Art is alive in Helen Brainerd's classroom at Piedmont High School. It is everywhere: on work drying on metal racks, gracing colorful canvasses displayed on the counter, celebrated on posters thumb-tacked to walls, highlighted on fliers for upcoming art shows, tucked into student cubbyholes.
Most vibrantly, it is in the buzz of activity by students: painting, drawing, taking turns at printmaking, talking to one another about their projects. Moving among them, approaching students with words of advice and encouragement, is Brainerd, 67, a petite woman in a black, paint-splattered smock with a gray pixie haircut and purple glasses.
"The hardest part is getting them started," she says. "Then you just have to monitor them." Those who know Brainerd, and the passion she has contributed to Piedmont High for more than 26 years, will tell you the hardest part will be when she stops teaching in June.
Her retirement, according to PHS Principal Randall Booker, is "going to be a huge loss" for the school.
"She's a tremendous teacher," Booker said. "She has this remarkable talent for shepherding kids and bringing kids way farther than they ever think they can go (in art)." Brainerd's tenure at Piedmont High began in 1965 when she joined the faculty after getting an art degree from Mills College and her teaching credential from UC Berkeley. Newly married at the time, she left PHS five years later for the birth of her first child. She returned
The art done at school is not just class work; students are provided with opportunities to show their work in public. This spring there have been student exhibitions in several Piedmont Avenue commercial businesses, including a bank and a local coffee house. They also participate in the Memory Project, a Wisconsin-based program that asks students to create portraits of orphaned and neglected children from around the world that are then given to the disadvantaged child.
Parent Kim Belchamber, the president of PAINTS, a nonprofit to "Promote Arts In The Schools" in the district, said outsiders who see the student art work are always "amazed" by the high quality.
"They're like, 'this is high school?" Belchamber said.
Former PHS student Noah Breuer, who went on to get his master's in fine arts from Columbia University and is a working artist and an adjunct professor at New York University, said Brainerd's classroom was where he and other students spent many lunch and after-school hours.
"That room and her support of people's artistic development was a refuge for students," Breuer said.
Brainerd said she's now ready to support her own artistic talents, enjoy time with her children and four grandchildren and possibly travel. She lives in Rockridge with her longtime partner and two tabby cats, Calvin and Hobbes.
"I have been so happy here," Brainerd said. "I've been able to look forward every day to coming to work — can you imagine that?"