Laura Pettibon brought 32 years of creativity to VUES

VERGENNES — Soon-to-retire Vergennes Union Elementary School art teacher Laura Pettibon remembers what sparked her interest in art.
The Ohio native, who will step down this month from VUES after 32 years at the East Street school, had moved with her family to Granby, Conn. Pettibon’s fourth-grade art teacher there gave her a simple assignment — draw a goat.
“I have no idea how long I worked on that drawing, but I was just so proud of it,” she recalled in a recent interview. “I just did every single hair, and I found myself just totally involved in my drawing in fourth grade, and I think it just continued from there.”
Pettibon, a longtime Vergennes resident with husband Christopher, didn’t know at age 9 she was destined to teach art. But her love of almost every artistic medium grew and offered a source of joy and new friends during what she described as a well-traveled childhood.
Pettibon, now 65, moved to Stowe, Vt., as a fifth-grader, then to Massachusetts, back to Stowe, and to Charlotte for her senior year at Champlain Valley Union High School — her third high school.
She described, for example, how she felt about the Stowe High School art room.
“There was a cellar, down some rickety stairs, and it was probably concrete, an uneven cellar and all that. But it was pretty nice. We felt like we were somewhere else, just creating,” she recalled.
Along the way, teachers began to see leadership potential in their eager art student, although Pettibon said she still wasn’t thinking about teaching.
In Stowe, her teacher brought her along to a neighboring school.
“I was just like a teacher assistant. I just liked being with her. I liked doing things with my hands. And I liked helping people. I was always a babysitter, too, so I was always with kids,” she said.
At CVU, where an art-room mainstay was a potter’s wheel, her teacher entrusted Pettibon with making and taking care of the potter’s clay. And back in 1970 and 1971, CVU’s academic structure allowed the new kid in school plenty of time to do so.
“Those were the days when everything was pass-fail, so I could spend the whole day in the art room,” she said. “So I pretty soon became in charge of all the clay.”
Pettibon went to the University of Vermont to study art. But she soon switched her major to art education.
“I had to take on student loans sophomore year,” she said. “I didn’t think as an artist I could pay back the loans.”
But Pettibon said it wasn’t just the money.
“Art for me is not being the best at something. It’s not showing my work. I just like to do it. I get satisfaction from making things and doing things with my hands and being around art materials,” she said. “It’s very therapeutic and relaxing and engaging, satisfying, all those things. And that’s what I like to share with kids.”
If Pettibon had any doubts about her career path, her first experience of preparing art lessons for elementary and middle school art students in Burlington erased them.
“I really liked creating and organizing the experience for kids, thinking about that, designing the curriculum. I remember that type of thing. What would I really like to do with the kids, before you knew who they were, what would be really fun,” she said. “Perhaps that was the beginning of thinking about actual teaching, because so much of it is as an art teacher you’re not given a book, ‘This is art, this is what you teach.’ But that was always an exciting thing to do, was to sit down with a notebook and think, ‘What am I doing to do, and how am I going to do it?’”
After graduating from UVM in 1975, she taught at Springfield High School for a year, but missed the Vergennes area that was now her home. For another four years she commuted from Panton to the Underhill school district to a job shared between two schools, but left because of the commute and a poor fit at one of the schools.
She spent the next few years as a caterer and then as the part owner of a former Vergennes wine and cheese shop. Then in 1986 she landed the split job as the art teacher at VUES and Ferrisburgh Central School.
And that’s when she became reacquainted with art carts. In the mid-1980s neither VUES nor FCS had art rooms: The art supplies trundled down the hallways to them.
Pettibon said that meant extra hours of preparation to load the carts with the right materials to go along with daily plans.
“You have to be organized, and you have to have the cart packed before the morning. So I would do that sometimes on the weekend. I’m really looking forward to not coming in on the weekend ever again,” she said.
Unlike most classrooms, art rooms can be cleaned easily, with, for example, tile floors that don’t absorb spills.
“The kids did do a lot of cleaning rugs with the paint, and there were not a lot of choices at all, compared to what there is now (in a room),” Pettibon said.
But said students almost always greeted her with smiles.
“It was fun because you would be someone the kids looked forward to coming in the door. ‘What are we doing? What are we up to?’ Art is just always a time when they get a little release from what’s going on, and it’s a time when it’s happier,” she said.
Ferrisburgh had an art room by the time she left after seven years to become full-time at VUES. Things did not change so quickly in Vergennes.
Pettibon remembered lobbying a series of principals for a room until a combination of declining enrollment and Principal Sandy Bassett made the dream come true in 2006.
“I said it’s not going to be pretty watching this 50-year-old lady pushing this car down the hallway. You better get me a room. Every principal that came through was saying, ‘I’ll get you a room. I’ll do it.’ But he was the one who got me the room. And he was so proud. And I was so happy,” Pettibon said. “We were all so happy. The kids just couldn’t believe it.”
Fortunately, Pettibon said the lack of a room did not mean the arts lacked for support at VUES and in the district, which has also always backed music strongly.
“This district has always, at the elementary level, supported the arts really well,” she said.
One of her best memories is the bi-annual arts festival staged at Vergennes Union High School that celebrates student artwork district-wide. The teachers choose a theme — among them ancient civilizations, the 1960s, and nature, Pettibon said — and musical performances are incorporated.
VERGENNES UNION ELEMENTARY School art teacher Laura Pettibon and some of her students paint a bench in the school’s art room.
Independent photo/Steve James
Pettibon said she enjoyed the collaborative effort and the challenge of staging the event.
“The art teachers, we would get together and have a theme. And that year I would design the curriculum towards those different ideas,” she said. “That kept me fresh.”
All along, Pettibon has remained convinced that art is a vital component of education. She compares the design process of art to the trial and error of, among other things, engineering and writing.
“The creative process is very important and getting more important in education. People are starting to recognize how important that is in anything in your life,” she said. “It is a way of thinking, a way of learning things for children. They learn through the arts, through making things, through observing things closer, focusing in on things. It helps build their brain, (to make) stronger connections.”
But despite her love for the job, grandchildren in Massachusetts are calling for more attention, as is the vintage home she and her husband own. And Pettibon said at times she feels her age on the job.
“There’s a lot of young, wonderful energy coming in here. I have a lot of kids say, ‘Oh, my dad had you.’ And it’s really wonderful and fun to see all those children after knowing their parents, but it’s also making me feel like I need to move on and let someone else do it,” she said.
Pettibon will leave feeling thankful and happy.
“I just feel so grateful and lucky to have had a fulltime job of such creativity in my hometown,” she said. “It’s incredible. I only live four blocks away, and how good is that?”

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