Painting to be Displayed at Heritage School Honors Late Art Teacher Stephen Kerr

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 08/14/2019 - 20:21
Maureen Riley shows the Board of Education Debra Gruber's painting, dedicated to the late art teacher Stephen Kerr. The painting will be displayed at Heritage Elementary School, where Kerr taught art for many years.

If Stephen Kerr could have been chosen to be remembered by anything, it likely would have been by the lives he touched and the minds he inspired in the classroom as an art teacher and third-grade classroom teacher for 31 years.

But his second choice more than likely would have been a beautiful piece of art; and so a small group of his family, friends, and former colleagues looked on Tuesday evening as a painting by the 2017 Ann Arbor Street Art Fair featured artist Debra Gruber was unveiled during the Saline Area Schools Board of Education meeting.

"There's no doubt that Stephen left his mark on everything he was passionate about and the original street art fair is no exception," said Maureen Riley, executive director of the original Ann Arbor Street Fair. 

Kerr served on the art fair's board for the entire eight years that he was allowed, due to term limits in the organization's bylaws. Even after he had expended his allowable time as an art fair official, he was still enthusiastically involved.

"His enthusiasm did not stop there ... you could subsequently see Stephen bopping, for no better way to describe it, around the art fair each year visiting with artists that had become old friends, delighting in new work and new artists, and I would always run into him and he'd say 'Did you see so and so's work?"

The Gruber piece depicting many colorful birds and flowers on abstract foliage against a pure white background will hang in Heritage School, where Kerr spent many of his teaching years in an art classroom.

Stephen Laatsch, assistant superintendent of instructional services, spoke from his heart as well as his direct experience working with Kerr when he was a building principal in the district when Kerr taught fifth and sixth grade art classes.

"He loved teaching, but more than that he loved people," Laatsch said. "He cared for both the students and the teaching staff as if they were extended members of his family. I remember going into his art class and he would tell me stories about the students in the room, and it wasn't necessarily about their art accomplishments, it was more about their day-to-day successes in living. 

"He truly tried caring for the whole child with his teaching approach. He was always asking and inquiring about the well-being about others. In a day when people are often self-absorbed with their issues, Stephen always took the time to ask the students in his class and the adults in his school how they were doing. And because of this, I along with other staff members would use the art room as a kind of sanctuary to go in and talk with him because we all knew he was such a good listener and good friend."

Kerr obviously saw art as something that nobody was too young or old to take up, as he would often encourage teachers to come into his classroom and literally try their hands at giving the products of their minds tangibility with the artistic techniques and practices that he thrived on sharing in a classroom.

"He was a real treasure and he's going to be missed by all of us," Laatsch concluded.

Kerr died June 20, 2019, at his home in Ypsilanti.

After retiring from teaching, he became part of the team at Antieau Gallery with artist Chris Roberts Antieau, establishing galleries in New Orleans, Santa Fe, Ann Arbor, and Martha's Vinyard. Kerr worked with textiles, creating custom pieces that became a part of many family's holiday traditions. As a clay artist, Kerr worked with artists at the Yourist Studio in Ann Arbor. He exhibited his art earlier this year at a show in Santa Fe.


Sean Dalton's picture
Sean Dalton
Sean Dalton is a veteran of the Washtenaw County journalism scene. He co-founded and and also worked for Heritage Newspapers.