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, 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 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.”