Retired Rachel Carson Art Teacher Takes on New Challenges in Her Painting

Photo | Submitted Retired MCPS elementary school art teacher and lifelong working artist Patti Connell was part of a group exhibit last month at the Signal Financial City Branch, 1101 New York Ave. in DC.

Photo | Submitted
Retired MCPS elementary school art teacher and lifelong working artist Patti Connell was part of a group exhibit last month at the Signal Financial City Branch, 1101 New York Ave. in DC.

Patti Connell never doubted her direction. “As a child, I knew I wanted to make art,” she said. 

“Enamored with art classes from elementary through high school … I realized I wanted to share my love of art by teaching,” said the retired MCPS elementary school art teacher and lifelong working artist. 

Growing up in a “rural area, near Laytonsville, amongst the woods and creeks,” Connell said her parents supported her inclinations, “steering me toward a variety of art classes in my spare time.” At age 10, she was the only child in a watercolor class she took with her father, “an aeronautical engineer who was interested in everything he could do with his hands, including making art,” she said. It was an “empowering” experience for a “budding artist.” 

Connell studied art education at Towson State University. “My medium was ceramics. … I spent hours throwing on the potter’s wheel and creating functional stoneware pieces which I still use every day.” Post-college, nearly 40 years ago, she taught art and took painting classes from Walt Bartman at Glen Echo Park. 

In a painting class for art teachers that same year, Connell “realized how much I loved the act of painting on canvas. I was completely absorbed with the unlimited array of possibilities in the color mixing process. I was hooked.” Still, “painting took a back seat to a full-time teaching career and family, raising my kids.” 

Connell credits Howard Cohen, at the Arts Barn, with “reigniting my interest mid-career. I painted with him for several years.” Determined to “paint more often,” she set up a studio in her Kentlands home’s dining room. A commission from friends for a painting of their “beautiful backyard garden” ensued, which she said, “was exactly what I needed to bring more focus to my work and a new level of confidence.” More commissions followed and a growing number of patrons were buying her work, she said. 

The artist said her “style has always leaned toward realism in all forms, including still life and landscape painting. I paint outdoors, en plein air, and have for years, as it combines my love of nature and the transient light of the landscape.” Locally, the C&O Canal and the county’s farms are favorite spots. 

Post-retirement, painting is Connell’s priority. She has “devoted many hundreds of hours to develop a practice of painting every day—or close to it,” and is completing her third and final year of studying oil painting with Glen Kessler in a Master Artist Program at Compass Atelier in Rockville “My classes with Walt (Bartman), Howard (Cohen) and Glen all eventually led to where I am today at the Compass Atelier.” 

“Improving my figurative work” is Connell’s current focus, a choice she finds “exceedingly challenging,” she said. “Working on a portrait is an unending process that I savor and dread simultaneously, as I want to make sure that I capture the essence of my subject.” 

Connell relished her 37 years of “teaching the creative process of art to kids who would look forward to coming to my class and let me teach them about colors and culture, life and problem solving” at Rachel Carson and several other county elementary schools before that. “The art studio that engages young children is a powerful place to enhance young lives,” she maintained. 

The “teacher’s skillful eye” she acquired also helped “tweak the most minute nuances of shape and color” in her own painting. Since “drawing and painting are my forte and the most natural extension of my continuing learning,” she continues to teach small groups privately in the Lakelands and at the PEAS studio in Kentlands. 

Four years ago, Connell moved from her Kentlands home of 20-plus years to a smaller home in the Lakelands. “Surrounded by great neighbors, I am content to hear kids playing in the grassy area out front and grow a limited variety of herbs and flowers that I can squeeze in between the community bushes. I confess I have more than three flower pots on my front porch, but who’s counting?” 

Remaining in the community, she continues to be in close contact with her “most cherished friends,” many of whom were once “volunteers in my classroom where we shared countless experiences that in essence was life-changing for me.” She is similarly delighted to run into former students who “stop me to smile or engage in a conversation.” 

Connell’s future “has no bounds,” she said. “Once I complete my class in March, I will be taking painting workshops, traveling to exotic places to paint and will continue to take commissions to paint portraits, landscapes or local scenes. I’ve thought about applying for a residency program at a national park or creating a relationship with a local gallery to periodically show my work. I also will continue to teach drawing and painting privately, and welcome new students.”