Age: 54. “It’s on my pots. I sign all my pots with it.”
Resume: Moses has taught art at Crescent Valley High School since 2003. Before that, he worked at Lincoln Elementary School, Western View Middle School and as an artist in residence at a number of Corvallis elementary schools.
Also on the resume: He’s taught ceramics at Linn-Benton Community College since 1998. He worked 13 years as an instructor and 10 years as the potter in residence at the Oregon State University Craft Center. He spent 10 years as the in-house arts instructor at The Arts Center in Corvallis and five years working with LBCC and The Arts Center to bring therapeutic arts services to a variety of organizations, including Samaritan Health Services programs. He’s also worked for the U.S. Forest Service and OSU’s Botany and Plant Pathology Department, where he worked in silviculture and forest health.
Family: Wife, Alissa. Two daughters, Dahlia, a junior in college, and Hazel, a junior at Crescent Valley.
Hobbies: “Hike, bike, backpack, camp, kayak, fish, surf.” Does he have a favorite surfing spot? “Well, I’m not a good surfer, so any spot works for me but, yeah, Pacific City is fine. … I love traveling to any part of the world, any part of the country.”
From the Golden Apple nominations: “Keith provides not only a safe place for all students, but a place where students can heal through art.”
“On a frequent basis, Keith opens up the art rooms on the weekends and evenings so students can work on projects. He is amazing at how he individually challenges each student to do their best work, even students who are not officially enrolled in one of his classes.”
“During the pandemic, Keith has made art accessible to all students even during online school by delivering materials, providing open studio time on the weekends and building strong relationships with students and families. … He has been the heart and soul of the art department.”
By MIKE McINALLY
Every work of art comes with a story, a narrative of its own – and the same is true for the person who created that piece.
But every narrative, every story, is different – and that’s why Crescent Valley High School art teacher Keith Moses takes pains to approach each of his students as an individual. “It’s almost a personal challenge to help bring out the most out of each kid, so I look at that,” he said in a recent interview. “I honestly feel that I have to reinvent the wheel every time. That’s one of the neat things about it and also one of the struggles.”
“I try to pretty much serve each individual,” said Moses, who teaches ceramics, glassmaking and jewelry along with other art subjects at Crescent Valley. “I set a loose framework that allows a lot of individual portfolio, individual development. That’s really what I focus on, what the growth is. What does this kid need? What does this individual want to accomplish or what can I help them accomplish? So I don’t look at it like, I want everybody to create this blocked-out image, and I want to display 30 of these blocked-out images. I’d rather see 30 different narratives, 30 different ways to interpret something than the same successful craft or the same successful art activity.”
It’s an approach that earned Moses one of the 2022 Golden Apple awards from the Corvallis Public Schools Foundation. The awards honor outstanding teachers and staff members in the Corvallis School District.
The Golden Apple also gives Moses another opportunity to continue his long advocacy for his belief that art classes should have a place at the table right along with math, science, English and other core classes. “I’m honored to have this award,” he said. “But I’d rather see art educators and all drama teachers and music teachers and PE teachers be part of education without having to be an ‘extra.’”
Moses’ classrooms at Crescent Valley deliberately don’t look or feel like a traditional classroom. A steady stream of students – current and former – flock to the rooms to tackle projects, even after school or on weekends. Classic rock ‘n’ roll and soul music provides the soundtrack.
“I run a workshop, a facility, is how I look at it,” Moses said, “and it’s constantly changing, and evolving with the students and their needs.”
If his classroom doesn’t have a traditional look, it’s possibly because Moses didn’t take a traditional route to teaching. In fact, were it not for an unexpected meeting, he might have ended up working in forestry.
“Teaching chose me”
“I didn’t choose teaching,” Moses said. “Teaching kind of chose me” – and a look at his resume bears him out.
Moses’ parents make art, and he said he’s always been making art. But he didn’t study art – “I’m kind of a sham,” he joked. “I don’t have a BFA, an MFA, I never took a pottery class” – although he does have a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the University of Oregon, where he crossed paths on occasion with art students and couldn’t help noticing that they seemed to be having more fun than the architecture students.
Some of his earliest jobs involved work on the land: “I was a crew chief leader for fighting fires, crew chief leader for timber. I worked as an archaeologist.”
But a common thread ran through many of those jobs: “In each of those things, I had leadership responsibilities. I had people to train, people to teach how to use equipment.” One job involved archaeology on the Navajo Reservation, overseeing a crew of 120 people, many of whom couldn’t read or write. “It was really fun to work with them on reading, math, being able to sign your checkbook, helping them get established off the reservation, being able to get a license.”
He wound up studying at Oregon State University, where he did field and lab work in botany and graduated with a degree in geosciences. He also taught classes at OSU’s Craft Center while he built a successful career as a potter. (He considers his years teaching at the Craft Center as giving him the “backdoor equivalent to an unofficial MFA.” He also was working as an artist in residence in Corvallis schools.
He was preparing for graduate school to continue his studies, perhaps in forestry, when an unexpected meeting changed all that. Faculty members in OSU’s School of Education had taken one of Moses’ classes in the Craft Center and were impressed – impressed enough that they offered him a scholarship to become a teacher.
Moses mulled it over for a couple of weeks.
