LIBERTY — Poet Langston Hughes wrote “Perhaps the mission of an artist is to interpret beauty to people — the beauty within themselves.”
While Hughes might have been penning that missive about the artists hard at work during the Harlem Renaissance, the words are applicable to art specialist Garrette Brown at Liberty’s EPiC Elementary as he works each day to get students to see what they have to offer artistically and creatively.
Brown had a circuitous route to the classroom. The Liberty High School graduate attended University of Missouri-Kansas City and earned a degree in studio art, but a friend convinced him to pack his bags and head to Florida to aid in church planting.
“During those first couple years, I was attached to social-minded churches, serving as an associate pastor, playing music, leading the youth. Some of the work also included aid to those who needed housing and the food insecure. That in turn, created the bedrock and my return to Kansas City where I worked with nonprofits.”
Yet, Brown kept being called to the classroom.
“I was 32 and wanted to find my way,” he said. “I found Teach for America. That was my fast track to get that teaching certificate. Those first two years were hard. Teach for America gets a bad rap. I worked to overcome that and prove I was there to serve and help for the long run.”
Initially Brown was a fourth- and fifth-grade teacher. However, friends kept chatting with him about what he was really passionate about and the words “art teacher” were more and more prevalent in those conversations.
“I saw many issues in the urban core with underprivileged youth,” he said. “I am a Black man from Liberty. I was serving communities where students and teachers looked like me, but had different issues. Then there were the challenges the way the Kansas City schools handle specials. I was in eight different schools in four years.”
Two years ago Brown started receiving recruitment texts and details on Liberty seeking to add more diversity to the district.
“I was happy with what I was doing, but I was renting a home in Liberty,” he said. “I wanted to own a home, and my wife and I are thrilled to be raising our son here. Current school board member AJ Byrd really helped me out.”
Byrd said Brown is committed to education.
“When we talked, he was engaged in the Kansas City School District, but I encouraged him to look at Liberty,” he said. “I knew he would make a great contribution to our schools. He is a great leader. I’m glad to be an influence.”
As for Brown’s teaching, he gives his students the rules of art as well as an understanding of artists and their histories.
“I get creative too,” he said. “I give them the rules to play in the box and then to learn when to hop out of the box. Artists tend to break the rules. However, I work with them on tying my lessons to lessons in the classroom. A lesson on robots may be tied to a math lesson. However, there are days when it’s about superheroes because I love superheroes or may be dragons another week.”
Brown, whose preferred media include painting and illustration, also serves as an art coach. He helps integrate lessons in other schools.
“It’s rare to be a male teacher at the elementary level,” he said. “It’s probably even rarer to be a Black male. I believe districts need to dig deeper in recruitment. We are missing out on how the world looks. I truly believe it’s important to see your community reflected. There are Black teachers in the district and I am fortunate to be part of the equity planning.”
Liberty Fire Arts Director Aaron Money calls Brown the real deal.
“We are honored to have him on the team. He understands all the needs of his students and colleagues while continuously engaging everyone in visual arts with grace and compassion,” Money said.
Brown makes sure that he has supplies to meet the needs of all students, including skin tone crayons, markers and paints.
“I realize now they are necessities so they can represent themselves with such things as their hair texture,” he explained. “I want to see the day that I am not the only Black person and male. I know it is going to take some time and I trust the leadership. We are starting to address the gaps. I didn’t see a black professional until there was a Black student teacher in middle school.”