He’s retiring from teaching it but not from creating


Don Urness stood in a Cedar Grove-Belgium High School hallway below art created from litter his classes made on past Earth Days. Urness will retire this month after 27 years with the district. Photo by Sam Arendt
Ozaukee Press staff

“It’s bittersweet.”

That’s what Don Urness says about retiring after 27 years as an art teacher at Cedar-Grove Belgium High School.

He’s looking forward to working with his wife Eileen creating art and developing their Old Town Hall Studio and on Main Street in Belgium.

But he will miss working with students whose art can still dazzle a veteran art teacher and artist like him. Every day he is pleasantly surprised, he said, by “kids coming up with some great projects.”

Urness’ grew up in Modena, a tiny and scenic Wisconsin city on the Mississippi River. In high school a teacher talked him into entering an art contest, and Urness’ drawing of the community’s church won the competition.

That set the stage for undergraduate college studies in art education at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and a master’s degree in visual arts from Cardinal Stritch University.

Urness grew up loving to draw, and after he graduated from college he started to share it with teenagers nearly 90 minutes away. He taught for five years at the School District of Alma Center-Humbird-Merrillan before his wife’s job had them move to Minnesota.

There, Urness put a college jewelry class to use and worked as a jeweler for five years before he restarted his art education career by landing a high school art teaching job at Cedar Grove-Belgium.

He appreciated his accommodations. “Two nice rooms,” he said — a rare privilege for art teachers.

One is for drawing, designing and painting, and the other “dirty” room is for ceramics and sculpture. It has a patio with running water allowing the creation of paper pieces.

What also made the position appealing, Urness said, was that he had strong support from the school and the public.

“I’ve never had to worry about budget,” he said of the art program. “If anything, it’s grown.”

Beyond that, “the community always embraced the art program.”

As a teacher, Urness said, he found students to be much the same as when he was in high school.

“The students are still doing the same type of stupid things they were doing when I started,” he said.

But they are also turning out art that stuns him with its creativity and originality.

The hardest thing about leaving the job, he said, “is not having that stimulation of students working on stuff.”

This year’s sophomore class, he said, is especially talented and he would love to be around to see them as seniors.

But Urness is 65 and said he doesn’t have the energy he once did. He does, however, still have a passion for art.

Art works by him and Eileen will be displayed at their studio and gallery Friday and Saturday as part of the Northern Moraine Art Tour on Friday and Saturday.

Urness said he has a mindset of alchemy while working in handmade paper in various sizes. He dries the pieces and then sprays them with paint.

“On any given day what’s around you dictates what your final piece will be,” he said.

It’s a labor of love but a difficult one.

“People don’t understand what it takes to be a working artist,” he said. That’s something he imparts to students.

“I hope by the end of this class you realize art is hard,” he tells them.

A common misconception about art, he said, is that because artists’ enjoy their work their pieces should be inexpensive.

“It’s enjoyable but it’s also, as they find out, not easy,” he said.

 Art, like other fields, is more about the perspiration than the inspiration.

“I tell students ambition and persistence are more important in art than having any kind of natural talent,” he said. “You’ve got to want to do it and put in the sacrifice.”

While grades matter, art class allows a different type of gratification.

“It’s not about the grade,” Urness said. “It’s about the pride in the product they produce.”

That, he said, was especially true teaching in his first district in a farming community.

“As farmers, the end result was the most important part anyway,” he said.

That mirrors the world of professional artists who can’t worry about what critics say and instead keep creating new pieces, he said.

 Urness started Cedar Grove-Belgium High School’s art club and gave it an environmental theme. Students made Earth Day postcards and sent them to schools across the world, and got many sent to them that were combined into pieces of art.

“Every year it was always exciting to see where we would get postcards from,” he said.

Another favorite project was Earth Day pieces in which students picked up pieces of litter and turned them into one large piece of art. Ninety percent of what they picked up, Urness said, came from cigarettes, alcohol or fast food restaurants.

 “It’s eye-opening for the students. That’s kind of why we do it,” he said.

The Covid-19 pandemic caused Urness to alter some of his curriculum and developed one popular idea he would have made permanent. Students were to recreate famous paintings by wearing similar clothing and using similar props.

While art fields were limited when Urness was in school, today they run the gamut. A poster in his classroom lists architecture, art therapy, graphic art, interior design, fashion or floral design and illustration to name a few. The poster predates video game design, which Urness said he first laughed at until a couple of  his students excelled at it.

“It’s a huge industry,” he said.

Urness encouraged students to try industrial design and develop pieces such as toasters, microwaves, toys and furniture. The job comes with a caveat. Urness’ brother is an engineer who told him the professions don’t always get along since engineers are the ones charged with making the industrial designers’ creations actually work.

In retirement, Urness and Eileen plan to expand the locations of their art to Madison, Appleton and beyond.

Students already plan to visit Urness at his Thursday night open studios. He hopes to offer art classes, yoga and eventually have musicians or open mic nights.

The Urnesses want to travel as well, and will spend time with their 7-year-old grandson and 2-month-old granddaughter, the daughter of Rita Urness, who teaches family and consumer science at Cedar Grove-Belgium High.



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