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Local teacher influences students with unique artistic perspective

SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Jennifer Cerasin has taught art at Inza R. Wood Middle School for 13 years.Jennifer Cerasin isn’t your average middle school art teacher. In fact, she’s quantifiably exceptional, as the Inza R. Wood Middle School art instructor was recently named the 2016 Oregon Middle Level Art Educator of the Year.

Cerasin, who has taught art at Wood for 13 years, says she was surprised when Wilsonville High School Art Teacher Christopher Shotola-Hardt told her she’d won the award a few weeks ago, and that she’s grateful for the honor. She credits her colleagues at Wood Middle School, and of course her students, but calls the award surreal considering the road she’s taken to get here. Because when she first got her start in teaching, while earning her master’s degree in teaching at Lewis and Clark, she told herself she would never teach middle school, instead focusing on high school.

“I said ‘no way,’ because when I started out I did a teacher swap at a middle school in southeast Portland, and it was horrendous,” Cerasin recalls. “The woman who was teaching was just a year out of school, similar to me, and the circumstances for her were just chaos. ... They were under budget constraints, and she was building this program up from nothing, so the couple weeks that I was there observing just made me think I could never teach middle school.”

Cerasin spent her first year out of college teaching high school students in the Gresham-Barlow School District before accepting a position at West Linn High School teaching photography and art. Budget cuts left her looking for a new job the following summer, however, when she found herself considering teaching at the middle school level for the first time.

She was hesitant at first, but decided to apply. The rest, she says, is history.

“I came over (to Wood) to interview for it and Barb Soisson, the principal at the time, was super psyched to have a certified art teacher,” Cerasin says. “I told her I was going to need some help transitioning my brain from big kids to little kids, and she was super supportive. The first year was really rough, but I also realized that I really liked it and I was good at it. I’ve been here ever since.”

Cerasin, who grew up in nearby Lake Oswego and graduated from Lake Oswego High School before completing her undergrad at Marylhurst, says she quickly grew to love the Wood community. Despite living in southeast Portland, she says she endures an ever-worsening commute out to Wilsonville every day in large part because of the teachers and student body.SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Jennifer Cerasin, in her 13th year at Wood, was recently named the 2016 Oregon Middle Level Art Educator of the Year.

“I really like this community and I appreciate how much the district supports our programs. In the past when we’ve had budget issues they do not just cut the arts like other districts have done, and I’m loyal to them for that,” Cerasin says. “I enjoy the academic freedom that I have as an art teacher. I make my own lessons, I’m respected as an educator and as an expert in my field.”

It’s easy for art teachers to get caught up in their work in school, often failing to take the necessary time for their own art, but Cerasin says she’s constantly focused on improving as an artist, and in turn, an art educator. She recently earned a master of fine arts, her second master’s degree, to improve her own art, which she says takes up most of her time when she’s not busy teaching.

She primarily works in an encaustic style — the art form of using pigments mixed with hot wax to burn in as an inlay — combining the art form with collage elements. She showcases her work as frequently as she can, displaying a few pieces in multiple group shows in Portland in the past few months.

“I’ve created a method of my own, I think, what I call encaustic collage,” she says. “The idea that a teacher should be a working artist, or can be, has always been more of a college concept, because they’re the ones that have that pressure to publish or to be seen. Being a middle school or high school teacher you don’t have that same pressure, but the idea that we are, or can be, or maybe even should be working artists, is kind of raising the bar. That’s always been in my mind.”

While her preferred style of art is a little dangerous for middle school students, Cerasin says she’s constantly trying to implement her own artistic revelations and beliefs into her lesson plans. She teaches art history amid class projects, specifically focusing on societal impacts art has had on the world throughout the centuries. She says she wants her students to learn that anybody can succeed at art with effort, and self-expression is always paramount.

“I’m big on social justice and the idea that artists reflect what’s going on in society. So I ask students to look outside of (themselves) and pick a cause ­— think about what’s going on in the world — and create art that has to do with what they care about and use their own personal voice,” Cerasin says. “So like right now, for instance, my eighth-graders are creating mixed media pieces about an issue of their choosing.”

And while she admits she was flattered to receive the award, she says it won’t stop her from trying to improve her teaching methods and lesson plans. She’s excited for upcoming projects and school events, including the second annual Day of the Dead Festival at Wilsonville High School, where her students will showcase some of their own art.

“I like teaching art history, but it’s fun to bring in different genres that are more cultural and current,” Cerasin says. “We have a lot of kids who celebrate Day of the Dead and recognize it as a part of their culture, so it’s a really nice thing, and plus it’s fun and new. ... I can’t teach the same projects over and over, it drives me nuts, so I like to mix it up. Some I continue and tweak and improve as I go, but I just can’t do the same projects over and over. It’s nice when we have a reason to push into a new project like Day of the Dead.”SPOKESMAN PHOTO: VERN UYETAKE - Jennifer Cerasin is always tweaking lesson plans and class projects to stay fresh and current.

Ultimately Cerasin says she’s continued to teach art at Wood for 13 years because of her students, and while she realizes they won’t all continue with art into the future, she wants them to at least realize they’re capable and that self-expression through art is a worthwhile endeavor. Her absolute favorite part about Wood is seeing former students return to her classroom, whether it’s for advice or to simply say hi. If those students have continued with art into high school it’s just an added bonus.

“I guess my ultimate goal is that they will appreciate art and understand it a little bit better before they leave my class,” she says. “Yes, there are people that are born to be the Picassos and the Van Goghs, but there are a lot of artists in the world that are that good or impactful because they got to take art, learned art, and because they practice all the time.

You don’t have to be destined or born with some incredible talent to be an artist.”

Contact Andrew Kilstrom at 503-636-1281 ext. 112 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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