Teacher fuses passion for art, math, computers

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Dave Ritter, art and digital art teacher at Columbia Falls Junior High, prepares his classroom for incoming students on Aug. 27. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

Columbia Falls Junior High School art teacher Dave Ritter categorizes himself as untraditional.

Just as Ritter describes his favorite art medium watercolor as very versatile, so is his approach to life.

While his career path eventually led to teaching, it meandered along the way. He has worked in a variety of jobs from coffee roaster to chimney sweep.

“I had the philosophy that if a job is no longer fun I need to do something different,” Ritter, 50, said.

Along the way he ended up in Paris with $200 in his pocket and a backpack, living there for a month and a half.

“I almost stayed there. I did a lot of sketching. I chased my favorite writers — their ghosts, I guess,” said Ritter, who, at one time, wanted to be a creative writer.

Growing up in Detroit, Ritter said he came to Montana and Glacier National Park on a whim in 1991.

“I took the road atlas, spun it and pointed with closed eyes. I landed on Montana,” Ritter said.

He took jobs in restaurants. Lived in East Glacier. Attended Flathead Valley Community College — and never left.

He eventually enrolled in computer engineering at Montana State University. It wasn’t until he started an internship that he had a revelation it may not suit his personality that he switched course and went into teaching.

The story that inspired the revelation was simple enough. A colleague sitting in the cubicle next to him asked what he wanted to do for lunch. Instead of just talking face to face, the person sent an instant message on the computer.

“I leaned over and said, ‘you could just ask me,’” he said laughing. “I like more human interaction.”

He chose to specialize in math as a teacher.

“My whole goal was to be a math teacher because math is really tough for some people, and it didn’t come naturally to me. I’m more of a visual person, and so, I thought maybe I could help other kids and people because I struggled,” Ritter said.

His academic advisor suggested he pick up a second discipline to broaden the job opportunities. Rather than choosing the usual path of math and science — he chose art.

“He said, ‘don’t you want something more marketable,’” Ritter said. “He goes, ‘you will never get a job in art.’ And look, I’m doing that now.”

Ritter has taught art at the junior high for the past seven years. On Aug. 27, he was preparing his art room for the 2018-19 school year. His daughter, 11-year-old Samara, was busy helping by gluing labels to folders and stacking them in a neat pile.

While the subjects of math and art appear to be opposites — “They really are the same,” Ritter said.

The golden ratio comes to mind.

“Math and art are all about problem solving,” Ritter said. “In higher mathematics it takes a little creativity to get from start to finish.”

With a mind for art and math you might conclude that his favorite artist is M.C. Escher whose graphic designs were inspired by mathematical concepts. While he does enjoy Escher’s work, it’s the work of abstract expressionist Richard Diebenkorn and post-impressionist Pierre Bonnard he is drawn to.

“I’m linear thinking to an extent,” Ritter said walking over to a print of a Diebenkorn painting on one of the classroom walls.

“For some reason, that speaks to me how he handles light and colors together,” he said looking at it. As for Bonnard, “he’s all about color,” Ritter said. “I guess what attracts me the most is the color — very vibrant rich color.”

Ritter has found a way to fuse his passion for art, math, and computer engineering into teaching — whether the medium is paint and clay, or HTML and Java.

“Art teaches you many different things. First of all, it teaches you about how to persevere. It takes a little grit. Art is one of the subjects that encompasses all the other core subjects that people think are the important subjects,” he said.

Sometimes though, his lessons can get heavy in math.

“Sometimes my students will say ‘Mr. Ritter this is art class,’” he said smiling.

With so many career fields impacted by technology, Ritter’s focus has been exposing students to the latest developments. The problem is cost.

“Some of these jobs we don’t even know about yet,” he said.

His classroom is already equipped with a 3-D printer. His goal now is to purchase a Google Tilt Brush to introduce students to creating 3-D art in virtual reality.

“So your whole room could be your canvas,” Ritter said.

“My brother is a designer. He worked for Airbus in Kansas. We were talking about how what he’s doing could actually become virtual reality, you know, what he’s designing,” he said.

Ritter is currently raising the $524 to purchase the technology through the online campaign “Immersive 3D Art: The Classroom as a Virtual Canvas” at www.donorschoose.org. He still needs to raise $444 by Sept. 8, when the campaign expires.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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