Sharing a love of art: Norris School’s art teacher wraps up 33-year career

  • Leslie di Curcio Marra, who retired as an art teacher from William E. Norris Elementary School in Southampton on Tuesday after 33 years, waves goodbye to students on the last day of school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Leslie di Curcio Marra, who is retiring from William E. Norris Elementary School in Southampton after 33 years, waves goodbye to students on the last day of school. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

Staff Writer
Published: 6/22/2021 9:27:16 PM

SOUTHAMPTON — When Leslie di Curcio Marra arrived at William E. Norris School 33 years ago, the only sign that the elementary school had ever had an art program was a dried-up box of paint.

“They had not had an art program for eight years,” di Curcio Marra said. The hardened paints were “all there was … and I was able to create the art program.”

Di Curcio Marra quickly got to work writing a curriculum, ordering supplies and generally building the program from the ground up. For eight years, the longtime teacher did not have a dedicated art classroom, and would instead cart the supplies from room to room between two school buildings. After the school was renovated in the 1990s, Di Curcio Marra also devised the space for her new classroom.

Over three decades after starting with just the lone, dried-up paint box, di Curcio Marra began her retirement on Tuesday. As the school dismissed students for the last time this academic year, di Curcio Marra stood outside to say goodbye to the departing students.

Di Curcio Marra embarked on her career as an art teacher to share her love of creating with other people, she said, and one of the most meaningful aspects of the job was helping students to uncover their own talents and learn to appreciate art.

“It’s very fulfilling to provide an experience to a child and have them be so delighted and thrilled with their accomplishment,” di Curcio Marra said. “I’ve had kids say, ‘It’s just the best thing I’ve ever made,’ ‘I love this,’ or ‘I didn’t know I could draw like this.’”

Not all students will develop a love for creating art, di Curcio Marra said, and that’s OK — but she hopes that through art classes, even students who don’t want to make their own art can learn to appreciate artwork that they come across for its value and the effort that went into its creation.

“I’m not trying to make everyone into an artist,” di Curcio Marra said. “It’s more like people become art advocates, because they understand, and they’ve done something similar.”

That’s not to say that there weren’t ways to engage even the students who weren’t as naturally drawn to the subject — one solution, for instance, was bringing in the school therapy dog, Seamus, for a life drawing session.

“The kids loved it, because of course they love Seamus,” di Curcio Marra said, “and they were very excited to see him.”

Di Curcio Marra, meanwhile, used the opportunity to teach her students about looking for basic shapes and how to use lines to capture the texture of fur.

“I can make it really fun and novel, and engage all the kids — because maybe some kids would come in and say, ‘I’m not that great of a drawer,’” she added, “but when Seamus came in they all wanted to draw him.”

When planning such lessons, di Curcio Marra said, she asks herself, “How can I make the art experience something that’s accessible to all children, no matter their developmental levels, or even their interest?”

This creative thinking to devise engaging lessons became all the more relevant when the pandemic shut down schools in March 2020. With art classes held remotely, di Curcio Marra had to not only keep students’ attention over virtual lessons, but also create projects that students could complete using only materials they already had around their homes, which usually did not include traditional art supplies such as paint or clay.

For one remote project, di Curcio Marra sent students into their yards to collect natural objects to make a sculpture. In other instances, she instructed them to find different colored objects at home to make into a color wheel, or set up a still life to draw using stuffed animals.

Over the years, di Curcio Marra developed relationships with local artists, such as wood sculptor Elton Braithwaite and mosaic artist Cynthia Fisher, who would serve as artists in residence and over time teach students about their crafts. Braithwaite served in this role for over 20 years.

Di Curcio Marra also made efforts to extend her teaching to the community as a whole, she said. With arts electives notorious for being among the first types of courses to be cut when school budgets are tight, di Curcio Marra wanted to show the school administration, School Committee and parents that art classes were not dispensable.

“I wanted people to understand that it’s a valuable mode of learning,” she said.

Jacquelyn Voghel can be reached at jvoghel@gazettenet.com.


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