While the art program itself is relatively small at Eastern Michigan University, the more niche group of students in the field of art education is even smaller. Kennede Thomas, a senior art student at Eastern, said that while this can sometimes make her feel alone, it also makes her feel special and unique.
Due to her mix of passion for both children and art, Thomas is studying K-12 visual art education and plans to student teach in the area before graduating at the end of the fall 2023 semester.
"I've always been that person who wanted to hold a baby, who was always babysitting, and also I found my love of the arts pretty young," she said. "One of my favorite art teachers in high school suggested art education."
Thomas' passion for art really began her ninth grade year while attending a performing arts high school in Ohio.
While Thomas has had to work with three-dimensional forms of art like sculpting and ceramics for her degree, she is more of a two-dimensional artist who loves to paint and draw.
"For the longest time in high school I was an oil painter, but now I'm kind of transitioning into acrylic paint and gouaches and watercolor," Thomas said. "I fell in love with oil paint my freshman year of high school as well because of the pigments and the fluidity, and the elasticity and like I didn't know this at the time but with oil paint you can use all types of tools."
Art doesn't always have a deeper meaning and is often left up for interpretation from the viewer, but Thomas often ventures out into meaningful topics with her pieces.
"Since my junior year of high school, I started creating content around my Black identity, my Black womanhood, my Black femininity. Those pieces were more celebratory," she said. "I've gotten more into controversial artworks that have a stance that still celebrates me as a person, but bites back a little bit."
One of her most recent paintings for a class features a Barbie doll and a Bratz doll, where the Barbie is altered to look more like the Bratz doll.
"Those two dolls are representative of how in our culture today, a lot of white women are biting off of Black beauty without crediting the source," Thomas said.
The EMU artist believes that having these conversations is important, whether the art reaches a large audience or is only seen by her classmates.
"There's talks about it in the art world or just in standard social media and everything, but I think it's important for marginalized people to let you know what you're doing, to hold people accountable basically," she said. "I also think that art can be art for arts sake. I don't always make art surrounded by my identity, but it's easy to create content based off what you know."
Another piece of Thomas' art that she would deem her favorite is titled "Good and Bad Hair," an oil painting inspired by a collage she did her sophomore year of college.
"That piece was like a poke at the Black community having divisive adjectives of what's good hair and what's bad hair. Usually good hair comes with being a light skin girl and having curlier, finer hair and then bad hair is like the kinky, coiler hair," Thomas said. "Neither one is bad or good, it's hair. You want healthy hair and that's something that piece kind of talks about in it's collage, representations of different types of hair textures and different hair styles."
The 18 by 24 inch work of art was created on a wood panel featuring images of a girl with different hairstyles to represent the beauty in all of them.
"I just love being a Black person because the versatility with our hair is amazing," Thomas said. "Last week I had box braids, now I have a silk press and it's like I love how we can change our appearance and it be what it is."
As of now, Thomas said that her main focus is on applying the skills she has learned the past 10 years to foster self-success, and perfecting her craft. When it comes to big accomplishments with her art, she said that improving as an artist is the biggest of all, along with working with youth as an art educator at summer camps.
"Getting to spark inspiration in my students and just watch them to blossom into young little artists, that's another reason why I love being an art educator," Thomas said. "Art is such a personal way of self expression that if you're a part of it, it's just like wow."
Short term, Thomas' dream career would be to teach in an elementary school setting, but she does plan on also getting a master's in K-12 administration to allow her to be an art director or curriculum coordinator later down the line.
Noticing that arts programs often don't get the attention deserved and are sometimes the first to be cut in school systems, a bigger goal of hers would be to open an art center for disenfranchised youth.
"Having programs like that where students feel like they can express themselves artistically is important," Thomas said.
At EMU, the art program is fairly small, but multiple art students at the university have said that they love the small community of peers and professors nonetheless.
"I know a lot of students generally in college have one or two professors that they aren't really crazy about or don't get along with, but since day one I've had great relationships with all my professors," Thomas said.
She also said that the fact that other art education students are few and far between can be hard and that she has never had another art educator in her education courses. On the other hand, this makes her feel unique and like she can be the voice for the art education community at the university.
One way she has begun doing this is with the new student chapter of the National Art Education Association recently opened at EMU, which Thomas is a co-president of alongside fellow art education student Sarah Shafi.
The goal of the organization is to educate people on art education, a field that Thomas thinks that anyone interested in should do.
"If you love children and you have a passion for the arts and you wanna make a difference, I say go for it," she said.
Thomas recognized the challenges of teaching as well, including having to deal with administration, curriculum writing, lesson planning and more, much of which she didn't know about until entering the education program.
Thomas feels that if she could go back to her freshman year, she would add a greater social aspect to her time at EMU earlier on, and encourages every student to get out on campus, meet people, and participate in events.
"Don't be shy to go out there and experience what college has to offer, these are free events most of the time," Thomas said. "You can create lasting friendships and I would say make it count, make it happen."
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