You might know that the largemouth bass is Georgia’s state fish. But can you name Montana’s? Or Wisconsin’s? If anyone can come up with the cutthroat trout and muskellunge, it’s the students in Kathleen Petka’s visual art class at Walton High School. For the past eight years, the Marietta teacher has had her students participate in the State-Fish Art contest. The competition, open to students in grades K-12, is sponsored by Wildlife Forever, a nonprofit that stresses conservation and habitat preservation. To enter, students choose a creature from the official state-fish list, then create an original illustration and a personal essay, story or poem about the behavior and conservation needs of their selection. Petka is passionate about conservation, and teaching, which is why Wildlife Forever just named her its “State-Fish Art Educator of the Year.” She talked about her passions and shared why so many students choose Hawaii’s state fish. With a name like humuhumunukunukuāpuaʻa, how could they resist?
Q: Are you an artist?
A: I have been drawing as long as I can remember. I drew the portraits of the Williamson brothers for their barbecue and hot sauce labels, and the bottles are sold nationally and internationally. I also give demonstrations on different techniques. When I was a student at the University of Georgia, several of my drawings were purchased for the school.
Q: Why did you want to be a visual art teacher?
A: As a kid, my favorite classes were my art classes and I was heavily influenced by my art teachers. Because of them, I developed an even deeper love and appreciation of art, and I knew I wanted to share my love and passion with others. I want to help my students creatively express themselves. I believe it is important to embrace individuality, so I encourage them to take risks with their work and take ownership of their pieces. It is so neat to see how students take the same theme and their end products are different. I try to teach more than art, though. My kids also learn real life skills in my class. In addition, I feel it is important to teach them to use manners and make sure they are respectful of each other.
Q: With the emphasis on STEM education, is there still a place for visual art?
A: Absolutely. I feel like my class is the most important in the school. The students learn to problem solve and use critical thinking skills, to communicate, to teach others, to be empathetic, and to bring about change through art. Art is everywhere and we need to learn to acknowledge and appreciate it. Someone designed that T-shirt the kids are wearing. The building we are in, somebody drew up the plans. A lot of my students are taking such rigorous courses that my class is a great outlet for them. I want my room to be a comfortable learning environment where all feel able to express themselves.
Q: Why the State-Fish Art contest?
A: It is fabulous. Students see that we are responsible for making an impact on our environment. The kids teach each other about the species of fish they choose and where the fish are located. It is also so fun for them to critique their own work. I am blown away by the sheer talent of the students.
Q: Is focusing on fish a hard sell?
A: Not really. The students get to research and look at different types of fish on their phones and iPads. They can use whatever medium they want. A lot of kids like Hawaii’s state fish because it has a fun name and is very colorful.
Q: Do your students ever win?
A: One of my students who graduated in 2015 won the Art of Conservation Stamp Award. She wrote a beautiful essay about the king salmon, Alaska’s state fish. Her illustration was made into a collector’s stamp, and the money raised from the sale of it contributed to wildlife conservation.
Q: Are you a fish person?
A: My grandparents had a cottage on a lake and I have fond memories of fishing with my family. Really, I am big with nature. Kids need to stop and think about how we need to stop being so wasteful and save our environment. Taking care of the Earth is something I feel is really important.