By Amy Matzke-Fawcett

Bob Ross famously released his viewers from the expectation artists should strive for perfection. Every misplaced dab of paint was deemed a "happy accident" just waiting to become a tree or smokestack in his nature scenes.

His commitment to make art approachable has inspired Old Dominion University alumna Jessica Van Veenhuyzen, an art teacher at Cox High School in Virginia Beach for the past nine years. She models her teaching after the late painter, who showed that anyone can make art. In 2021, her efforts were recognized when she was named the National Art Education Association (NAEA) Secondary Art Teacher of the Year for Virginia.

The recognition was nice, but the real honor may have been the kind recommendation letter written by a student. "After all, I work for them!" she said.

"I must admit it is nice to get recognized for hard work, but there are so many teachers I admire that should be recognized!" Van Veenhuyzen added. "So, I am very humbled and appreciative. It's also reassurance that I'm doing something right, because the past few COVID years have been a challenge and there are times I question if I'm doing all I can."

The honor affirmed her choice to pursue art education. After earning a bachelor's degree in art from ODU in 2009, Van Veenhuyzen pursued a career in interior design but found it was not a fit. "I knew I was called to teach," she said.

Van Veenhuyzen decided to become an art teacher, aiming to create a place where students were valued and safe ­- something she did not have growing up. She was raised in an abusive home and struggled with undiagnosed ADHD and dyslexia, and often felt inadequate in school, she said. When she returned to ODU to earn a bachelor's degree in art education, she found her niche.

She credits study-abroad trips guided by art history professor Robert Wojtowicz, now vice provost and dean of the Graduate School, with changing her perspective. He took his students out of the classroom and into the world to discover art all around them. She's carried that inspiration as a teacher and has guided her students in study-abroad trips to Europe.

She also commends Richard Nickel, professor of art, for helping her follow her passion and exuding positive energy about her future. He told her she would have no problem finding a job after graduation in 2013.

"And he was right; I graduated on a Friday in the spring and started my position at Cox High School that Monday," Van Veenhuyzen said. "I tell my students: do what you love. Don't listen to anyone who discourages you. Stay humble, grateful and kind, and you can do anything! Follow your arrow."

Nickel notes that Van Veenhuyzen has led projects both in and out of the classroom, including teaching Saturday morning art classes in cooperation with the Chrysler Museum, creating opportunities for her students to work with adults with disabilities and helping to direct Virginia Beach's African American Community Heroes Poster Workshop.

"It's always amazing to see her working with her students in the community. Her choice to change her career to help people change their lives was the right choice," Nickel said. "I am happy to be a small part of what she has done and glad to see an ODU art education student still pulling people on board and teaching others how to change the world around them."

Along with the NAEA award, Van Veenhuyzen was named Holocaust Educator of the Year and Distinguished Educator of the Year for Cox High School in 2021. She also serves as the National Art Honor Society sponsor, freshman class sponsor, lead art teacher and department chair at the school.

"I think most of all, I have always treated art like a therapy, not a tough class," she said. "And, since COVID, I think we have really proven how important and therapeutic the arts are for our students."

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