Undated photo of Carol Gaustad, left, and Elizabeth Lorentzen, at an art show. (Submitted photo)
Undated photo of Carol Gaustad, left, and Elizabeth Lorentzen, at an art show. (Submitted photo)
It's the end of an era in the Decorah School District.

 In January, 17 Decorah teachers with combined service of 508 years to the District announced they would retire.

 Among those moving on are two longtime art teachers – Carol Gaustad, most recently a teacher at John Cline and Carrie Lee; and Elizabeth Lorentzen, who is retiring from Decorah High School.

 Together, they served the District for 76 years.

Gaustad is from the Hesper-Mabel area, and attended UNI for a degree in art education. From 1980-1989, she taught first through sixth grade art in Cresco and at the Ridgeway center. All told, she would spend 34 years in education – 24 of them in the Decorah School District.

 “Decorah always felt like a second home for me,” she says.

Lorentzen is from Webster City in North Central Iowa and graduated from UNI in Cedar Falls in 1971. 

She substituted one day in middle school art in her hometown during her senior year’s spring break; but for 42 years, she has been teaching art in Decorah.

Both women also create their own art, in addition to teaching.

Lorentzen drew, did weaving and watercolor sporadically as time allowed during her teaching years. She has a half-finished children’s book on architecture she hopes to complete in the next year. The text is written and she has nine of 15 illustrations yet to complete.

Gaustad’s is a familiar name on the highly regarded Northeast Iowa Artists’ Studio tour each fall. A participant for more than 10 years, she works primarily in watercolor, pastel and colored pencil; but recently, she has begun experimenting with painting on silk – both wearable art, like scarves, and framed work.

Why art?
Gaustad always knew she wanted to teach; and by the time she got to college, she knew her heart was in the arts.

But, she adds, “it’s important to remember that art doesn’t exist in isolation. I always teach art in a context … We study art in relationship to history, science, literature, architecture and even math. I try to introduce projects which encourage creativity and problem-solving. It also is important for students to think globally. My goal is that students will learn that art is connected to everything around us.”

While noting that art can stand on its own merits (“art feeds the spirit and is a natural means of expression for children and a necessary outlet for adolescents and adults, too -- it can be soothing to a jagged spirit as well as deeply satisfying for the soul”), Lorentzen agrees with her colleague. 

“Art complements science, music, literature, history, and any number of other disciplines,” she says. “As has been indicated by research, students who experience right-brain dominant disciplines like visual art, literature and dance as well as the left-brain dominant areas like math and science more fully develop both abilities.”

Art wasn’t actually Lorentzen’s first teaching choice – or even second.

“I wanted to teach history but knew I couldn’t coach football -- a common pairing back in the day,” she says. “I loved literature and poetry so English was my next choice but as there were too many English teachers graduating at the time, I went into art.”

As it turned out, it was a good decision.
“I have been able to teach art history and have added writing components to a number of my students’ assignments -- the verbal and visual are natural partners,” she says. “And I have been able to teach a variety of mediums and art-related subjects to my students -- art and science being another natural combination.”

Both Gaustad and Lorentzen have seen a lot of changes in education through the decades.

“Probably the most fundamental change that has occurred centers around technology,” Gaustad says. “When I began teaching we used filmstrip projectors, reel-to-reel films, crank-copy machines, which used the old carbon paper. There were no televisions in the buildings in the early ‘80s.”

Lorentzen, who started teaching on her 22nd birthday, in 1971 -- teaching K-6 elementary art at East Side, John Cline and West Side -- did not have a room in any of those buildings.

“I did ‘art on the cart’ (without a cart), had 900-plus students, and taught 37 classes a week,” she recalls.
 Gaustad had a similar experience.

“My first class in 1980 was a group of 28 students, with four to six additional special needs students mainstreamed into the class,” she says. “I rolled a cart from classroom to classroom.” 

Both teachers eventually had their own art rooms.

“Now that I have art in my own classroom, I have been able to create an environment which I hope has been inviting and inspiring,” Gaustad says. 

“When I began teaching at the high school, it was a treat to have three sinks for cleanup and two rooms -- one was the ‘clean’ classroom for less messy projects and art history, and the other we used for studio experience in pottery, weaving and printmaking,” Lorentzen says.

