Though he does it exceptionally well, Matt Fussell did not envision himself teaching for much of his adolescence. In fact, as the son of two teachers, he actively resisted entering the education field. It was only after Fussell got a recommendation from his instructor-turned-mentor at his art school that he decided to pursue art education, graduating with his teaching certification and entering a school he would teach at for the next 10 years.
It was at that point that Fussell was able to do something extraordinary. He and his colleagues wrote a grant that awarded their administration $1.5 million so that they could turn that school into a visual and performing arts magnet high school. Fussell was overjoyed, especially when he got the opportunity to help write a brand new curriculum for the brand new school and later become the lead art teacher for the entire school system, overseeing 120 K-12 art instructors.
While the full conversion of school and its curriculum was underway, Fussell was laying the bricks for his own little empire, long before he even knew that it would become one.
“A little bit before then, I was making videos anyway, because that was something that I enjoyed doing. I created painting videos and drawing videos in my garage and actually called it the ‘Art Garage.’ It was a lot of fun and my students enjoyed getting those DVDs. Plus, it was really easy to stand up in front of the class, and when I had a more in-depth demonstration to share with the students, I could just pop in that DVD and they could watch an oil painting developed from start to finish, where you can’t do that in a normal art classroom.”
Fussell posted these same videos onto his new website, TheVirtualInstructor.com, which quickly gathered a large and dedicated following. Seeing the success of his website and the impact of his lessons on the greater public, Fussell understood that his career path was going to change. He stepped down from his Lead Art Teacher position and re-entered the classroom at his magnet school, intending to teach there for a few more years before switching his full-time occupation to making content for his website. The decision was not an easy one, according to Fussell, but it ultimately paid off.
“I ended up just being in the classroom for one more year and then I went in and quit my job, and that was very scary. That was about seven years ago—the website’s been my full-time job since then. Currently, we’ve got people from all over the world that visit. The site gets over 3 million visits a year, and we’ve got a huge number of users in our database that are members or have purchased a course.”
The website turned out to be a hit not only with art students and hobbyists but also with fellow visual art instructors, who Fussell catered to immediately. He designed a year-long program for visual arts teachers called “The Ultimate Lesson Plan,” which has everything a teacher needs to teach a course, including handouts, examples, and even assessments. With this dedication to serving the needs of art instructors, it comes as no surprise that Fussell thought of them first when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
“Part of being a teacher is sharing. When the pandemic started, I immediately thought of the teachers who were all of a sudden out of the classroom. Many of them are out of their element. They’re having to learn new technologies, and a lot of them depend on what I provide to aid in their instruction. I thought, ‘what can I give teachers so they can continue to give content to their students so their students can continue to benefit?’ And immediately I thought of opening up several live lessons series.”
Fussell, who has a popular YouTube channel where he posts art tutorials and relevant videos, posted a video on March 16, announcing that he was making a portion of his members-only courses, which amounted to over 25 hours of art lessons, free for anyone to access. He specifically mentioned that art teachers could utilize these lessons with their students in order to make distance learning easier.
The response was overwhelming. Many, teachers and art hobbyists alike, were quick to both take advantage of this offer and praise Matt for his generosity and quick thinking. After all, many teachers were given little time, some as few as two days, to completely readjust their curriculums for distance learning. Matt was overjoyed by the positive reception of his decision.
“It turned out to be a great thing for everyone because people were able to benefit—there’s a lot of people that are stuck at home that aren’t teachers that have all this time on their hands now. Under normal circumstances, they like to kind of delay things that might make them happy or passions that they might want to pursue because they’re so wrapped up in work.”
“Opening up those lessons for those folks too has helped them realize you only live one life, you only got one chance at this. We shouldn’t have to have a pandemic to make us realize that our lives can be more fulfilling if we just take the time to do the things that make us happy.”
While putting content together, Fussell did his best to think of all the obstacles teachers and students were facing. He immediately recognized a major issue that many students and teachers would be dealing with: a lack of access to art materials, especially those materials for specialized mediums and tools that students rely on their teachers to supply them with.
