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State High Art Teacher Reflects on 40 Years of Helping Students 'Discover Wonder'

by on June 10, 2015 6:25 AM

The afternoon sunlight spreads a golden glow through Room 301 of the State High north building as Robert Placky slowly cleans up for the last time.

The longtime art teacher – retiring this year after 40 years with the State College Area School District – lovingly sifts through old artifacts crafted by generations of his former students. And with each assignment or drawing he uncovers, he finds himself transported into the past.

“People always live their lives in the moment, without realizing that one day it will be history,” Placky says.

Now, as Placky’s career is poised to pass into history, he finds himself choosing to live in the moment and savor his room one last time: the oil paintings that give it the distinct smell of linseed; the photos of his students that date back to 1975; the orderly rows of used tea bags from his morning cups of tea tacked to one wall as a piece of “performance art.” 

“What is an art room?” Placky muses. “It’s a home. It’s a sanctuary, a haven where people come to escape the world. Or it can be a place where you come to think about the world more deeply.”

Soon after Placky’s retirement, his art room will be demolished to make way for construction on a new high school building. He expects to be there to see the wrecking ball crash through Room 301, and he expects to weep. 

That room, somewhat cramped and dusty as it is, is where Placky estimates he helped some 8,000 students "discover wonder" about the world around them. That room is where he taught a future Academy Award-nominated animator and professional designers.

Placky's eyes light up as he talks about some of his most successful students. One went to work for Pixar, and directed a short film that was later nominated for an Oscar. Another is currently working with famed director James Cameron as a character designer for future films in the Avatar franchise. Countless others went on to prestigious art schools, and now work as professional artists and designers. 

But despite the incredible success he’s helped cultivate, Placky downplays any connection he might have to his students’ achievements. He never had that moment you might see in movies where a teacher informs a student that they’re destined for greatness. 

“My job is to be the Sherpa, to be the guide and show them how to climb the mountain,” Placky says. “I talk about the equipment they need; I make sure they have all the essentials; I help them understand what it means to take their art to the next level, but they make the climb themselves.”

Placky’s own journey up the metaphorical mountain was, as he puts it, “rather serendipitous.”

The son of a sheet metal worker in Johnstown, Placky says there were three images in his childhood home: religious symbols, a portrait of John F Kennedy, and a series of paintings created by his uncle “that looked like paint-by-numbers, even when he got good.”

But his uncle was also married to an art connoisseur who would take Placky with her to art shows and galleries and Greenwich Village, where he marveled at the beauty of stained canvas.

“It just seemed like a magical place, like a different world,” Placky says.

So he became something of a “closeted artist,” secretly drawing and sketching and painting “really ugly things” with no sense of technique or aesthetics – but he didn’t let that deter him. By the time he came to Penn State, he was determined to be an artist.

And in a strange twist of fate, everything that came next – including his four-decade-long career as State High’s favorite art teacher – was just an accident. Placky went into art education at Penn State instead of the college of arts and architecture all because he just happened to check the wrong box on a piece of paperwork.

But Placky doesn’t think checking the wrong box all those years ago was a mistake. As he stands in Room 301 of the State High north building for one of the last times, Placky now knows that he made history when he checked the wrong box, even if he didn’t realize it in the moment. 

“I’m not just saying goodbye to 40 years of teaching,” he says, casting his eyes around his art-filled sanctuary. “It’s like I’m saying goodbye to my home."


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Michael Martin Garrett is a reporter and editor for who covers local government, the courts, the arts and writes the Keeping the Faith column. He's a Penn State alumnus, a published poet and the bassist in a local indie rock band.
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