The new high school art room is a tremendous asset to the program, she notes.

“My favorite part is the 12 windows and the quality of light they produce for work.”

And … computers 
“There were, of course, no computers when I started teaching in the early ‘80s -- let alone a computer for every teacher,” Gaustad says.
Lorentzen sees the introduction of computer technology as a kind of mixed blessing, and appreciates how the Decorah school system has approached it.

“I wouldn’t be without my computer and the things it can do, but it is a tool and only a tool, and shouldn’t be the center of the art program,” she says. “The greatest power of art to reach us exists in the tactile, kinesthetic experience of the ‘doing’ -- hands in clay forming a pot, pencil or charcoal in hand, causing us to observe closely with our eyes and making the hand do its bidding. The nuance of art and the wonderful benefit to the eye and brain are lost if the computer is the only tool.”

As a teacher and a parent whose two children were entirely educated in Decorah Community Schools, Lorentzen believes one of the strengths of the Decorah system over the years has been moderation in its approach to new philosophies and practices and caution with the latest “innovations.”

“The (District) also has taken an eclectic approach, not subscribing to just one but using multiple approaches to meet students’ needs,” she says. “We are dealing with students’ lives and learning and we cannot afford to make them part of an experiment that will perhaps prove ineffective.”

 “The students are the best part of teaching,” Lorentzen says. “I loved them at the beginning and I love them just as much now, even and especially the difficult ones. I was someone who always liked school so this career has allowed me to keep right on learning. My students have taught me perhaps more than I have taught them.”

Gaustad, too, has only praise for her students. 

“I recently asked my third grade students what their favorite project was this year. Many said, ‘everything.’ It is wonderful to watch a student’s face when he or she succeeds. Their smiles and hugs are worth so much. They’re not afraid to be creative; they put themselves right out there.”
It also gives her great satisfaction to see how families support the arts in our community.

“There have been numerous occasions when I have noticed artwork produced by my students framed and hanging in homes,” she says. “This tells me that parents appreciate and value their children’s creative endeavors.”

One former student of both teachers recently took an opportunity to return the praise.

Amy Courtney is an art teacher at Decorah Middle School, and studied with Gaustad in elementary school and with Lorentzen in middle school and high school.

“I graduated from Decorah High School in 2001 and I knew right away I wanted to teach art,” she says. “It was a privilege to have these women as I first began to develop a love for art and then to have them mentor me during my first years as an art teacher … Both women are incredible in their ability to create lessons that require depth of knowledge and hold students to a high standard. I enjoyed their classes because they created an atmosphere that was comforting and as a student you felt you really belonged.”

What’s next?
Lorentzen and her husband, Lance -- who recently retired as a Decorah attorney -- are planning to visit their son, daughter-in-law and three small grandchildren in Colorado and their daughter, who will be doing research in Israel and Turkey. Addressing extended family needs, finishing the new Decorah historic trails signs (“nine done, 20 to go”), working with historic preservation and finishing her children’s book also are on the horizon for her.

“As my son said, ‘You’ll be as busy as you ever were -- you just won’t get paid for it,’” she laughs.

Gaustad and her husband, Gordon, plan to do some traveling, as well. Their daughter, Emily, lives in Milwaukee, Wis. and works as a gallery manager there. She also wants to delve deeper into her own artwork, she says.

Parting words
As they turn the page onto a new chapter in their lives, both of these long-time art teachers remember their careers in the Decorah School District with great fondness.

“Someone once said that if you choose a profession you love, you never have to work a day in your life,” Gaustad says. “I never felt like I was going to work because I was able to share my passion every day with some of the best young people on the planet, and I have been able to work alongside dedicated, and caring individuals who have shared a common commitment to educating our children. It has been a wonderful life choice for me.”

Lorentzen’s parting words echo her colleague’s.

“Teaching has been a wonderful, difficult, and ultimately satisfying career,” she says. “I have had wonderful students and parents, supportive colleagues and a very rewarding life’s work. One of the benefits of teaching for 42 years has been the enduring friendships with my former students that have been formed.” 

One friend and former student, in particular, might well be speaking for them all when she says, “they will be greatly missed by many students and faculty. But they have built a strong art program for Decorah that will continue to last.”