Thinking ahead, the live lessons Fussell chose to make available use very basic materials like charcoal, oil pastels, and even things that everyone has around their house, such as pencils, pens, and so on. This was so that viewers did not need the inventory and materials found within an art studio in order to succeed. Since he has been a teacher for over 10 years, Fussell understands that there is a general lack of accessibility to both art supplies and art opportunities for many students across America and the world.
“Obviously there are students that you have in a classroom that fall into all different types of economic categories. If they’re on the lower end of the economic scale, that’s not their fault. They deserve to have the same access to the same materials as a student that might be a little bit better off financially. So I think that the playing field, as far as art materials go, is definitely leveled when you’re dealing with a student in a physical classroom.”
Fussell also recognizes, however, that there is an increasing lack of accessibility not only to art materials but also in art courses. As academic budgets become increasingly strained and schools shift their course offerings to prioritize classes that require standardized testing, creative programs such as visual arts, music, and theatre are often the first to be cut. These changes often occur at the elementary level, depriving hundreds of thousands of young students the opportunity to not only develop a passion for the arts, but also to refine their art skills in an academic setting. The unfortunate result is that many grow up to see art as a hobby, and not a reasonable means of income. Fussell, of course, takes issue with this.
“If you ask a child what their favorite activity in school is when they’re in first and second grade, a lot of them are going to tell you that it’s drawing or coloring or some form of being creative. As we get older and as we develop, we start to become a little bit more self-conscious. We also have adults and people in authority tell us that anything that’s a creative form of expression is not going to lead to financial success, which totally is not true through these days!”
“If you look at the people who are most successful in the world right now, they are the creative people. They are the innovators. Look at all the apps that we use, all of the websites we visit; all of those things are designed by artists. This is a wonderful time to be an artist right now. The people who are cutting the art programs, the people who are making these decisions, just don’t understand how important being creative and being innovative is.”
Despite his valid critique of these curriculum mishaps and the general lack of adequate recognition for the value of art, Fussell is hopeful for the future. Although the long-term impact of the pandemic on the American public is still hard to predict, many are speculating that life could be changed for years to come. Some of the biggest concerns right now are school reopening plans for the upcoming academic year, and whether the move to remote teaching will become a more permanent one; at least while the threat of spreading and contracting COVID-19 still looms large.
Fussell believes it is possible that, as more creative programs begin being cut, they should start turning more towards virtual instruction, such as the type that he does himself; to give students access to high-quality art courses. While these courses cannot replace the experience of in-class instruction, they offer school systems that are considering cutting creative programs and taking away their opportunity to use an economically-friendly alternative that ensures their students’ creative capacities are still nurtured. Fussell also thinks that the stay-at-home period may have a long term impact on Americans in that they’ll be more conscious of doing things that make them happy and actively improve their lives in the future.
“I think the pandemic is going to change all different aspects of the way that we live going forward. It’s my hope that there’s a greater appreciation for art, but I think the big thing here is not necessarily that. I think that people have been forced to slow down, and they’ve been forced to step out of their normal day-to-day routine. In my opinion, this is gonna sound harsh, but I think a lot of people kind of go through their life like zombies.”
“They’re going to work each day and they’re coming home and going to sleep and getting up and going into work the next day. They basically live for the weekends. I think that we need, as a society, as the world, to invest ourselves in the things that we’re passionate about, the things that make us happy. These are the things that we should live for, not for the job that we hate. That’s my hope, that more people come to that realization. And I think that because of the pandemic, more people are realizing that.”
Using Instagram Art to Promote Anti-Racism: Meet French Graphic Artist Aurélia Durand
Instagram artist, Aurélia Durand, has been using the platform to promote her anti-racism art. She has a website on which she sells posters, stickers, and cards that she has designed herself. Her art is focused on celebrating diversity and equal representation. Durand’s dream is to help form a united community and an inclusive future for everyone. BLENDtw had the opportunity to ask Durand a series of questions about her current work on Instagram, the book she illustrated, and her goals for the future.
1. Who or what inspired you to start creating art? What keeps you motivated?
When I begin working on a new artistic creation, I listen to music to put myself in a zone where I feel good and am inspired to create a meaningful message. I find that music settles the mood and atmosphere around me. I create to stay positive, and staying positive is essential for my well being. I need to be creative; I am addicted to creativity; imagination, drawing, and seeing the idea evolve is exciting. The most fulfilling feeling is to see people interacting with my work.
