A talented artist developed an early childhood program for the Toledo Museum of Art, which remains a cornerstone of the museum’s education division.
Lakewood Ranch resident Liz Cole has been immersed in arts and art education throughout her career. Now retired, the talented artist is not sitting back and watching life go by. In fact, she recently was busy preparing for her upcoming exhibition, “Painted Words,” at Art Uptown Gallery. But more about that later.
Cole is a Midwestern girl at heart, raised in Toledo, Ohio. “Basically, if I took a snapshot of my childhood, it would look a lot like the ‘Happy Days’ portrayed on television,” she says. “My mom was a stay-at-home mom, my dad worked for a car dealership, and I had one sister. It all seems very unextraordinary, but it was extraordinary in that it was such a wholesome way to grow up.”
It was Cole’s third-grade teacher who piqued her interest in art when she nominated her to be part of the Toledo Museum of Art Saturday program. “Every Saturday I spent the day at the museum. After class, I would wander through the different galleries, especially the impressionist gallery, and sit for hours in front of Monet’s paintings. I loved his colors and the kind of magic he captured in his landscapes. That probably began my journey toward becoming a painter.”
Cole earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Ohio University, where she majored in painting. “I ended up on a dual track and was able to get my art education degree as well, so I could get a job when I graduated.” Also while at Ohio University, Cole and her future husband, Gary, became college sweethearts. The couple recently celebrated their 53rd wedding anniversary.
After graduating, Cole taught high school for five years, but when she had their daughter, Marci, she decided to spend two years as a stay-at-home mom, and then go back to school. Cole ultimately earned both her master’s in education and doctorate at the University of Toledo.
About this time, their daughter was starting to pick up a pencil and would leave her “artwork” on the furniture and walls. “Watching Marci, I learned there is a visual vocabulary that we develop as young children. That piqued my interest in the artistic development of young children, which became the topic of my dissertation. In fact, I developed a program for the Toledo Museum of Art with the goal of establishing and expanding the visual literacy of children.” The early childhood program Cole developed for the museum in 1978 remains a cornerstone of the museum’s education division today.
Once Cole earned her Ph.D., it was serendipitous that a part-time position opened in the art department at the University of Toledo. “I began as a professor and then was tapped to be chair of the art department. When studio space became an issue, the decision was made to stay on the museum campus. A search committee was told to find a rising architect who could design an addition to the building that would be complementary to the existing museum but would also be reflective of the aesthetics of the day. The one name that kept rising to top was Frank Gehry, who was a rising star at that time. And that’s who we selected.”
Cole tells the story of how, early in the process, Gehry showed her a drawing of the proposed building that he scribbled on a napkin. “He told me: ‘This is what it should look like,’” she says, laughing as she remembers how the selection committee reacted to the drawing. “I think the air was sucked out of the room when I told them this was what the building was going to look like. Of course, once we overcame all the objections, the design was absolutely brilliant.”
Cole stayed at the University of Toledo for 22 years. When Bowling Green State University opened an associate dean’s position in its College of Arts and Sciences, with an emphasis on working in the arts, she jumped at the chance and was hired. Through her leadership, the Ohio Board of Regents approved a master’s degree in art education for Bowling Green. In addition, she worked on teacher education reform, for which her team received a $4.2 million grant from the Department of Education. Cole retired after six years in 2005 and today holds the position of professor emeritus.
One of the factors that influenced how Cole taught and saw herself as an art educator and an artist came about in 1987 when she took her sabbatical and began working with art educator Pauline Vincent in the United Kingdom. “I collaborated with Pauline for 10 years on various projects that we could do with children. For many years, I would spend July with her, working in inner-city schools. This experience changed my whole teaching style, with a focus on creating a joy of learning in the classroom.”
Cole was familiar with Sarasota because her husband’s parents had lived here for 22 years before they passed. One thing she liked was how important the arts were to the community. “I like to say that the west coast has silk and sandals. It has elegant things to do — or you can wear flip-flops and go to the beach and enjoy a sunset. I knew I didn’t want to stay in the gloomy, cold Midwest after retirement. Eventually, we bought a home in Lakewood Ranch.”
Her husband watched as Cole’s paintings took over the walls of their new home. “So, at his suggestion, I now have a studio that I share with two other artists,” says Cole. “One is Jill Krasner, who was instrumental in giving me confidence to get serious about my painting. It was Jill who introduced me to Art Uptown Gallery.”
What’s in her future?
“I plan to keep painting. After all, if Monet could lie in bed and paint, I can certainly keep going. Painting for me is a gift, but you have to keep working at that gift. Painting is intellectual; it’s creative; it’s all the things that keep us vital. That’s why I treasure it so very much.”
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