Lessons Outside The Classroom
Some people are born with an artistic gift; others are born with the talent to teach. Then there are those individuals blessed with both who become that one teacher that students remember for a lifetime. Eloise Stoker is one of those rare individuals.
After 35 years, Stoker, a professor of art at the University of the Incarnate Word, has decided that her days in the classroom are numbered. But retirement is not the word that Stoker uses to describe her pending absence from the classroom; she instead refers to this new period as an opportunity to move into the next phase of her career.
“I don’t see myself as retiring because an artist never truly retires,” said Stoker.
From her early days as a child, Stoker’s appreciation of nature was apparent. Stoker loved being outside and exploring all it had to offer. Being a native of San Antonio, the South Texas weather allowed her to feed her obsession with the outdoors. And it didn’t hurt that her family also enjoyed the outdoors. Whether it was exploring the trees in her neighborhood or spending time with her family at a lake, Stoker relished being with nature. That passion became even more enjoyable when she discovered her love of teaching.
If you were privileged to take a course with Stoker during her tenure at UIW, then you experienced an “outdoor education” - one that appealed to your senses and concentrated on the relationships that we as human beings have with the natural resources surrounding us.
“I have always wanted my students to understand where things come from,” said Stoker, who has a bachelor of science and arts degree from the University of Texas and a master of arts in graphic design from New Mexico Highlands University. “If they understand that everything is a part of the earth, from the desk that we sit at to the tiles on the space shuttle, then they will understand the importance of the source.”
You also probably received a little bit of UIW history when you left, in the form of a ceramic leaf plate. For years, Stoker has walked around the campus collecting intricate leaves that she later works into ceramic plates for her graduating seniors. On the back of each plate Stoker writes the name of the tree from which the leaf fell so that her students can always remember that piece of nature on the UIW campus.
When she arrived at Incarnate Word in 1970, Stoker was not expecting to stay long. She was initially hired for just one semester to teach the Survey of Art History course for one of the sisters that had fallen ill.
“I did not realize that when I was asked to teach the course, that I would be teaching strictly from books because all of the slides had been lost,” she said, laughing.
Although her first semester was challenging, it did not deter Stoker from wanting to continue her relationship with Incarnate Word and in 1974, she became a full-time professor in the University’s art department.
“I loved teaching and I was able to teach a course I loved,” said Stoker. “I was also able to get to know my students because of the small classes,” she continued. “Sr. Margaret Patrice Slattery once told me that if I loved teaching, I was going to do a good job.”
For the next 30 years, Stoker would teach a variety of courses ranging from Spinning, Dying, and Weaving to Materials and Methods in Art Education. And while she enjoyed all of the courses she had the opportunity to teach, the courses she enjoyed the most were the ones that allowed her to share her love of Native American history with her students.
“Native Americans have a love for the environment,” said Stoker. “They have instilled in their culture that concept.”
“I wanted my students to realize that we depend on the Earth and therefore it is important to remember that what affects the earth has an effect on us.”
Stoker was instrumental in the development of the Native American Studies program and course in Native American Art History at UIW. She has also traveled extensively across the United States, Canada and Siberia researching native culture and art. Most recently, she was a guest lecturer at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. Two of her woodblock prints are in the permanent collection of the Roswell Art Museum in New Mexico and the Jack S. Blantion Museum of Art at the University of Texas in Austin.
Each spring, Stoker and her students could be seen by the riverbank behind the Buckley Mitchell Advancement Center firing the clay they had previously excavated from an open clay pit near Seguin. “When I first started teaching, I used to take my classes to the field behind the Villa and we would fire the clay in the area where the retirement center now sits,” recalled Stoker.
She believed that students should process and work with clay the way Native Americans traditionally did. Even the ritual of making sure the fire was appropriate for them to work with was referenced to Native American history.
“We build a small fire to dry the ground first,” explained Stoker. “Next, we place coals over the grate to warm the fire up. After that, we place the pots down and pile up cow chips on top so that it looks like a beehive and place more kindling under the grate.
“My students were often very helpful when it came to preparing the fire,” said Stoker. “This year I had a number of students bring cow chips and I even had one student that prepared the ground and watched over the fire for most of the day.”
Although the campus has grown tremendously since the first time she stepped onto it, Stoker still managed to discover some of the campus’ natural resources for her last sculpting class. With her charming personality, she convinced the construction crew building the new SBC Science & Engineering Center to allow her class to excavate the clay from that area.
As Stoker begins to sort through the various items in her office that she has collected over the years - the clay pieces that she has made, the reference books and the piles of papers that have now officially made her a “pack-rat” in her mind - she reflects on her time at UIW.
“I’ve enjoyed working with my colleagues and the students,” she said. “I think what I’ll miss the most is being on campus everyday and my afternoon walks through campus.”
And in keeping with the rare teacher that she is, Stoker adds, “And I’ll miss teaching; it’s what I love.”
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