2. If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be? What advice would you give to young black women with dreams similar to your own?
Create for yourself; don’t try to make the same as everyone else. Find your voice; follow your instinct.
3. What impact do you hope your art will have on our world today?
I hope my art empowers people and makes them smile.
4. In what way does art communicate with and reach people better than other means do?
It’s upon us; it happens because of many factors. I think that visuals are more impactful than words. It is universal, we see it, and we quickly react to it.
6. You just recently illustrated a New York Times bestseller, “This Book is Anti-Racist.” What inspired this project? What do you hope readers take away from it?
I hope readers want to take action for antiracism in there every day life after they read the book.
My publisher, Quarto, contacted me at the end of 2018 to participate in the book’s conception as the leading illustrator. I have never met the author; unfortunately, due to the current global pandemic and social distancing regulations.
The book, “This Book is Anti-Racist” was released in January 2020 and became a best seller in June after the Black Lives Matter movement spread globally. We sold more than 150,000 copies! The book has been popular in schools, but people of all ages are reading the book. It includes about 20 exercises for readers to do while thinking about how they can take action to build a more inclusive society.
7. Do you have any plans or projects you are working on? How can people help support your cause?
I am working on many new projects, but I can’t talk about them as they are meant to be a surprise. In October, I will be participating in several talks with Adobe, Ladies and Wine, and the AOI association. The projects are very exciting and I have confidence that they will have great success when they are completed.
Meet Steve Schwartz: Coaching Students Through LSAT Unplugged
None of us are strangers to the barriers that standardized testing poses to students. Most of us have gone through exams such as the SAT, ACT, or SAT II exams, which are notorious for being inherently abstruse to students without test preparation programs and similar resources.
Beyond these college entry exams, which some schools have made optional due to these reasons, there are also graduate school entry-level exams. Like the SAT and ACT, exams like the GRE, LSAT, and MCAT serve as gatekeepers to graduate school for many students for several reasons, ranging from financial difficulties to no access to preparation materials.
According to a study by Harvard scholars, the LSAT was linked to the marginalization of aspiring black lawyers.
Even so, individuals are working to alleviate these barriers; Steve Schwartz, one of these remarkable individuals, is making his LSAT preparation materials more accessible to all demographics through his blog and YouTube channel. BLENDtw had the pleasure of interviewing Steve about his journey to becoming an LSAT coach.
In your blog, you mentioned that a lot of other LSAT coaches tend to be geniuses that didn’t have to study for the LSAT for a good score. But, you worked extremely hard for your impressive score, and you can help others accomplish the same for themselves. How do you adhere to your promise to make LSAT prep and impressive scores accessible to all?
Well, it’s really about getting into the student’s mindset and seeing the questions from their point of view. Going back in time to when I was prepping, I would feel dumb sometimes; I wouldn’t always get it the first time, the second time, or even the third time. So, it’s really about adjusting to the way they think about it and getting them to understand it using their way or their approach.
In 2019, there was a study published that linked the LSAT to the marginalization of aspiring black lawyers. How are you working to alleviate this marginalization?
So first off, aside from my courses, I release 98% of my information for free via the YouTube channel, Facebook group, and Instagram. So 98% of my information is free, that’s a lot of information. That being said, I also have scholarship programs for my class.
Earlier this year, I ran a special interest scholarship, where all you had to do was submit a short video, really anything you want. I got over 100 submissions. I was initially going to give 10 students access to top tier courses for three months, but I got so many good submissions that I accepted 30 students for free.
Going forward, I have several scholarships I am running, through which you can get 50% off the classes if you have a fee waiver, are active or former military, and if you’re committed to practicing law in the public sector, you can get an additional 10% off. I am doing my part and always looking for more ways to make my materials more accessible.
How do you believe standardized testing gauges one’s abilities? What is your opinion on the belief that assessments like the LSAT are barriers to achieving one’s dreams?
I think standardized tests play an important role, but they’re also overemphasized in the admissions process. They have some validity, and they’re a better objective method than GPAs are because of grade inflation and variations among different kinds of programs; one standardized test plays a role in leveling that field.
