Local artist Perry Rath has a broad range of artistic styles on display at the Smithers Art Gallery including sculptures, etchings, and a wide variety of painting styles. (Tom Best photo)
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and one local teacher has caught the eye of the BC Art Teacher’s Association.
Smithers Secondary School art teacher Perry Rath was given the Excellence in Art Education Award 2022.
Rath explains it as the province’s art teacher of the year award and said receiving it is very validating.
“As teachers, I feel like we’re probably always second guessing ourselves wondering, am I making a difference? Am I doing things the best way? I mean, as humans, ideally, we’re all reflecting on what we’re doing in the world around us and how to make things better.”
Rath has been working at SSS for nearly 20 years and has always strived to create a welcoming and inclusive classroom.
“I leave my room open at lunch, I can see it from my office, I have a window into my room. And it’s just a space where I can see lots of all kinds of students come out here and just have a place to be in lunchtime even if they’re not enrolled in an art class. So I’m just happy to provide that space.”
Katherine Brach worked with Rath from 2013-2021 in her role as school counselor at SSS. She wrote a supporting letter for his art teacher of the year nomination. She has since moved to another school, but said he will always have a special place in her heart.
“Walking in Perry’s art room is like walking into another dimension. His walls are highly curated showcasing student artwork from students from all abilities and walks of life. It is an incredibly affirming and inclusive space that both draws you in and challenges you to take up an art practice,” she said. “The school is a better place with Perry there and I know so many students who have been touched by his art education, creativity, inspiration and generosity.”
Rath said teaching art is so important for students, not so that they will all become artists, but because he believes art education makes for good, well-rounded humans.
“They get a chance to learn about what it takes to create something from scratch, just invent something from inside their head, and how to translate what’s in their head, into the real world,” he explained. “And I really emphasize the process of that, sometimes, it’s important to work towards the finished artwork to sort of see it through to completion. But in many ways, the biggest learning happens just in the process of trial and error, or the process of discovering something and then changing directions, and then trying something new.”
He added the other aspect of art education is coming to appreciate other people’s creations and appreciate other people’s perspectives and ways of looking at things.
“Art education encourages that sense of respecting other people’s perspectives, and that there’s more than one way to do something, more than one way to express an idea and, and that’s super critical in the world today.”
Rath said his favorite part of teaching is seeing students succeed in something, or getting a breakthrough when they are stuck.
“Just to see when the spark clicks and they reach a breakthrough of understanding about themselves, like their own personal understanding about themselves or how to see a solution or in the little ways that they problem-solve.”
Sean Levenson, a teacher with the Bulkley Valley Learning Centre, said Rath’s students always feel that their work is valued no matter how it may be viewed by others.
“One example was of a young man who would never share any of his work in other classes but he was walking around the school proudly showing off his artwork and insisted the office display the work,” he said.
“It wasn’t the quality of the work so much as how Perry’s encouragement and guidance had allowed him to express who he was through his art. Even if the work is not destined for the walls of the Guggenheim, Perry gets the best work out of the students in whatever medium they choose.”
Rath describes his own art style as diverse. While he has come to be known for some of his acrylic layered pantings, he dabbles in many different artistic styles in his own profession and teaches his students a variety of techniques.
Rath has had exhibits at the Smithers Art Gallery and some his stylized salmon paintings are hanging in the Smithers Regional Airport. He has also exhibited mixed media installations using some very peculiar materials such as chicken feet, dead insects, chewing gum, and wood ashes. He said he often uses different mediums to tackle a socio-political issue.
Not only is Rath an art teacher but he is also helps run the Gender Sexuality Alliance at the school and is the vice president of the Smithers Pride Society.
He said going to art school and being an artist he met lots of diverse kinds of people in that environment. He’s had many queer friends over the years and he has seen them struggle at any age, but especially as youths trying to figure out their identity and who they are.
“I started off by working with queer youth in the high school, helping to create a safe space, helping to advocate for their safety and their rights, simple, basic human rights, and respect. Especially in rural Canada, many have faced so many challenges and discrimination.”
He witnessed so many of his students graduate and then leave Smithers because they still felt they didn’t have a place in the community.
It seemed clear to him that more needed to be done to advocate for them. Rath became one of the founders of the pride society. He also helped with the creation of the rainbow crosswalk on Main Street and champions for it when it is vandalized or needs to be repainted or refreshed.
“It is through Perry’s incredible patience and calm that many in our fairly conservative community find ways to view their worlds more inclusively,” said Levenson.