By Heather Mullinix
Annette Saldaña grew up in a family of teachers but never planned on following in those footsteps. She began a career as an interior designer, but when her company closed, she considered her next move carefully.
"I always enjoyed training the new staff that would come into the shop," she said.
Her husband, Blake Saldaña, teaches vocal music and the history of rock and roll at Stone Memorial High School.
"I started to put two and two together," she said. "He is able to use his passion to make his living, and you really can't beat doing something that you love and share that with others."
She had also found a passion for art. Though her degree in housing and design required some art classes, she kept taking the art courses.
"I realized I was taking a lot of art credits I didn't even need," she said.
It was also her niche in high school, taking art and choir classes and feeling drawn to creative writing and poetry. She grew up in Clay County on Dale Hollow Lake, and found no end of inspiration in the scenes of natural beauty.
She studied at Tennessee Technological University with classes at the Appalachian Center for Craft and is currently pursuing a master's degree through the University of Florida.
Now in her fourth year of teaching at CCHS, she serves as the chairperson for visual arts. She teaches Art I, Art II and Art III and offers advanced placement studio art for those students who successfully completed Art II and wish to continue their art education and possibly earn college credit.
"AP studio art gives students the Art IV experience, but in a more developed way that they can use when they go on to college," she said.
Saldaña has an emphasis in drawing and clay, though she says drawing is her passion.
"It all starts there," she said, explaining even her sculpture pieces begin with a sketch of what she hopes to end up with. "I love painting, too, but again, it still starts with drawing. My planning is in drawing form. It's like brainstorming only with doodles instead of words. And, it's easy to have a pencil on hand at any time."
While she hopes her students will develop a passion for a particular medium in her classes, her goal is more than just having students complete an art project.
"Creative play is important, but when they leave, I want them to have an appreciation for the art that is around them in the world, and to be able to tie those connections to things other than just art," she said. "Art ties in to all different fields."
She also works to develop the critical thinking skills sought by employers, with students able to think outside the box to find solutions to problems they encounter.
Her class also builds collaboration between students and can help build self-esteem and confidence.
"You have to step outside your comfort zone," she said. "The more they push themselves out and allow themselves to be critiqued, I think their perception starts to change and they feel more comfortable in their own skin.
"Even if they're not planning on going into that field, it's a good experience to make those interdisciplinary connections and see how art connects to everything."
Art builds on principles learned in math, science, literature and other academic subjects but, where math has one correct answer, Saldaña says art projects have infinite answers.
"They all get the same instructions but end up with something completely different," she said.
It also helps students learn to be more flexible and to adjust their plan when something doesn't go as anticipated.
"I tell them they have to improvise and can't just throw something away because 'it didn't work,'" she said. "We work on turning that into a happy accident. And it build confidence as they work around that mistake and make it work for you. It can make the project very unique. It's not what they planned on, but they made it work."
Saldaña wants students to try as many different mediums as possible. For those with an interest or skill in a particular area, she seeks out extra opportunities, such as scholarships to workshops at the Appalachian Center for Craft during the summer. Two of her students will be there this summer, studying clay and wood.
Much of the studio work is two-dimensional, but that's because the portfolio the students must complete for the college credit must be two-dimensional.
"I want them to touch all the different mediums, though, and find a niche," she said.
In the end, she doesn't measure her success in the classroom by the final quality of work produced. She looks at how each student has developed their talent and grown, and the confidence instilled in them.
She has a former student in architectural school and another studying fiber art.
"Knowing that they are carrying with them a piece of what they learned from me, or that maybe that spark was somehow lit here through the creative process, makes me feel, 'Wow, I was able to be a part of that experience,'" she said.
Saldaña will go on to compete for Teacher of the Year honors for the Upper Cumberland Region.