But, at the same time, people can afford prep while others can’t. That creates barriers because some people have certain backgrounds that make it so that they can perform better in these exams. So, I wish that these exams didn’t have as much importance as they do. But, I still think they play a role. People should always be looking to make these exams better and more equitable.
You mentioned in your blog that you became an LSAT coach upon obsessing over it, achieving an impressive score, and wanting to help others to do the same. How did you reconcile your dreams of becoming a lawyer with your desire to help others surpass the “roadblock” the LSAT poses on the journey to law school?
First off, once I took this exam and became obsessed, my natural process of studying it naturally forced me to help others. So, since I was a political science major as a pre-law student, I had friends who were also looking to take the LSAT; it just felt natural to help them. I kind of fell into teaching the exam in that way.
At the same time, I was working on my law school application and personal statement, and that really is a journey to self-discovery, and you wonder why you want to go to law school and what you are doing here.
Through that, I realized I didn’t want to go to law school; all the things I loved about it was an idea I had created for myself. But, I loved teaching the LSAT, so I decided that it was really for me.
I discovered this by writing a personal statement. I started my blog a few years later, and it just took up from there along with the YouTube channel.
And from here, we really are just looking to expand mediums to get as much information out there for people to have.
What advice would you offer a college student on a predetermined path, like pre-law or pre-med, about not reaching a traditional endpoint?
I would say to talk to some people doing what it is that you want to do. I would say to do some exploration and talk to people in the field and ask them what they do. Maybe you can shadow them so you can understand what it is that goes on so you can get a clear idea and not just something you make up in your head. Talk to the professionals in the field and get their advice.
What is the most memorable or impactful coaching experience you have had thus far?
There are so many, it’s hard to think of just one. I have a lot of online coaching sessions; I even release them on YouTube where students get those flashes of insight. And whenever that happens, that’s really powerful. And, of course, due to COVID, there are more online classes. I play with different formats and the most interesting is group coaching.
In this format, the students support each other and present information to one another. It is an extremely powerful moment when students begin to support each other. It’s empowering to have someone learn by teaching others. I have learned a lot from teaching, but those moments where one student supports another and grow through that process, I think that’s the most powerful thing I have experienced.
Steve’s commitment to making his classes accessible and his passion for teaching shines bright. He is making a monumental difference in his students’ lives and he is providing accessible courses in an attempt to eliminate the unfair barriers that standardized exams pose for students.
Meet Deema Alawa, a Non-Traditional Illustrator Paving the Way for Representation
Art has always been used to tell a story. Many of us grew up reading fairy tales filled with beautiful illustrations that still stay with us today. However, many of these illustrations tell primarily white stories and emphasize Eurocentric beauty standards.
BLENDtw had the opportunity to interview Deema Alawa, a rising illustrator and art director at The Tempest who is paving the way for diversity by creating non-traditional artwork.
Tell us a bit about yourself. What’s your background? Where did you grow up?
I was born in New York, which is really bizarre, considering that I live in the countryside right now. I am someone who is Syrian-Danish, although it’s always very apparent in the way that I design or illustrate.
I’m a minority, so I’m really attracted to working in minority spaces, where people are similar to me, especially as someone who has serious imposter syndrome. I am a designer, illustrator, and currently an art director at the Tempest, but the fancier term that they use for it is “Chief Creative Officer.” I’ll always use “art director” because it’s more on my level.
How did you discover the world of illustration and design?
I started illustrating when I was a child, but I don’t actually have a specific age for it. It was just like “here’s a piece of paper, let me just illustrate some horrible animal work.” I decided at one point to move to digital because I felt that it was too easy to be working on paper.
I’m the type of person who doesn’t like to get bored easily, so digital art was the next challenge or the next level up. When I started digital, it was on a really run-down laptop.
It was very bootleg photoshop that was breaking down every fifteen minutes. Awful illustrations came out of that. I’m never going to post those anywhere!
In 2016, I started taking it professionally, and that’s when I got the position at The Tempest as a Design Fellow. The Tempest is a global media company that is very focused on giving minorities and women a place at the table.
