Dennis Zupan was on the exam table for an endoscopy, when the doctor glanced at the chart.
“He was pulling on his gloves before my lights went out when I heard, ‘Ah . . . Mr. Zupan. I have been waiting for this.'”
It wasn’t the first time that the retired teacher of pottery and jewelry ran into a former student. Another time Zupan was pulled over by security in the parking lot at the community college where he was teaching.
“With red lights flashing and a uniformed officer at my window, I heard, ‘Hi, Mr. Zupan. It’s me, Jonathan. I thought that was you. I just wanted to say hi.'”
Saying Hi to the Teacher
That’s what students wanted to do: just say hi and thank you to a man who not only taught them about an ancient and enduring art form, but who also believed that students have a right to learn in an environment best suited to their way of thinking. For Zupan, this comes down to right brain (creative) versus left brain (analytical) thinking. The latter, he feels, has overwhelmed the school system. It’s to the point that there is no refuge for those who are interested, and excel, in the arts.
“According to all the left-brained people in charge of our education needs, right brained thinking is wrong,” Zupan, who taught arts for 30 years Provo High school, says.
“All the process and results that make a right brained person function needed to be sanitized into a left-brain format so it could be understood and validated in their left-brain world.”
Instead of actually learning to draw or make a pot, Zupan continues, students are channeled into classes on art theory, history, appreciation, aesthetics, critique, and analysis — all elements that come naturally to a right-brained artist over time as they strive to perfect their art. The result, Zupan mourns, is that “the refuge class for right brained students is gone, replaced by another list of left-brain tasks.”
Promoting art is a lifestyle for Zupan, who now lives and creates both pottery and jewelry in Richland. While in Utah he taught art at community education classes in the evenings, during summer school, at workshops with Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, and 4-H. He conducted university and college classes. And he participated in some unique opportunities to work with ancient pottery techniques.
One of these opportunities was through the Colorado Archeologist Group, National Geographic Magazine, and Mesa Verde National Park. They joined together to replicate Anasazi (Southwest Pueblo people) pottery making and kiln firing. Zupan was one of 20 potters asked to replicate pieces, with each step documented as if were being done 1300 years ago.
Another time he partnered with the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in creating a series of Bible-based films on the New Testament era.
“At that time in history, a potter’s work was essential and found in every aspect of everyday living,” Zupan says. “Cooking, serving, lamps, and storage containers all came from the potter’s shed.” With three other potters, Zupan created hundreds of pieces for the films.
A recipient of numerous state and national teaching awards, Zupan says he approached teaching art as an artist and not an educator.
Teaching Future Artists
“I was sharing art methods and marketing to potential future artists,” he explains.
Because, when it comes to art, it’s not the theory, it’s not the analysis, it’s not the endless talking about it that matters: it’s the finished work of art. And achieving a beautiful finished work of art takes the hands, the soul, and the skill of an artist.
“I enjoy the challenges of working with a piece of clay because there are no limits to the possibilities,” Zupan says. “I often push clay to its edge of failure.
“There is always an air of excitement opening a kiln — the patterns on the pottery are created in the kilns. Raku glazes always have a bit of chance happenings to them; the same is true in a pit fire.
“They cannot be totally controlled or replicated. They can be truly exhilarating.”
Exhilarating. That’s a worthwhile goal to aspire to, and it is one Zupan has spent his life teaching students to reach for, and to find.
Which is probably why they go out of their way — wherever they are — to say, “Mr. Zupan, hi. Do you remember me?”
Contact the gallery, located at 219 East Main Street, Dayton, WA, by phone at 509.382.2124 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Gallery hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from Monday through Saturday, and by appointment.