An Akron Public Schools teacher and community artist has been helping young high school artists leave their mark, guided in a yearly summer program. He’s also helped countless other young artists through his teaching, much like he was encouraged when he was a student.
Dan Coffield, 38, has been serving as the education coordinator for the Akron Arts Lift Program for 12 years, helping Director Elisa Gargarella.
During the school year, Coffield is an art teacher at Firestone High School in the Akron School for the Arts program. For the first two weeks after school is out, he and Gargarella work with 15 to 20 high school students from Akron Public Schools on a community project.
What is Arts lift?
Arts Lift was started 20 years ago by Gargarella as a summer resident art program. Students accepted into the program are given an opportunity to work with a resident artist or art staff “to create public art that typically cannot be facilitated in a regular classroom,” Gargarella said.
“I wanted to endow inner-city kids to become ambassadors for their community, to become integrated as opposed to being fringe characters and to have the creative control. They make all the decisions and have the opportunity to take their art off the wall,” she said.
Some of the projects have included recognizable public works of art, such as the 40-foot high colorful mural on the side of the Crave restaurant building to 3D flowers on the walls of West Hill Hardware. In 2018, Coffield and his students drew colorful murals on all four sides of a shipping container parked near North and Howard streets as part of a project to encourage sustainable living.
Gargarella, an associate professor of art education at the University of Akron, first met Coffield nearly 20 years ago when he was an undergraduate student majoring in printmaking and drawing. Gargarella didn’t teach Coffield until he returned to school to pursue a master’s degree in education a few years later.
Gargarella had already established Arts Lift and asked Coffield, her graduate assistant, to help out.
“He’s just an awesome artist. The kind of guy that could solve any problem. ‘Can we put a disco ball in this? Done,’ ” said Gargarella.
“I think the greatest asset of Dan said he’s able to take in ideas and help kids manifest them into reality,” she said.
After Coffield’s help for a year, Gargarella said she couldn’t live without him for the summer project and has brought him on every year since. It’s an added bonus that many of the students in the program are students of Coffield’s, who are top art-award winners, and many of whom go on to study at the University of Akron, she said.
“He has this teddy bear presence where he’s like Dad to all and funny and approachable — but part of that comes because he expects and extracts ideas from kids and believes in them and makes it happen.
“It’s so awesome for me when I have a teacher that is so badass. Their reach is really exponential,” Gargarella said.
Gargarella estimates that over the years that Coffield has been a teacher and through the Arts Lift programs, he has influenced hundreds or thousands of young artists. He is also well respected in the local art community, she said.
“I like to say he’s the perfect protégé,” Gargarella said. “That’s the ultimate goal of mine: to help younger generations be even cooler, better, more creative, smarter, more interesting, more versatile than I could ever be or he could ever be.”
Coffield a positive influence on students
Firestone High School art students Hallie VonGunten and Abby Rambler similarly sing Coffield’s praises.
Hallie, 17, had taken some basic level art classes at Litchfield Middle School. Once she got to Firestone’s art program, “that was my first time taking legit art classes. I had no confidence whatsoever. He helped me explore things,” she said of Coffield.
Coffield encouraged Hallie, who will be a senior in the fall, to try Arts Lift, which she has participated in every year since the summer after freshman year. The program and Coffield have helped Hallie gain her confidence and interest in photography. Last year’s Arts Lift was virtual and focused on photography so the students could go out and take their own pictures and get feedback.
Hallie now wants to focus on landscape design and photojournalism.
Abby, also 17 and a senior, has participated in two Arts Lift programs, including this summer.
“Mr. Coffield is really good at understanding students on a personal level outside of school as well,” she said. “What he’s done in art class has been to really to broaden what I’ve been able to get to work with and get my hands on.”
Abby is interested in painting, printmaking and photography and said since Coffield is so well-versed in so many different art forms, it’s been helpful.
“He does it all,” said Hallie. “He can help us with pretty much everything we want to try.”
Community art in Akron
Coffield is an Akron native who went to high school in Stow and then made his way back to Akron.
