This teacher refuses to stop being a student


Natalie Conway

In her self portrait, Natalie Conway sits in the midst of important objects in her life.

Alice Cai, Editor/Writer/Artist

Owner of an assortment of mannequin parts, avid tea-drinker, and often mistaken for a fellow classmate, this 29-year-old teacher is quite the eccentric character. 

Sporting large, round glasses and cherry red lipstick most days, some students say Conway is reminiscent of a millennial hippie. With a fashion sense grown from thrift stores, she looks like she would fit in perfectly in the Dickson Bookstore or Fayetteville Funky Yardsale. Conway takes the task of picking outfits seriously. 

“To me, choosing an outfit is the first painting I make everyday,” Conway said.

Conway’s outfits range from dog-patterned dresses to black leather jackets and boots. Her style is experimental at its core, just like Conway herself. Tending toward exploration rather than conformity, Conway believes that her role as a teacher extends far beyond teaching course material. Part of her job, she thinks, is to cultivate a certain exploratory curiosity in students for the world around them and for belief systems different from their own. 

“After [high school], wherever you go, most likely, your world is going to get narrower and narrower, and you’re going to be around people who are more and more like you,” Conway said. “This is a really important opportunity for you to check who you are and what you care about and interact with people who have very different experiences.”

Conway herself was actually a math and science kid in high school. Because of the value put on STEM in modern culture and time, it seemed to her like there was no necessity for art. However, Conway later grew to realize that art is a necessity, something essential for humans as creative creatures. Although she started out pursuing a degree in biochemistry, Conway later transitioned to philosophy and psychology majors with an art minor instead.

“[Art is] also part of how we problem solve,” Conway said. “Nowadays, a lot of big corporations are trying to hire people with art degrees.” 

Artists are often able to come up with creative solutions because they are not so bogged down with all the technicalities of the problem.

Conway applies creative problem solving in her everyday life. At 5’6” and half-blessed, half-cursed with a rather youthful face, Conway has often been considered a high school student, even by fellow teachers. This presents authority issues for her sometimes, but she has come up with an inventive solution. 

This solution sits at the front of her room, hand-crafted by her own students: a home-made, plywood stage. Painted with a Sol Lewitt-inspired design in pastel pinks and blues, the stage provides an attention grabber both visually and audibly as Conway can project her voice from a higher point source. The stage symbolizes the open and interactive culture of Conway’s classroom—the symbiosis in which both teacher and student learn from each other. 

“I’m not interested in being the authority on everything,” Conway said, “I enjoy finding out that students already know things I don’t know.” She describes herself as a life-long learner. (In fact, when interviewing her, I found her in the ceramics studio, taking Ceramics I with students half her age.)

Along with the plywood stage, Conway’s room also has an air of rawness and intimacy. Conway describes it as “almost like a portal, like coming into a different realm.” To her, and to her students, the warm Christmas lights of her room create a refuge from the cold, gray fluorescent lights of the rest of the school. Upon entering her class for the first time, a student would find themselves in a dimly lit, high-ceilinged room with walls plastered in artwork. The ceiling isn’t panelled like most classrooms, but rather reveals the inner workings of the building. Pipes, wires, and scaffolding hover above long wooden tables, and a myriad of other random, unpolished objects spatter the room. The seemingly haphazard vibe of Conway’s room actually may reflect something deeper. Perhaps the rawness she upholds in her physical classroom is symbolic of the transparency and truth Conway values. 

Art has a reputation for being exclusive and elitist. For most people, the idea of looking at art conjures up images of wealthy old men sipping champagne at an art show with expensive entry tickets. Artworks themselves also tend to be shrouded in mystery, too vague and too profound for the layman to understand. 

“Most people visiting art museums have had some kind of art class and yet feel alienated by what they see,” Conway said. “Enormous amounts of art that is considered important by institutions is opaque to them.” 

Conway believes this reflects a failure of education. She does everything in her power to demystify art for her students and prove that “the most important skills for understanding art are already in their possession.” 

She does this by having students slow down and closely observe the art, sometimes even spending half an hour just looking. After that, the students describe what they see in everyday language, avoiding the technicalities and jargon that may add a sense of sophistication but little meaning. Conway also stresses the importance of conversation with peers: just like scientists, she says artists should talk to each other, bounce ideas, and exchange critiques to advance their craft.

Her classroom is host to a variety of interesting objects. Art here is made of everything: lifesavers, puzzle pieces, wires, grass, metal door knobs, small white solo cups, and more. By her desk, a mannequin leg dangles elegantly off a plywood bookshelf. Around the room, mannequin upper bodies and heads sit on top of cabinets and shelves. Also in the room are jars of raw rice and piles of sticks. These objects all serve a function. 

The mannequin parts are used to build setups to sketch. Despite the ultimate inaccuracy of mannequins in representing the human form, Conway considers mannequins good models for still life drawing. Inspired by performance artist Marina Abramovic, Conway has students count the grains of rice in the jars to build patience and focus. Conway uses the sticks for a drawing activity in which students use them to elongate their drawing utensil. Attaching the sticks to pencils and pens with rubber bands, students end up with long, precarious tools that teach them to let go of precision and focus more on gesture. 

“Letting go is something I’m always trying to get everybody to do,” Conway said.

Conway tries to get students to break open whatever preconceptions they have about what art is and what good and bad art is. In the first week of Pre-AP Art I, she made all students do blind contour drawing, where they stare carefully at their subject matter but they can’t look down at their page. This practice, also inspired by Abramovic, teaches students to draw what is there instead of what they think is there. And, incidentally, this is when many of them do their best drawings.

Unafraid to try unconventional practices, Conway sometimes makes students do things that can be initially uncomfortable. Last year, Conway made her Pre-AP Art History students stare into each other’s eyes for two minutes during the first class. Many of her activities are about breaking out of the comfort zone, because art is fundamentally exploratory. Conway says, “Whatever you feel sure about, you should let go of. Question everything.”