This is a platform that is for women, by women. Just being in a space where people are constantly trying new projects or being immersed in things that you never thought you would actually try out was amazing.
With the Tempest, it was like “you’re good at illustration, but you need to work on design a bit more, just for the internship.” When I got into this, it was like a new world, and I loved it because it was challenging.
My thought process was “I’m really horrible at this, but we’re going to try it out!” Hopefully I can say I’m a little better at every single facet I’m working on. I would say I’m a jack of all trades, master of none, but it’s been four or five years, and we’re getting there!
Your art primarily features women of color. What is the reason behind that?
I grew up in a very white neighborhood. It always felt like there was a divide. For example, I was talking to my little sister, and we realized that we’re never going to see someone like ourselves, and even if we do, it’s going to be in very limited areas.
That’s when I decided that I was going to work on a book featuring women of color, or anyone who stood out to me in some way. I also feel like there are so many perceptions of beauty, and it’s very white-focused.
Now, it’s recently changing to white people using black features. For example, the Kardashians. When you take things from other cultures, what are you contributing to society?
You’re not contributing anything but the idea that “I can take this and commodify it for my own needs.” That’s not helping anyone in the long run. If you could see yourself in even just one space, it does change your own perception of yourself.
On your website, you said that you create non-traditional artwork inspired by your Danish and Syrian heritage. Can you tell us more about how you manage to do that? Have you always been able to do this?
When it comes to design work for brands, I’ve realized, especially with the New York Times, you’re going through artworks and you think, “I love this because it’s so individualized,” but you realize online that it’s another thing they stole from another platform.
Through my own artwork, I try pulling my own designs and what inspires me. A lot of that comes from my Syrian-Danish heritage. I’m not interested in mimicking very European or already-used designs.
I’m a very big fan of Pinterest. I know that’s a very niche website, but a lot of that is made up of very cultural things that tie into my Arab background.
Even in my website, I’m very into simplistic design. I pull a lot from Danish design, which is very simple. It gets the point across very quickly.
The Arab part of my heritage goes into illustrations. I don’t want to commodify everything. I always have journals with me that are filled with illustrations that are very much the cultural aspect of me.
However, those are not the works I will be publicizing. I don’t want someone to be viewing it out of the context of “oh that’s cute! I can use it as a wallpaper” or something. I want it to be just intrinsically mine.
Your first book has come out! Congratulations on that! How did you get this project? What is it about?
In my first semester of college, I was just sitting in the dining hall on the phone with my sister, and then I got an email from Penguin Random House. It was for the book Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World by Burhana Islam.
I am one of those people who turns down more projects than I take because if a project isn’t tied to my values, I’m not going to do it. So when Penguin Random House reached out to me, I negotiated a bit, but I knew I was going to take this project.
I got to illustrate a couple iconic figures that mean a lot to me. For example, Muhammad Ali is someone I really look up to. I am very much into the idea that you have to give a platform to people who are like you, or even people you look up to.
The book is about Muslims way back in history to those in the modern day, the most recent Muslim being Malala. The age range for this book is 8-12. This is the point where those sorts of books that stick with you will stick to kids.
This is exactly the sort of book I would have wanted my ten-year-old sister to read when she was younger. Every single person who worked on this was Muslim or in that minority sphere.
I got to work with the art director, editor, and the author herself. I didn’t expect to illustrate a book until I was forty, but now I’m nineteen and I’ve done it!
Unfortunately, Hijabi Muslim American women often face the most discrimination in the workforce. Have you experienced any challenges as a hijabi Muslim American woman?
One of the things you can see in my illustrations is that I don’t try and brand myself as this or that because I know it is limiting.
For example, if I was to brand myself as a hijabi illustrator/designer, I would then get very specific projects and then hardly anything after that. Even as just a Muslim American, I am getting projects that are very specific, such as Amazing Muslims.
I haven’t had anyone, yet, directly me tell that I don’t fit into their brand because I am a hijabi Muslim American. My identity as a hijabi did play a lot into my imposter syndrome.
Even applying for roles, it was always a question of “am I even going to get this? Are they just going to go through my bio and say this will not be a fit?”
In terms of imposter syndrome, it goes into the fact that the people I looked up to in design starting out were all men.