“I was a living, breathing community-based artist. I had work I was selling nationally and internationally; that’s how I was making a living,” said Coffield. “I had work in galleries and museums” during his undergraduate years at the University of Akron. That included having a large snow-globe installation called “The Land of Ice and Snow” that he created for First Night several years ago displayed at the Akron Art Museum. It stayed there for several years, Coffield said.
He was also the back-to-back winner for Summit Artspace’s Fresh Art Show two years in a row.
He also had sculptures, prints, books and jewelry in galleries. His community work included helping Akron artist Leandra Drumm run the Light Up Lantern Festival in Akron for four years.
When Coffield reconnected with Gargarella at UA, she encouraged him to consider teaching, saying he’d be an incredible teacher. Coffield said he hadn’t really thought of what he would do next, so he went back for his master’s degree in education.
But the rigors of schoolwork had an impact on his art, Coffield said.
“My master’s is literally what killed me as an artist. Pursuing an advanced degree is no joke. Your focus goes from you being an artist to you learning how to teach. That’s what happened. That’s when I sort of started not being so social because it was books and papers and writing,” he said. “That’s where I also stopped going to shows and art shows and producing work to put into shows. It’s sad.”
Coffield did his student teaching at Firestone and Miller South School for the Visual and Performing Arts before spending his first year teaching in Plain Local schools. He then was hired at Firestone and has been there for 9 years.
“Being an active artist and an active educator, the two things just kind of bled together,” said Coffield.
The Arts Lift project with high school students, which is funded by an endowment by the late Lola Isroff, has also done a lot of work with Art Bomb Brigade, a companion program for University of Akron students started by Gargarella and funded by a Knight Foundation grant.
The two programs often work in tandem on a summer project, including the Crave mural or a mural at Compass Coffee by Art Bomb Brigade and a mosaic below the mural by Arts Lift.
Coffield said he and Gargarella have tried to move away from murals with Arts Lift to find more interdisciplinary forms of art since murals often mean kids are painting someone else’s design.
This year for the Arts Lift program, for instance, the kids have designed new landscaping and will be building garden totem poles to install in a UA courtyard in the middle of Schrank Hall. The courtyard is actually on top of a parking deck and the garden needed some love, Coffield said.
The students have spent recent weeks designing, weeding and planting plants and designing and building the totem-pole sculptures. Arts Bomb Brigade artists will then complement the area with a colorful mural on the concrete floor around the gardens in the courtyard.
Giving back to the Akron community
Coffield loves being a part of bringing art to his students and to the community.
“Akron has this stigma about it: people that are not here are always looking down on Akron,” he said. “Akron is great. We have a lot of really great stuff.”
He enjoys transitioning from the end of school right into two weeks with the Arts Lift students.
“It’s a way to teach these kids that artists do enhance the community. If you want a better community, get an artist. You want an area of town to look better, get artists to come in and help that get better,” he said.
“I like the fact that because I teach the college-level ready kids that when many of them leave, but when when they come back, they’ve kind of left their mark,” he said. “These projects become landmarks and destination points…seniors are taking their pictures in front of things.”
Coffield said he spent the last decade or so establishing himself in his teaching career and busy with students that he hasn’t done much new art himself. He’d like to get back into the studio and is toying pursuing a doctoral degree. He also thinks opening his own art academy or his own business — he’s into pop culture and collectibles.
He enjoys all forms of art, but his preferred art form is print-making. He’s the only Akron Public School teacher who teaches it.
“I like teaching the kids the idea of being able to produce multiples of their work. They can use it to make prints and sell those prints,” he said.
Gargarella said Coffield may think he’s not an active artist, but he is: “When I go to his house and look at his bonsai tree, sometimes art translates to more functional things. Dan as a traditional fine artist is highly skilled. He makes art everyday, but uses it as an example for his students. Rather than putting it in an exhibition, his art serves as a set of exemplars for students.”
Beacon Journal staff reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or [email protected] Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ
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