How An Art Class Became A Little Community
Molly Lithgo taught “Drawing In Color” at Forsyth Tech for twenty years, from 1996 until she retired last May, and Mary Lib McCachern and Shirley McElwee were in virtually every class. Even when the class had three sessions a year – fall, spring and summer – Mary Lib and Shirley would sign up for all of them. “I can count on one hand all the sessions those two have missed,” Molly says. “It’s been pretty amazing.” And they aren’t the only ones who have taken the class over and over. In fact, Molly says most of the members of the class are repeat students, many having taken it for over a decade.
What keeps students like Mary Lib and Shirley coming back year after year? According to Molly, “There’s something about this particular class – it’s a little community of people who are interested in making art for themselves. I’ve taught other places, and there hasn’t been the same type of community that was created with this class. They’re very devoted to what they’re doing and very good at what they do.”
That passion is key. “Because this is a Continuing Ed class, the people here are doing it for enjoyment,” Molly says, “so they’re more passionate about it than you often find in a curriculum class.” And for many this class, which meets for three hours one day a week, is their only chance to focus on their artwork. “This is their fun time and their relaxation time,” Molly says. “A lot of people don’t have a place at home to draw, so this is the dedicated time they allot for themselves to draw, when they don’t have to worry about anything distracting them.”
Of course, having so many people repeat the class means Molly often had novices sitting next to more experienced artists, and she had to be able to work with both. With the beginning students there was a need to both teach and be encouraging. “They see peers in here and can get a little intimidated because they can’t do that yet,” Molly says, so part of her job was convincing those who are not as advanced not to give up on themselves. “They have to give themselves a chance to get there.”
For the more experienced students, Molly’s role is to critique their work, to tell them “this is where you’re at, this is what’s happening, and this is what you can do. It’s really teaching them to see, which is a never ending process.” According to Shirley, that’s something Molly does very well. “Molly is a superior teacher, the best art teacher I ever had,” Shirley says. “I get the best critiques in the whole wide world – they’re just wonderful. She helps you complete the work to a really great degree. She points out things I didn’t see, and as soon as she sees them and tells me, I say, ‘Yep, that’s it.’ I don’t know what I’m going to do without those finishing touches.”
Shirley actually began taking the “Drawing In Color” class before Molly became the instructor. Shirley had majored in Art at college and for five years worked as an artist for a major department store chain, doing watercolors showing how rooms would look with various materials. Then raising six kids became her priority, and eventually she and her husband retired to Winston-Salem from the Detroit area. With her artistic background, taking art classes at Forsyth Tech was appealing. Over the years she’s taken classes in watercolor, oil painting and, of course, colored pencil.
Amazingly, Mary Lib had also taken “Drawing In Color” before Molly began teaching the class. For her, taking art classes was a way to get active again after her husband passed away. “I needed something to preserve my sanity,” she recalls. A beginner when she first took the class, today she has the confidence that comes with more than twenty years of practice. She likes drawing animals, finding inspiration in photographs from calendars or magazines, and her style is to make them as realistic as possible. “I think it should look like what I’m seeing,” she says.
Both women enjoy sharing their art with their families. Shirley will often give a piece of her artwork to a friend or relative as a gift, while Mary Lib creates greeting cards and post cards that feature her artwork and sends them to friends and family.
They were both taking the class before Molly taught it and it’s likely they’ll continue taking it with the new instructor. Mary Lib is sure she’ll be back: “I want to keep taking it as long as I can,” she says. Shirley says Molly will be hard to replace, but she’ll give the new instructor a chance and of course there are also the friends she’s made in the class. “That’s another reason you come to class, because of the friendships you make here,” Shirley says.
As for Molly, she’s retiring from teaching but not from making art. She’s actually a professional potter (mollylithgo.com) who says that teaching this class was as much fun for her as it was the students. And while she will miss the teaching, it’s the friendships with women like Mary Lib and Shirley that she will miss the most. “That’s why I’ve been here this long,” she says, “because of the community that’s formed.”