colleague, a Cambridge art teacher, for the award.
To complete the application, she had to get two recommendations, and fill out a form listing her involvement and accomplishments.
The executive board (this was prior to her service on the board) looked over all of the applications and rated them on a point system. The award went to the applicant with the highest point total.
Recommending Belzer for the honor, Kristina Bakke, Nasco art category specialist, commended the Fort Atkinson teacher’s creativity, her nurturing style and her stylistic expertise.
“Her passion for making her art rooms at both of her schools inviting and nurturing for her students shows the minute you walk in,” Bakke said.
“I love how she is able to get the respect of her students without ever having to raise her voice,” the Nasco representative added.
Having met Belzer when she was still teaching in Stoughton, Bakke said, she has been able to see Belzer grow as an artist and educator.
“She shares her love of art with her students and is constantly learning,” the Nasco rep said. “She has been part of many lesson plans at Nasco and has authored one of her own.
Bakke noted that Belzer recently served as a workshop teacher for the Art of Education University’s Winter Conference, and her video presentation was rated a favorite by the 2,000-plus teachers who participated.
“Susie networks with others,” Bakke added. “She is active on social media and in her community. She goes above and beyond what is expected of her. I enjoy her enthusiasm, positive attitude and passion for art education, for her students, for her community and for her own art.”
Sarah Krajewski, Cambridge Elementary School art teacher, also recommended Belzer for the honor.
Krajewski said that she instantly was drawn to Belzer’s character and positive energy, and after attending two sessions Belzer taught at the past WAEA conference, the Cambridge teacher developed a deep respect for Belzer’s expertise about fibers, technology and more.
“She is constantly searching for more techniques to introduce to her students,” Krajewski said. “I am always surprised by the projects her students are working on.
“On any given day, they might be painting a mural, decorating the bathrooms with positive messages, or having fun creating in her choice-based classroom,” the Cambridge teacher continued.
Krajewski commended Belzer for taking her professional development “to the next level,” saying that the Fort Atkinson teacher has helped to guide other art teachers on the state level and that many other art educators look to her as a role model who presents exciting, relevant materials.
“As much as Susie has worked to grow professionally, I think the thing that stands out most about Susie is her attitude,” Krajewski said.
“Her students are excited to come to art,” the recommendation continued. “Years from now, her students may remember some of the projects they did with Mrs. Belzer, but I think they will remember her personality most.”
Finally, Krajewski said that in addition to fostering the artistic abilities of others, Belzer continues to create and develop her own art, showing her unique creations at area markets.