Opening Their Eyes to the World of Art


Javier Vega is torn between two career goals. He wants to be a successful ceramist or a pro baseball player.

His art teacher at El Modena High School can't help Javier fulfill his sports dream, but she has given him a glimpse of the professional art world. A ceramics piece by the 17-year-old was recently chosen for display at Tiffany & Co. in South Coast Plaza.

"I think it's important to make my students aware of what's available to them," Donna Banning said. "And while I don't normally like contests, I do encourage students to enter the [Tiffany] competition," in which judges whittle 4,000 entries from Orange County art students down to about 14.

"So it's quite prestigious," Banning explained. "The students realize what an honor it is to have a piece chosen for the exhibit. But they have to understand that they can't plan for a piece with the contest in mind. It's something that just happens."

Javier's piece is a ceramic face--"but it's a little unusual," he said. "I decided to make a face with two sides because we all have two sides, two faces."

In her 28th year at El Modena, Banning, 63, says she loves teaching both the serious student like Javier and the casual one. "It's who I am," she said. "And it's what I wake up every day wanting to do."

Her students seem to sense that.

"She has so much patience," Javier said. "If I do a ceramics piece and it's imperfect or it breaks, I'm ready to throw it away. But she will sit down with me and before I know it, I'm looking at it in a different way."

Andrew Ashford, 18, believes Banning's class will have a lasting effect on him. Among his most memorable projects are a square teapot and a 6-foot plaster column topped by a head in his likeness. "I want to be an engineer someday," he said, "but I'm already imagining that I'll have a pottery wheel out in the garage and do that on the weekends for relaxation and fun."

Banning, a widow with four grown children and six grandchildren, says that's the idea. "I tell my students all the time that art is something that will enrich their lives forever," she said.

A native of South Dakota, Banning and her husband moved to Orange more than 30 years ago when he went to work in the then-thriving aerospace industry. She soon found her calling at El Modena, where she teaches ceramics, art history and studio art.

"I'd known since elementary school that I wanted to be a teacher, and that's when I began developing a love for art," she said. "My third-grade teacher instilled that love in me. She talked to us about art all the time, and I guess she spotted something in me that convinced her I had some artistic abilities because she encouraged me."

Banning was recently named the 1998 Teacher of the Year in her region by the California Assn. for the Gifted and the Orange Unified School District. And she's currently serving as president of the California Art Education Assn. But she'd much rather talk about her schoolkids than her awards.

"I love teaching high school because there is just so much raw material there," she said. "They have so much energy at that age, and I think it's important for them to have access to the arts because it helps them to see the world in a new way."

Banning often takes her classes to art shows, museums and galleries. And she invites former students, some of them artists, teachers and architects, to speak to her classes about their achievements.

"She tells us about scholarships and gives us tips on how to proceed in our careers after school," said Juan Leon, 17, who hopes to become a full-time artist. "I'm able to develop my talents and to work at getting better. It would be so hard without this class because I wouldn't have access to the supplies I need, or the encouragement from her."

Since 1990, six of Banning's students have been selected to attend the Frank Lloyd Wright Fallingwater Summer Residency Program in Bear Run, Pa.; only 15 students nationwide make the cut each year.

On a recent afternoon in a dusty ceramics classroom, Banning makes her way around the room, talking patiently with each student and admiring their works in progress: jewelry boxes, masks, a chess board, ashtrays, pots and a few misshapen vases.

The atmosphere is calm.

"Every piece is a reflection of that particular student," Banning said. "I don't believe in deadlines in my class. It may take a student a whole semester to perfect a ceramics piece. And that's just fine."


COMING ATTRACTIONS: Musicians, artists and students from Laguna Beach will put on two fund-raising events to help victims of recent mudslides in the area.

"Band Together," a benefit concert featuring local bands the Missiles of October, Common Sense, the Chapped Cheeks and Jasso & Garcia will be Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. at Laguna Beach High School Stadium. Tickets are $25. Information: (714) 497-6582.

A benefit dinner and performance by the Laguna Beach High drama department of the musical "42nd Street" will take place Monday. The dinner will be at 6 p.m. at Claes Seafood, etc., and then ticket-holders will be bused to the Artists Theatre for the 8 p.m. performance.

Tickets are $60 and include dinner, transportation and admission. Information: (714) 494-6811.



Q: Name one thing you feel makes a good teacher.

A: Being willing to roll with the punches, having a sense of humor and being knowledgeable in your subject area.

Q: What do you think students say about you behind your back?

A: "She's generous with her time, energy, ideas and support."

Q: What has been your proudest achievement as a teacher?

A: It was when a former student of mine, Beth, who is an artist in her own right, married my son.

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