Longtime Conway art teacher receives state award

PHOTO BY TAMMY KEITH

Becky Thornton had to argue with the staff at State College of Arkansas to let her be an art-education major.

Because she hadn’t even taken an art class at St. Joseph High School in Conway, it was decreed that her major should be “undecided.”

“I said, ‘When I change my mind, you can laugh at me,’” she said.

Forty-three years later and counting, she still hasn’t changed her mind.

Thornton, an art teacher at Carl Stuart Middle School in Conway, is adding an award to her long list of honors — the Judges Recognition Award in the Arkansas Arts Council’s 2018 Governor’s Arts Awards.

“It’s real humbling. I don’t even know what to say about that,” Thornton said.

Suzanne Vining Kunkel, a former Conway and Little Rock art teacher, and Sally Allinder, the art teacher at Theodore Jones Elementary School, nominated Thornton for the honor.

Kunkel, who has known Thornton for decades, said she and Thornton shared a classroom when Bob Courtway Middle School, now Bob and Betty Courtway Middle School, opened. Kunkel and Thornton each taught half a day.

“I think it takes someone very special to teach middle school, and I think Becky is one of those special teachers. She just has a unique way of relating to that age group. When we would do contour drawing, Becky would literally draw on her face. She’d say, ‘I do not have lines on my face.’ She’d take one of those watercolor markers to illustrate it. My children both had Becky [as a teacher], and that’s one thing they remember,” Kunkel said.

Allinder said she and Thornton first met 29 years ago when Allinder was Thornton’s student teacher at then-Conway Middle School.

“Admiration quickly grew into a deep friendship as we worked together as art teachers,” Allinder said. “[Thornton’s] intelligence, talent, energy, passion and dedication make her an excellent art educator. One of the things I truly love about her is how she uses art to teach her students the importance of community involvement and awareness. She encourages personal creativity and achievement, but she also creates an environment for developing a larger world view.

“As a teacher, she is constantly educating herself so she can further enrich her classroom lessons. She is very generous with her talents and knowledge, and will help any student or fellow educator anyway she can.”

Thornton was also named Art Educator of the Year in 2013 and Middle Level Art Educator of the Year in 2004 by the Arkansas Art Education Association.

She traces her interest in art to her parents, the late Raymond and Janet Kordsmeier.

“Mother and Dad appreciated art,” Thornton said.

However, they didn’t think it was wise to let Thornton drop a business or chemistry class her senior year at St. Joseph High School in Conway to take art the first year it was offered.

But Thornton and her younger sister, Gayle, took art lessons one hour a week at home for a few weeks when they were growing up.

And their father let them paint his windows at Kordsmeier Furniture Co., which had been in downtown Conway since 1949 and closed this year.

Thornton recalled that in a Frigidaire promotion, the company sent her dad “a giant thing of gold glitter” and asked that he use it to cover a refrigerator. Instead, Thornton, who was in seventh grade, and Gayle, who was in fifth grade, created a huge Nativity scene on Visqueen with the glitter. It was displayed in the store and won first place from among all downtown merchants.

“We beat all the adults,” she said, still excited about the win all these years later.

“Mom didn’t consider herself an artist, but she did do watercolor after we were out of the house,” Thornton said.

Thornton was one of five children in a close-knit Catholic family.

“My parents taught me I could do things,” she said.

Truth be known, she wanted to be a nun at first.

“In high school, I thought, ‘Oh, I can’t have kids if I’m a nun.’” She married her high school sweetheart, Scott Thornton, and they have four children.

Thornton said she also wanted to be a teacher.

“I loved school; I’ve always loved school. In seventh grade, I got a slide rule (used to perform mathematical computations) for Christmas. I asked for it,” she said, laughing.

She was a swimmer, and she was on the swim team at State College of Arkansas, which became the University of Central Arkansas before she graduated in 1975.

She was a lifeguard in the summers at what is now the Conway Human Development Center, and she organized and ran the first Special Olympics swim meet in Russellville at the direction of her supervisor.

“I did all the heats; it was really fabulous,” she said.

When she was at UCA, it didn’t sit well with Thornton that men’s sports teams got letter jackets, and the women’s teams didn’t get anything. She led the campaign to make that right, and women’s sports teams started receiving sweaters and letters.

After she graduated from UCA, then-Conway School District Superintendent Carl Stuart hired Thornton to be the art teacher at Conway Middle School.

She knew it was between her and another woman for the job, so Thornton asked to meet with Stuart.

“I said, ‘Would you like to know why you should hire me?’ I had five reasons,” she said. Those reasons included that she had taken two middle-school courses, which the other applicant hadn’t, and she did a pottery class for the Junior Auxiliary of Conway that brought in 90 children.

Thornton landed the job.

Then Conway Middle School became Carl Stuart Middle School, and she taught simultaneously at then-Bob Courtway Middle School. When Ruth Doyle Middle School opened, she taught there, as well as at Carl Stuart. She also led an after-school art program at Theodore Jones Elementary School for a while.

For seven years, Thornton served as the Conway High School swim and diving coach. She’d teach all day, then go to Hendrix College, where the high school team practiced. Her dedication didn’t go unnoticed. She won the Arkansas Swimming and Diving Coach of the Year Award from the Arkansas Activities Association.

Still, her heart is in her art.

Thornton sat in her cavernous classroom filled with a collage of colors from student artwork, as well as some of her own. The reason her classroom is so big, she said, is because her class was responsible for painting banners for the city of Conway, including the Conway Christmas Parade, years ago before more modern processes were used to make them.

“It had to be 35 feet to go across the street,” she said, stretching out her arms.

Her seventh-grade students still build floats for the Faulkner County Fair Parade and sometimes the Conway Christmas parade.

“I teach them how to hammer and nail and saw,” she said. If students don’t want to work on the float, they can help make cars for the Cardboard Car Derby at EcoFest each year.

Thornton is a strong advocate of community service.

“I am a firm believer that if the kids feel invested in the the community, if they feel Faulkner County loves them and Conway loves them, they don’t need to join a gang,” she said.

Her students repainted the Toad Suck Daze logo at Front and Oak streets in downtown Conway one year.

“It was glorious,” she said. Thornton was also in charge of a downtown sidewalk-chalk art contest for

17 years.

Thornton’s students, as well as Kunkel’s, painted tiles that were installed under the bridge at the Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock.

“We each did 100 tiles with our kids; you paint on them and get them fired in the kiln,” she said.

She loves teaching her students various techniques and having them enter contests. When she was teaching perspective recently, she had them paint a fence and a barn. She saw a farm-safety poster contest, and she jumped on it.

Thornton teaches lessons connected to the artwork, such as painting story quilts from the Underground Railroad.

It’s not just children that she teaches; she has taught art classes for 20 years at the Arkansas Art Education Association conference, such as Native American art projects to enhance classroom lessons, or art techniques to help teach special-needs children.

She believes artists are made, not just born.

“If you can draw the letter U, you can draw a daffodil. … If you can draw the letters of the alphabet, you’ve got a really good start. If you can draw the basic shapes, you can draw anything,” she said.

Her favorite medium is pottery, although she spends most of her time painting.

“I had a show in September at the Conway Regional Surgery Center. I called it The Eclectic Work of Becky Thornton,” she said.

She will receive the Judges Recognition Award in March at an Arkansas Arts Council luncheon, and she knows she’ll have to speak.

“I don’t know what I will say,” Thornton said. She has 43 years of stories she could share.

The obvious question for anyone who has been teaching for more than four decades is, when does she plan to retire?

“When I don’t love it, I will quit,” she said.

Don’t expect that day to come anytime soon.

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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