Updated: Apr 22, 2021
Liz Wiesel can read lips.
The skill is a classic example of kids' resilience and capacity to adapt. Undiagnosed until she was 18, Liz has a hearing loss that leaves her 80-percent deaf in loud environments.
"When it's quiet," she said, "I can hear 100-percent. When it's noisy, I can't hear at all."
Without trying, or even knowing, she taught herself to read lips. It was a skill that helped her navigate both childhood and has served her well in her career as an art teacher in public schools - neither setting known as particularly quiet environments.
"Right now, with masks," she said, "I'm just having kids scream in my face, which seems to be working ok."
It's a classic Liz Wiesel perspective: honest and accepting, infused, always, with good-natured humor.
Tag-team-teaching art classes with Mary Rutkowski, Liz spends afternoons in the studio classroom she helped create in Building B on FernLeaf's Creek Campus. In the midst of pandemic education, with its physical distancing, atypical scheduling and ever-changing demands, that studio classroom has become a staging ground for much more than only art classes, but art education remains at its center.
"The room is used throughout the day," Liz said. "We're wearing the wax off the floors. The only way it works is that everyone is super good about cleaning up after themselves."
Without a hint of territorial frustration about the studio space, Liz knows that FernLeaf's commitment to art education is uncommon in the pandemic, or in education in general.
"A lot of art teachers are being asked to assist with hybrid schedules," Liz said. "Art rooms are being used as overflow spaces for students." She has a friend and fellow teacher in Michigan who is "broadcasting art lessons from a closet."
Long before the pandemic, and its impossible demands, however, Liz intimately experienced the common public school movement away from art education.
After earning a BFA in fine arts, with a major in art education, Liz started teaching at a local district high school. Initially, she had a blank canvas and the support of the administration with the art program. She established a curriculum that allowed students to not only pursue the many possibilities of fine art, but also a program that supported students to pursue the many possibilities available for their lives.
"I speak angsty high school boy really well," she laughed, remembering her decade of "dragging kids to the art table." For Liz, it wasn't just about helping them learn the techniques and functional application of skill, but about inspiring high school students to challenge the assumptions they made about themselves. "They'd been told they weren't good enough for art, or they believed they were too cool for school. I loved it."
When the administration at the school changed, however, the art program was no longer prioritized.
"They wanted to turn the art studio into a shooting range for the ROTC," she said, without a shred of humor. "Funds were moved from arts to sports uniforms, teachers weren't rehired, the program slowly withered and died."
Throughout her time at the high school, Liz maintained a distanced albeit important relationship with her own studio art practice. Consumed with the work of teaching during the school year, her summers were dedicated to her own creative processes.
"I'd work eight hours a day in the summers," she said. "It wasn't enough time to build enough work for a gallery show - it was really a hobby. It was important, though, for me to maintain my skills to be a teacher. But, it was also a compulsion for me. It was something I had to do; it helped me preserve my mental health."
Watching her struggle at the high school, and knowing that studio art time was critical for her, Liz's husband, Vic helped her create a space at the Wiesel house dedicated for her art that was outside of their three kids' sprawling reach.
"Before getting a shed in the backyard," she said, "everything was on the dining table, but piled up with all the kids' stuff, which is a lot of stuff. To have a space away from the laundry, and to make a mess without cleaning up, and time to do it was amazing.”
Vic (now a middle-grade teacher at FernLeaf) also worked with Michael Luplow to recruit her to FernLeaf in the school's second year. It was a big move for her as the school served kindergarten through fourth graders at the time.
"The learning curve was steep," she said.
No longer "dragging kids to the art table," Liz needed to direct her energy "at helping kids focus their enthusiasm for art long enough to know where the markers were. My job now is to not break their enthusiasm. I get to teach them how to fail without believing that they are failures at art."
The move to a part-time position at FernLeaf also gave her time to work in her studio consistently and deeply, and begin to establish a body of work large enough to show at galleries.
The same year she made the change to FernLeaf, Liz was offered a space at Woolworth Walk in downtown Asheville.
"It was a coup of sorts," she said, "in a space where artists never leave."
Woolworth is a bedrock of the Asheville art scene. It is a pleasant mix of local artists, classic architecture and hand-dipped milkshakes at the old soda counter.
Liz started in the basement, which allowed her to take some risks with her art as she found her footing as a studio artist, before quickly being invited to move upstairs - "as far from the milkshakes as you can get," she points out.
Then, 18 months ago, she was asked to be the featured artist for April 2021.
"The owners of Woolworth knew that I would freak out if they sprung it on me last minute," Liz said, appreciating their sensitivity to her slow work style.
Even with a year and a half to meet the deadline, Liz said she's been "painting like my hair's on fire." As her work has become more popular, she has had to hold back paintings so that she would have enough work for the April show.
Unexpectedly, the COVID-19 lockdowns provided a theme for her show at Woolworth.
"When the first COVID lockdowns started, we bought milk, bread and stockpiles of paint," she said. "The shed was a lifesaver as it let me get out and do art. I need to talk to 200 people per day. I was lonely [during the lockdowns] so I started to focus my art on animals to hang out with me."
Liz would take old frames, clean them up and refinish them and then let the frame help create the piece.
"I let the frame inform what animal is in it," she said. "It's really fun."
At the end of March, Liz took her frames and animal friends, each with a story and personality, to Woolworth on Haywood Ave. downtown, and started hanging her show. It was months, years really, of work on display, work that was not only influenced by the pandemic of the moment, but the energy and changes of her career.
"I was driving to Asheville to make the last tweaks to the show," Liz said, "when the Woolworth owners called. Someone decided to buy the whole thing before the show even opened."
Again, Liz's honest, accepting, good humored nature shines through. She acknowledges that it is incredible to have commercial success in an art world that often leaves artists hungry and struggling. But, at the same time, she embraces the gift of art for the sake of art, the gift of teaching art while doing art.
Her perspective on art and life as a creative process that invites failure as the best way to learn is the core of her teaching in the FernLeaf, and the core of her work in her backyard shed studios. It's also a balm for both her students and each of us as members of the FernLeaf community who are too often focused on impossible perfection and results.
It's a perspective that cuts through a very noisy world. One that is deafening at times.
Thankfully, Liz, toting her paintbrushes and sense of humor, is able to read lips.
You can learn even more about Liz here. Currently you can find her bringing her love of art and creativity everyday to the students of FernLeaf. Her pieces in the Woolworth show are not available to purchase, but they are still hanging in space as an exhibit. You can also experience the exhibit virtually thanks to a video Vic put together. You can follow along with Liz's work on Instagram and purchase prints of her original paintings in her etsy store.