“Part of me was like, I don’t know if this is fair. There’s people who want to be teachers who tried, who applied, and here I am like offered this out of the blue. I didn’t know how to take that, and so I sat on it for a couple of weeks.”
But he decided to take the offer. “And it was a wonderful gift. I mean, it changed my life.”
He did practicum work at both Lincoln Elementary School and Western View Middle School in 1997-98. Afterward, he did year-long residencies at Adams and Inavale schools, along with numerous two-month residencies at a half-dozen other district schools. The year before starting at Crescent Valley, he was split working at two elementary schools, Franklin and what is now Bessie Coleman, as a year-long artist in residence.
Then Crescent Valley came calling.
It was noon on the Friday before Labor Day 2003, and Crescent Valley administrators were getting nowhere in their search for a new art teacher. An administrator who knew Moses gave him a call and encouraged him to come in and talk about the job. Feeling as if he had nothing to lose, Moses came in and “laid it out honestly. … I didn’t even know I was really applying for a job.” Afterward, the administrators told him: “You need to be here. … Go apply for this job now.”
And, by “now,” they weren’t kidding: The job applications closed at 5 p.m. that day.
Moses beat the deadline and landed the job – and during the first week of school, learned that his classroom was closed because it was still in the midst of remodeling.
Working through COVID
But unexpected bumps in schools are par for the course – and perhaps no bump was more daunting than dealing with the closure of school buildings in the midst of the COVID pandemic.
“It was pretty rough,” Moses said. “I mean, what I do requires tools, it requires space, and so a lot of what I attempted to do was to give kids the same opportunities, but at home.”
That meant, for example, delivering heavy pottery wheels to homes and other locations where students could use them to cast pots. “I sent tool kits home for glass. I sent tool kits home for jewelry.”
And the school’s art department also had to cope with tragedy – the illness and death of teacher Victoria Eastwood – during the same time.
But taking the time to visit students where they lived was eye-opening.
“We have kids who are living at the river in two RVs,” Moses said. “We have kids who are at the fairgrounds in RVs. We have kids who are staying at the shelter going on three months. We have kids living in an apartment with 12 people. … And so that was one of the things that motivated me to keep going to houses, was just wellness, to check in with kids, to let them know that the school cares, that teachers care, that education matters still.”
“In a way, it was a ton of extra unpaid work, but it was work I could do beyond just my job. I could go and give them something, you know? It was more than just a place to tune into for an hour and a half, I was going to come to your house every week and give you a chance to talk or give you a chance to say hello to somebody. And so that was pretty powerful. I really loved that part about it. I didn’t like working Saturdays, I didn’t like working in the morning, I didn’t like driving in the dark at 7 o’clock with a wheel that weighs 285 pounds that I had to lift by myself into the back of a truck that I got a hernia from. But I enjoyed having a wheel chained up at the fairgrounds. I enjoyed putting a wheel on a balcony porch of an apartment and hearing that kid tune in and telling me, ‘I’m like making pots out here, I’m with you, Mr. Moses.’ That’s so cool. Or a kid working in their garden on a potter’s wheel or a kid creating glass sitting on a washing machine in the apartment complex and that’s where they did their class. That’s really cool. And so it was powerful.”
One of the powerful things about teaching art is how it open pathways into other subjects.
“I can convince a nonmath student to like math because they have to start using to break down materials,” Moses said. “They have to mix a glaze and they have to learn about covalent bonds and ionic bonds, you know, chemistry. I can take a kid who didn’t think they were going to be an engineer and help them design a kiln and talk to them about passive heat and heat storage and the next thing you know, they’re going off to be an engineer. I feel lucky that I have that avenue that I can take. I can open my doors and have a first-grader come in and go, ‘Wow, I want to be a teacher, I want to learn, I didn’t know school could be like this, with machines and making stuff.’ Those kinds of game-changers are pretty cool.”
And that’s part of the reason why it irks him that art teachers and classes still are considered “extras.”
“We’re still not guaranteed,” he said. “The art teachers we have, most of them are bond-related. … They are year-to-year and they could be gone if bonds aren’t renewed.” (District voters did, earlier this year, authorize a renewal of a local option levy that, among other things, helps fund art teachers.)
“I remember my time working to help get art in the grade schools,” he said. “I would have to basically have fundraisers to pay for my job and have to do a carnival and an art show and an art auction to raise $15,000 to pay for the next year’s art teacher and that previous person would have to pay for me. How ridiculous is that? But that’s the cycle we were on and that we’re still on, to an extent.”
Still, students flock into Moses’ classrooms – and he counts himself fortunate that art has something to offer students from widely disparate backgrounds. “I can take everybody. I can take the valedictorian, I can take the homeless kid. That’s so damn lucky. So that’s why I come here. I can have all those kids. I can have access to helping them and changing them and giving them somebody, giving them a voice, a shoulder, a couch to sit on.”
And it boils down to giving those students a chance to express their own narratives, their own stories.
“I help to give confidence,” Moses said. “I help to process some of the information that’s going on, like the stories, the narratives, and to reevaluate skill sets.” Not every student in Moses’ classroom is going to be an artist. “But being able to tell a story, being able to listen to a story, being able to look at the details of a narrative, are important for everything in life. I mean, you enjoy life more. Your interconnectedness, your empathy, all of that is part of being able to see those narratives. Yeah, I love that. I love lighting that up. I love seeing kids realize that potential that they can express.”