In the classroom, art teacher David Spolum gets rewarded when students start believing.
It’s in that moment when doubters look at something they have created and say, “I didn’t know I could do something that good,” he says.
He starts his classes out drawing specific assignments, including drapes, flowers, a saddle, buildings and a vintage motorcycle parked with flat tires on top of an art table. In pottery class, students turn mud into vessels.
“We let them choose subjects of their own,” he said of his classes that are among the most popular electives at Flandreau High School. He teaches six sections of middle school and high school art a day, seeing about 100 students.
“I kind of let the kids see what the other kids are doing, and they just kind of gravitate to this, that and the other. They don’t do it for a grade. They do it because it’s a personal interest of theirs.”
After 51 years, Spolum knows a thing or two about kids and art. This spring, the Watertown native and Dakota State University graduate completes a career he started in 1967 in Colorado. He worked there 24 years before moving to Flandreau in 1991 at the encouragement of then school board member Dann Cecil, who had been his college roommate.
Spolum, 74, really isn’t eager to retire this month because he will miss the students. “I have never wanted to quit teaching art. It’s so much fun,” he says. “Bringing it out in kids. That’s my secret.”
Maybe it’s the respectful way he treats those who stop in his room, even when he doesn’t have class. Perhaps it’s the generosity of a bottle of pop as a reward. It could be the pottery piece he makes for graduates shaped and glazed like a Native American medicine wheel. Certainly, it has something to do with his encouragement and ability to listen.
He’s had students who have become professional artists, have entered careers as art educators and have married someone they met in his art classroom.
He also has had students enter pieces in art shows at Northern State University, South Dakota State University and Augustana University over the years. Despite being from a smaller school than many of the competitors, Flandreau students have done well.
Adam Oswald, a professional wildlife artist and website designer who lives in Harrisburg, says he will always remember the day he saw his teacher standing at the end of the hall, pointing at him.
“He came rushing up to me, gave me a giant handshake and said, ‘Congratulations on winning the Augustana Art Contest!’ I could tell how excited he was, and that just made it all the better,” says the 1995 Flandreau graduate. “Mr. Spolum was a fantastic art teacher who not only taught artistic processes, but most importantly, for me, was his enthusiastic attitude toward art. Art has always excited me, but Mr. Spolum showed me how to open up and share that excitement with others.”
Spolum has that knack for connecting with students, says Brian Relf, middle school principal. “Not only did he work with them in his classroom, but he also let them know he cared about them outside of school.”
Spolum started open art night so students could work on their pieces in the evening, while at the same time providing a positive environment and a place for students to gather.
“I think he had a huge impact on a number of students through his art program, kept them in the hallways, kept them in school,” Relf says. Spolum also worked well with colleagues, offering to help in any way he could, Relf says. “That kind of selflessness is greatly appreciated.”
One of Spolum’s favorite projects each year is the day that students complete raku projects, something they couldn’t do this year because of the late snows and winds. They fire their pots outside using a propane burner to melt the glaze. Students celebrate by bringing pans of bacon and eggs to fry up over the heat as part of the fun.
“It’s just kind of one of the events of the school year,” Spolum says. It all adds to the style of learning that art can offer. “What we’re talking about didn’t happen in 1865 or in a test tube. We’re talking about something right in front of them.”
Spolum knows those experiences make a difference. He has invested in students over the years because caring adults invested in him when he was young.
“They really went the extra mile for me when I was young,” he says. “I know what I do makes a difference. It really does.”
Spolum also is grateful that Superintendent Rick Weber and the school board have supported the art program and have understood that it is a different style of learning. “They buy into the purpose,” he says.
Flandreau’s diversity, which includes many Native American families, brings a richness to the art program, as well, he says. All of the cultures value art, but sometimes Indian students come to class with art being passed down through generations, he says.
“Some of the really memorable pieces from the past were done by native people that are in the community still,” he says.
When he retires, Spolum will spend the summer like he has in the last several years, taking care of three grandsons in Sioux Falls, children of his son, Matt. Spolum and his wife, Kathy, also have a son, David, in Pennsylvania, and two other grandchildren.
Once fall rolls around and kids head back to classes, he’s not sure what he will do.
He does have his own art he plans to work on, both watercolor and clay projects.
“I’ve always had a schedule for the day,” he says. “Nothing will change until August when school starts again.”
That’s most likely the time when he will miss more than 50 years of watching young people develop their art skills. It’s the time when he can remember those students giving back to him through their appreciation, too.
“I’ve had a lot of kids tell me that the reason they come to school is for the art class,” he says.