Clayton Noltkamper, who teaches art at Lucy Wortham James Elementary in St. James, recently received the 2017 Missouri Art Educator of the Year Award. He strives to create a high standard in his classroom. He wants to encourage his students to approach problems from outside the box and work independently, regardless of their age and grade.

Noltkamper began teaching four years ago in Steelville and is now in his second year at Lucy Wortham James Elementary. He said his passion for art came to him at a young age and helped to shape his career as he moved through school and graduation.

“I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do after high school, but art had always been an important part of my life,” he said. “In college I started taking some of those classes and that developed into the art education program. Every step of the way was a natural fit.” Noltkamper wants his students to think and reflect on their actions to stimulate serendipity and yet, create a pathway for problem solving.

“We’re very progressive,” Noltkamper said. “I feel like we’re at the cutting edge of what art education is…we’re looking at it from the perspective of creative problem solving. So when kids come in, they’re coming up with what they want to create, and then they’re using this as a tool to explore how to interact in life.” The students in Noltkamper’s art classes ask themselves, “when a problem occurs, how do I figure it out myself instead of going to somebody else?”

The students go through what Noltkamper calls a choice-based curriculum, giving them freedom to pursue their own projects in the classroom. According to him they “started out the year learning the basics of different core studios [drawing, painting, fibers, collage, and sculpture]. Now they have a workbook where they have to do research and plan out their projects and then they go to those studios and create their work.” The students engage in peer critiques and even write their own artist statements for their work, explaining why they chose to create what they did, and why they made certain choices along the way.

“It’s not us giving them a project and saying let’s all do the same thing,” Noltkamper said. “It’s [about] what do they want to do and how they’re moving through the steps.” The classes are set up in such a way that every student is exploring something different from the others at the same time, with painting and drawing, or even making their own sculptures out of various materials.

Noltkamper’s goals for his students are not only for them to be able to show him an understanding of how to use the different materials, but to develop creativity and be able to generate ideas and solve problems. He said the diverse, student-directed learning environment allows the classroom to focus on these skills. Even at the kindergarten level, the students begin by learning how to draw by following the lines and shapes Noltkamper shows them, but take on more by themselves as the year goes on, exploring and building their independence.

For Noltkamper and the rest of the faculty at Lucy Wortham James Elementary, the ability to develop these critical thinking skills is a vital part of their education, elevating what was years ago thought of as an extracurricular subject to a core learning experience.

“It’s a perfect tool for learning twenty-first century skills, which is what businesses are looking for,” Noltkamper said. “There are so many jobs out there we don’t even have a title for yet because society is changing so fast. We can no longer prepare students for what there is, because we don’t know. So we have to give students tools so they’re able to figure things out completely on their own when they get out of school. “He says art is the perfect environment for that because there are no set rules or limitations—it just builds those problem solving and creativity skills that prepare them for whatever life throws at them.

Noltkamper said he holds himself at a high standard when it comes to his art and his teaching, and does the same for his classroom. He tries to model that work ethic for his students and said that it’s made a difference.

“It’s not always about your ability to do something great or having that natural talent,” Noltkamper said. “It’s the ability or willingness to work hard at it and get better.”

Noltkamper’s art will be featured at Gallery Zeke in Steelville, along with pieces from several other art teachers from around the area. The collection entitled “Whatever’s Left” can be seen from February 4 to the 25. The art highlights Noltkamper’s and the other teachers’ identities as artists and educators and how they come together in the classroom.