Obviously, the art world is a bit wider than that, but even if you look at older artists, you have Frida Kalo, but then beyond that, it’s just men. It’s really important, in the beginning especially, to find a place where people are similar to you.
You’ve worked with the famous publishing houses Penguin Random House and Kastor and Pollux. What advice do you have for young women who want to pursue that path of design and illustrating?
One piece of advice I have is that you have to put yourself out there. With Penguin Random House, the art director actually discovered me off of Instagram.
I also involved myself with platforms on the side such as Girl Gaze, Women Who Draw, and networks that are free to illustrators. These are especially great for those who don’t want to pay fifty dollars a month to join an art directors’ club.
Those are the exact sorts of things that, if you have a presence online, even if you don’t feel like you’re ready to be serious about art or design, as long as you have a presence online someone is going to be looking for you, even if you don’t realize it.
With Kastor and Pollux, I actually emailed them and said “hey these are my designs! I would love to collaborate with you.” I would say also be completely ready for rejection, because that has happened ninety-eight percent of the time.
For example, in the past month, I probably sent out fifty emails to different publishing houses and different art directors saying “here are my services, I’m one hundred percent here to talk about any project in the future.”
It probably isn’t going to happen now, but once you’re on someone’s radar, it might maybe in the future. I also think having a website does legitimize people a lot.
It is someone publishing houses do go over. Once again, even if you can’t afford it, Wix does have free websites. It does have a watermark, but you’ll be fine. No one cares about that.
Tell us a bit about Speak Up and what inspired this project.
It’s not set fully. I’m still working on getting an agent and the rest of the logistics. Three years ago, I wanted to make sure that my sister didn’t have only Hermione Granger to look up to.
In my family, the idea is that if you feel like there’s an issue, you have to take a stand on your own, or you have to find out what you can do. So I started this book of people who I personally look up to.
One of the people featured in it is Yusra Mardini. She was a Syrian refugee escaping Syria. The boat was damaged, but she and her sister swam in the ocean to shore.
They saved fifty people. From there, she got to go to the Olympics. I felt that this story needed to be shared with the non-Syrian audience as well.
Everyone should know these powerhouses. Gloria Steinem is great, but we need to know the others. People don’t want to hear the same stories about suffragists, who were part of a white movement.
The Tempest’s “40 Women to Watch” campaign is such an interesting project. What brought this idea to fruition, and how did you find these women?
This was a campaign for The Tempest and it was something that I was very excited about because I’m very into the idea that everyone should get a platform. 40 Women to Watch is coming out next month.
It’s similar to the Forbes Under 40 list, but it’s focusing on women and others who do not fit the cisgender male category. It’s made up of the people you knew in history and the people that you didn’t realize existed, people who have not had a platform in the past.
One of the fun things about this is that we did throw nominations to people in the team. For example, we have two members who are extremely passionate about what they do. The list is divided by categories such as “sports” and “design.” It’s going to be similar to the way Teen Vogue does 21 Under 21.
What’s a typical day like for you for illustration?
If I were to get a project now, it would take a couple days. Typically I start at night, because I’m most creative at night. I go and make a mood board, and that would be just Pinterest for two hours.
It’s just “here are some ideas that would work with this project.” The second day would be me thinking about the idea and what works best.
Once I actually start the illustration process, it’s once again very late at night, when I’m fully de-stressed from everything going on in the day. It takes about three hours to perfect the line art and move on to the coloring. The color theory itself is interesting.
For me, I don’t use a color palette setup. I just use one swatch to cover the whole thing. Right now you’re seeing a lot of reds because when I start out my illustration, the background color is always red, and I work over it with skin tones to create a warm, lively undertone.
Lastly, do you see illustration and design as a long-term career goal for you?
Art and design is something that has been working out for me so far. I do think it’s going to be something that’s going to be in my life in the long run.
I am very much the type of person who gets bored easily. I like always having something going on. Creating in itself is a passion for me. So I do see this in the long run, but I’m not sure how it will turn out.
Amazing Muslims Who Changed the World is available to purchase on Amazon and from other sellers in both ebook and hardcover format. To keep up with the rest of Deema Alawa’s work, check out her website.
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