Ken Tighe, a 30-year Walnut Hill faculty member, is a fixture of the Visual Art Department and has influenced and mentored countless Walnuts in his time. Ken agreed to chat with us about his experience over the past few decades, with the unique perspective as someone who has played several roles at the School.
1. You've been at Walnut Hill for three decades now! How did you first end up on the Hill, and did you anticipate you were here to stay?
I had just finished attending the summer arts program at Skowhegan, Maine in 1986 when, some weeks later, I received a call from a fellow Mass Art alum. He told me that he was the Visual Art department head at a private boarding school in Natick called Walnut Hill School for the Arts. Well, fortunately for me, although we had never met, he had remembered my paintings from college and had me in mind to teach, part-time, a couple of painting classes in a fairly new, small, but expanding visual art department. It was truly out of the blue and amazes me to this day! The following year saw the department head and the only other full-time visual arts faculty member both depart for graduate school. It was then that I began my full-time teaching duties but with the added twist of running the ceramics program as well as teaching painting. (Not many people know that I was the ceramics instructor here for eleven years!). It was then that Jim Woodside came aboard as the department head. I had met Jim once, the year before, on one of his campus visits as an admissions officer from MICA. So, there we were: we had an art department to run. I think we've done OK.
Those first 30 years here have gone by frighteningly fast. What kept me here besides love, family, and a regular paycheck? I knew that Walnut Hill wanted me to teach to the depth of my disciplines, not wide and shallow; that was important to me. My personal artistry has been respected and encouraged. I still paint nearly every day. I show and am a visiting artist regularly. It's crucial to me personally; it feeds and is essential to my teaching. It's been one heck of a fun ride and I've been privileged to know and work with some bona fide rock stars through the years!
2. How has the Visual Art Department, and the School in general, changed during your time here?
Well, as far as the Visual Art Department goes, when I started here the amount of visual art majors numbered in the teens and Jim and I were the only two teachers. The number of students now regularly tops off in the midsixties, with 13 total art faculty. Another way to think of it is that we now have almost as many visual art faculty as we first had students all those years ago! Another big change was the influx of international students in the '90s. It altered the school and art department landscape in some big ways, and certainly the way I taught painting and ceramics. I realized I had to retool the way I communicated to the student. The complications created by the language barrier provided an opportunity that demanded adaptation through reinvention, so I basically reinvented myself as a teacher. It was challenging and frustrating at times, yet intriguing in that I first had to deconstruct the way I taught, then put it back together, but it also afforded me invaluable insight into the barriers the students were facing as I was put into a similar situation. Patience, humor, and humility were key to growing through it together! It was also the first time, in that stripped-down exchange, that I realized how much of my strength as a teacher was in creating the spaces for learning. I discovered that I was skilled at creating and maintaining a safe place to challenge, construct and deconstruct, and explore, as well as support vulnerability, self-doubt, bravado, irreverence, and rebelliousness, all while enabling fun to happen.
There have been endless other changes reflected in the School as the outside world has changed around us; I was in a conversation with an alum the other day in which we were remembering the student smoking lounge in the basement of the Dance Barn; many faculty, including me, had the job of lounge monitor. That's a little hard to wrap one's head around now.
3. You are in the unique position of being a faculty member, a Dorm Parent, and the parent of two Walnuts! How have all these different roles in the community affected your experience here?
Having the unique perspective of working in the dorm, as both an arts faculty member and a parent, you realize just how much of this amazing school is driven by good hardworking people who want to do the right thing and genuinely care about not only my child, but take ownership for the personal, intellectual, and creative well-being of all our students. Getting to know students in the round, as young artists in the studio, in a show, or on a stage, as well as in their dorm—which is really home to them—allows you to understand the seamless nature of their experience here. At times that circular synergy can turn into a vicious cycle if you don't help them to create some distance between the separate parts or help them to parse out the day's activities; sometimes a student really needs the protection and comfort of being "home" in the dorm, or might need to hash things out or simply vent about his or her day. As a Dorm Parent, check-in can be one of those flash points where the arts and academic day meet head-on with the start of their home life here—and it can get pretty electric! The shift in energy presents in many different ways: we've seen stand-up routines delivered by the quietest kids, indignant tirades, the slow burdened shuffle of the instrument-laden music major into your apartment, the amusingly strident gushing of a band of theater majors announcing themselves. It's a crucial, cathartic, and natural happening that all Dorm Parents experience.
Not only did my two boys have the privilege of attending school here, but they grew up in this amazing community as well. Walnut Hill is in their DNA. This place is a life-changer for young people, and it has certainly been that way for my kids. I know they feel the very same way.
4. What is your favorite memory or experience from your years here on the Hill?
It's tough to assign one as a favorite; I'll just revisit a few off the top of my head. I remember when Linda and I lived in a small apartment in the basement of the Health Center and had a deck and a big vegetable garden back there. I remember babysitting Faith and Ruby Woodside when they were so little. The painting studio used to be the main dance studio, and the Pooke Gallery held the offices and changing rooms. I think back to being on duty in Eliot dorm with a 2-year-old Joe and a 3-month-old Jack in my arms while walking up and down the halls. There's the ever-present stream of alumni who lovingly recall the profoundly positive change this school made and continues to make in their lives. Fast-forward to two years ago, when Linda and I were able to give Joe his diploma at graduation. Not to mention, Jack will be a senior next year! The enthusiastic reception I received last year at the Assembly recognizing my 30 years of service was especially rewarding for me and is already a cherished memory. I was truly touched by that.