Art teacher creates ‘haven for personal expression’

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Art teacher Lonnie Collinsworth is pictured at Whitefish High School, where he has taught art for 20 years. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

For some students, the high school art room is a haven for personal expression — “a place where you can come and be yourself,” said Whitefish High School art teacher Lonnie Collinsworth.

Before school, during lunch and after school, there are usually students in his classroom working on art projects or hanging out.

“It is so odd not to have people in here right now. I told them even though this is my prep period, I have a meeting,” Collinsworth said during an interview in his classroom.

Art is key to a well-rounded student, according to Collinsworth, 56.

“It also gives a student a time to kind of find out who they are, what they like to do,” he said.

Whether coming in the form of art, choir, band or creative writing, “I think they need another outlet, an outlet from their schedule,” Collinsworth said.

This is Collinsworth’s 20th year teaching art at Whitefish High School. The milestone is a meaningful one to someone who didn’t think college was a possibility, let alone going into a career teaching art.

Collinsworth, who grew up in Deer Lodge, was the first of his family to go to college. His mother died when he was young and his father worked for the railroad. He was a good student, but at home, there wasn’t much emphasis on academics. It wasn’t until his high school art teacher Jeanne Rhodes took an interest in his life that his horizons on college and career expanded.

“I thought only wealthy people get to go to college. I didn’t realize at the time it was something just anybody could do,” Collinsworth said, noting that Rhodes guided him through the process of applying for college and scholarships.

“I constantly try to pass that on to students that, you know, having a goal, or having a dream is possible,” he said.

When he decided to specialize in teaching art and history, it was because of the impact his high school teachers made in his life.

“My art teacher, she was the one that said, ‘why don’t you become an art teacher?’” Collinsworth recalled.

“I liked art, but I was always more interested in sports, and I liked history, but I didn’t think I would be an art teacher. But it’s the greatest thing that could ever happen,” he said.

About a decade ago, Collinsworth received his administration certification and is an endorsed athletic director. While he’s been offered administrative jobs, teaching is where he plans to stay.

“I thought that I’d eventually [say] I’m ready to get out of this, but I’ve really enjoyed it so much working with the students that I haven’t went into the administrative part,” Collinsworth said.

Even when life-altering surgeries and diagnoses more than a decade ago took Collinsworth out of the classroom for nearly a semester, he was anxious to get back.

“I thought I would get to the point — what if I can’t teach again? What if I can’t do the thing I love? If I go back I can get rid of some of those fears. I just wanted to be back to where I felt the most comfort and that was in school,” he said.

In 2007 he suddenly became ill, and within days, was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and sent to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for emergency surgeries to remove parts of his stomach, intestines, pancreas and gallbladder. Biopsies were done and the final diagnosis was severe pancreatitis.

“It was one of the turning points in my life because of the fact of the outpouring of the community, the valley, my students [and] fellow teachers,” Collinsworth.

Collinsworth did make it back into the classroom for the last two weeks of that school year.

What draws Collinsworth to the classroom, is students’ discovery — and rediscovery — of their artistic abilities.

“You’ll notice most students, when they are young, they can tell you they can do art, and then they go through a stage where they don’t think they can do it,” he said. “Then, when they get to high school they can find I can do this. This isn’t that difficult. I can draw. I can paint. And, for me, when you see those students have success it’s amazing — students that forgot long ago they could do something and they’ve discovered again.”

When it comes to creating his own art, Collinsworth’s favorite medium is watercolor. As its namesake implies, watercolor is pigment mixed with water, which impacts its transparency and opacity.

Mastering any medium is an art in itself. Learning to both control and work with the watery pigment is a challenge.

“I think, for me, it was the most difficult medium to learn,” he said. “The water does what it wants to do, so it is very difficult to work with because of that fact ... but as you work with it longer you learn how to manipulate it a little bit more, change it, do the things you want it to do.”

Even if a medium is mastered and the finest detail sketched out beforehand — there is still happenstance.

“When I first started to paint with it I wanted to be able to control it. And now I don’t do that anymore I let it do it’s thing and take advantage of ... all the different things it can do,” he said.

Through the years, Collinsworth has taught hundreds of students who interpreted their lives or thoughts through the stroke of a brush, line of ink, sweep of pastel or pinch of clay.

“It’s a way for these students to tell a little bit about who they are, what they are, how they want to live. It provides so much happiness so much fulfillment ...

“Art is for everyone,” he said.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or

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