‘Thanks, teach!’: Art exhibit by former Northampton High School students honors longtime teacher Lisa Leary

  • Lisa Leary, left and Zoe Sasson talk about where to hang artwork by Leary in the exhibit Sasson has curated at the A.P.E Gallery, “NHS Honors Art Alumni Exhibition: Homecoming.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Zoe Sasson and Lisa Leary at the A.P.E Gallery exhibit Sasson has curated, “NHS Honors Art Alumni Exhibition: Homecoming.” Sasson is a 2007 graduate of Northampton High. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Kiran Jandu, a NHS student of Lisa Leary in 2006, and Leary talk about the piece Jandu has contributed to the new A.P.E Gallery exhibit, “NHS Honors Art Alumni Exhibition: Homecoming.” STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • A sculpture by Carolyn Clayton is part of “NHS Honors Art Alumni Exhibition: Homecoming” at the A.P.E. Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lisa Leary and Zoe Sasson talk about where to hang Leary’s artwork in the exhibit Sasson has curated at the A.P.E Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  • Lisa Leary talks with Jasper Kesin, a student of Leary’s at Northampton High in 2017, about a video he’s contributed to “NHS Honors Art Alumni Exhibition: Homecoming” at the A.P.E. Gallery. STAFF PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

  •  “Big Cat,” oil on wood painting by Lauren Donovan, NHS class of 2007. Courtesy A.P.E. Gallery

  • “Notchview,” watercolor on paper by Claire Rayton, NHS class of 2008. Courtesy A.P.E. Gallery

  • “Orpheus,” mixed media on paper by Fionnuala Cook, NHS class of 2004, with help from her son, Icarus Efrosinis, age 4. Image courtesy A.P.E. Gallery

  • “Self Portrait 2,” inkjet prints by Nadia Kamel, NHS class of 2017. Image courtesy A.P.E. Gallery

Staff Writer
Published: 7/24/2021 8:46:52 AM

Lisa Leary can’t tell you how many students she’s worked with over the years — hundreds and hundreds, certainly, or likely into the thousands, given she began teaching art at Northampton’s JFK Middle School in 1985 and then moved to the city’s high school in 1990.

But Leary, who just retired this past spring, has been a force in generating a lifelong love of art in many of those students, especially those who took her honors classes at Northampton High School as juniors and seniors. Many have won awards and gone on to careers in the arts or arts-related fields, some after getting into top-rated college programs such as Cooper Union in New York City, considered one of the most prestigious art schools in the country.

Now some of those NHS alums are displaying their work at a new exhibit at Northampton’s A.P.E. Gallery, in a show that in recent years has become an annual event at the Main Street gallery, but which this year is being staged to recognize Leary’s long tenure at the high school and her role as a mentor to young artists.

Work from 25 NHS graduates, dating back to the class of 1996 and to more recent years, is part of “Homecoming,” which features a range of art: paintings and drawings, photography, mixed media, sculpture, video and more. The exhibit, which will be on display through Aug. 28, has been curated by Zoe Sasson, NHS class of 2007 and an alumna of a University of North Carolina graduate program in art.

And in a fitting twist, Sasson, a painter who lives in Northampton, will begin teaching art herself at NHS this fall, after she took a number of honors art classes with Leary when she was a student.

“It’s amazing to think about that,” Sasson said. “I learned so much from Lisa. She really solidified my understanding that I should be involved in art, and now I’ll be working with [NHS] students myself. It’s like my life has come full circle.”

In a recent phone interview, Leary said she had planned to teach for another year or two. But she suffered a serious concussion and other injuries in a bicycle accident last September, and lingering health issues, plus the challenges posed by the pandemic, made the past year too difficult to continue working, she said.

“Except for this past year, I’ve had a great experience teaching,” Leary said. “To challenge students, to get them excited about art, to have them make that a vital part of their lives — that’s what every [art] teacher aspires to.”

As she writes in a catalog that’s been created for the exhibition, “Encouraging students to reach their potential, to stretch themselves, take artistic risks and to be ever more creative is exciting. It really is an honor and a privilege to observe each student’s artistic growth during these formative years.”

Artists contributing to the exhibit — work by Leary and Sasson is also part of the show, which has about 50 pieces of art — were asked to send a work completed in the last three years. The variety of the art reflects the fact that Leary taught a range of honors classes in the high school, including ceramics, graphic design, and painting.

As one example, the oil on wood panel painting “Big Cat,” by Lauren Donovan, class of 2007, is a surreal tableau depicting a grinning woman wearing roller skates; she’s partly entwined with a snarling leopard, the two figures sprawled on the ground in front of a few trees, while flames from a ferocious forest fire soar behind them.

By contrast, “Notchview,” by Claire Rayton, class of 2008, is a moody but beautiful watercolor on paper of a winter forest scene, with many of the trees stripped of both leaves and branches, bare trunks soaring against a somber sky.

Sasson said Leary was a big help in curating the show simply because she’s still in touch with many of her former students and gave her contact information for them. Sasson heard of other graduates (and some of her classmates) through word of mouth, and in some cases they reached out to her.

Strong foundation

What they all have in common, Sasson said, is the strong foundation Leary gave them. When she was a student, she noted, “I was told that Lisa’s classes were very rigorous and that she expected you to take art seriously and work really hard. I appreciated that — it made me a better painter and drawer, and it was great preparation for college.”

In a 2018 Gazette article about Leary’s classes, then-senior Kailey Weaver, who had won a $50,000 scholarship to attend Cooper Union, told the paper she had never imagined she might go to art school, but that working with Leary had elevated her work and her effort: “I always thought of art as a hobby, but being part of a program that is this difficult made me realize I could do more.”

Leary says she was first asked to develop a “portfolio class” for seniors after she came to NHS in 1990, and that the class became increasingly popular over the years, such that by the early 2000s she had created four honors classes — two each semester — and opened them to juniors as well. Eventually Leary was teaching as many as 26 students per class, with each class composed of two separate groups of students and subject matter.

“It was a lot of work, but it was worth it,” she said.

Leary also began working with local art organizations and venues to create annual showcases for her former students. Some were held at the Northampton Center for the Arts, and they’ve also taken place at the A.P.E. Gallery, including when A.P.E. was located in Thornes Marketplace.

An annual show at Hosmer Gallery at Forbes Library has also exhibited the work of current NHS art students.

Leary says she’s grateful not just to these organizations “but to be part of a whole community that really supports the arts.” And she thanks her former colleagues and administrators at NHS for their support of the arts as well.

That’s not all: Leary says she’s indebted to Sasson, who had begun curating the exhibit over a year ago, as it was initially scheduled to run in spring 2020 but was then shut down due to the pandemic.

“I really appreciate Zoe hanging in there and sticking with this during a difficult year,” she said.

There will be an artists’ reception and retirement party for Leary at A.P.E. on Aug. 13. Details are forthcoming; for more information about the show, visiting hours at the gallery, and safety protocols, visit ape.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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