Bringing Artists Into Your Classroom with Billy Kheel (Ep. 101)

On the same day Nic and Billy present at the Art Ed Now conference, they are together on the podcast as well! Today they tell the story of their collaborative work at Nic’s school in Minnesota. Listen as they discuss the power of collaboration, the benefits of a visiting artist, and all the reasons you need to try to get an artist into your school soon.  Full episode transcript below.

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Nic: Last fall, my good friend Leah Schultz, who is another art teacher in my district, and I would get together once a week and we’d watch the show Making It on NBC. We loved that there was a creative reality show just for, I felt like it was just for us. I mean these artists were given a challenge and had to create on the spot and it was just so fun to have that conversation of, well what would you do? Oh, what would you? And to see what they ended up coming up with. At the end of every show we would jump online and see what these artists had going on, on social media, and one of the artists that really stood out to me was an artist named Billy Keel. He is a felt artist primarily. He is from California and I thought his work was really interesting because it was a combination of masculine images or subject matter and like sports, wrestling, fish, hunting, that sort of thing and then this marriage between felt or fibers, which typically doesn’t associate with each other.

I thought he was great and I noticed that he did visit classrooms, so I contacted him and he did come to my classroom later that year, or this year, in February of 2019. So I asked Billy if he would do a presentation afterwards for the Art of Education Online conference. He did that with me and that is actually being presented today, July 25th, 2019. I thought it would be fun to bring him on to the podcast as well, just to get a little deeper into what he’s doing now and what he had he did in my classroom as well. So let’s get started. Let’s meet Billy Keel. This is Nic Hahn and this is Everyday Art Room.

All right. Hey, welcome Billy. I’m so excited to have you here. Can you please just introduce yourself? Like when people come up to you and ask, who are you, what do you say?

Billy: My name is Billy Kheel. I’m a Los Angeles based artist and I use craft materials in a lot of my work, but not really with subject matter that has anything to do with craft materials.

Nic: Right. Okay. And of course there is something that most people at least, and maybe on this podcast, will know you as an, what’s that?

Billy: Oh, sure. I was on the NBC show Making It with the Amy Poehler and Nick Offerman.

Nic: Yeah. That was in the first season, right?

Billy: Season one, yes. I should… now they got another season coming up I should specify. Season one.

Nic: Yeah. Right. Yeah, I think that’s coming down the pike real soon, so I’m excited for that because I just, I loved watching you guys. We did that on a regular basis and I think a lot of our listeners also watched Making It on a regular basis and big fans for sure.

Billy: Oh Great. That’s great. I mean it was a great experience and just seeing the reception that people have had to it is, has been amazing. Like it’s been really great.

Nic: Yeah, definitely. Okay, so if you watch the show, most likely you would associate your work, or I associated your work, with felt and we’ll get into that a little bit more because that’s what we did together as our collaborative. But are there other interests that you have, other mediums that you’re exploring?

Billy: Yeah, actually. Well you know, on the TV show, I got to work with a lot of different materials. You know, there’s a lot of projects with wood and let’s see what else, like trapunto, stuffing felt, you know, and even stuff like a clay and all kinds of stuff. Right now I’m really interested in a tile project I’m working on. So yeah, I mean I think felt is definitely… I’ve been working with felt the lot the last few years and I think it really kinda sort of rhymes well with the stuff that I like to sort of work on. So it’s definitely my sort of primary medium right now. But you know, I have a lot of different interests in different materials for sure.

Nic: Yeah. After following you on Instagram and whatnot, I’ve definitely discovered that, that you have a diverse interest for sure. But yeah, the felt keeps coming back and that’s… I adore your work. It’s great.

Billy: Oh, thank you so much. Yeah, I mean, you know, I first got involved with felt making a penance. Like my way into felt was not that traditional. I was sort of coming at it from a idea of sports memorabilia and stuff. So, you know, I’ve kind of found out more the whole, it sort of opened up to me the different ways that the material that people work with it and the things it means to different people. So it’s been a great learning experience for me just working with this one material.

Nic: Yeah, and well I noticed that your subject matter is… You do have a couple of a reoccurring themes. Do you want to talk about those at all?

Billy: Sure. I think that the first thing that I really work a lot with is stuff with sports and athletic culture. That’s a big interest of mine. Also sort of like urban sort of culture, like street signs and strip mall signs from the Los Angeles area. And then also I’m pretty interested in hunting and fishing and sort of outdoorsy stuff. So, you know, those three things are not… those three kinds of interests are not things you normally see rendered in felt.

Nic: Yeah, or fibers in general. You’re right. Yeah. That’s what makes it so interesting and universal, I’d say.

Billy: Oh yeah. Thank you. I mean, I think it’s like with any artists or even working with students, you know? A lot of it is just about finding what are your passions, what are your real interests and then let’s go from there. You know what I mean? Let’s get creative from there. That’s kind of my idea, you know?

Nic: Yup. Yup. Absolutely. So that brings us into our collaboration a little bit because one of the reasons that I wanted to bring you to my school versus so many other amazing artists out there is because I really noticed that your themes would match the group of kids that I was kind of missing. The ones that I wasn’t connecting to. Our sports kids, our hunting kids and so that is initially what provoked me to talk to you as well as the fibers aspect of it, because that was a goal of mine to get more fibers into the classroom.

So, let’s just talk about the classroom and you coming to Minnesota. I’ll give a quick description on my end and then you can kind of jump in. I saw Billy on Making It and I decided, well I wonder if he does any work with the classroom. I looked him up and he had in the past. So I just reached out to him, asked him if he would be willing to join in the fun here in Minnesota and he said yes. And we started a conversation negotiating times and prices and so forth and the project itself. And eventually in February of 2019, Billy did come to Hassan Elementary to work with all 800 of my students. So, tell me about your end of it a little bit, Billy.

Billy: Well it was a beautiful time to come to Minnesota. I’m from Boston originally, but I don’t think I’ve seen that much snow since I was in Boston

Nic: Right.

Billy: Yeah, I love… a big part of my sort of practice and what I like to do is doing workshops and visiting classrooms and it’s exactly for the reason that you said. It’s just really satisfying and inspiring for me. If I can reach a kid that did not… I love, I work, I know how to sew and do sort of craft projects with felt and I love the kid that knows everything about it and hits the ground running and has ideas. I mean, obviously, that’s your dream. That’s a dream student.

But for me, I’m also really fascinated with the kid that’s that’s not into it. You know what I mean? You know, with the project we did, which was a sort of a installation of your river that you have there in Minnesota, the Crow River, it was great to see the faces light up for kids that didn’t seem to be paying attention at the beginning, and then once they started seeing the presentation of what we’re going to be doing and then their fishing stories came out and they’re stories about their lake house or their going fishing with their grandpa and all this kind of stuff. Then you really started to see them, kind of their passion came forward and then they would then focus that into the art project. It was just really great to see. I mean, I’ve had that experience before working with kids that maybe weren’t so into art that really were into sports and I just love seeing that.

As someone that personally, I’m not that interested in flowers and still life’s.

Nic: Yeah, right.

Billy: So, I know where they’re coming from and so to see that become a creative energy for me is just, it’s what it’s all about and I think the key, the bottom line thing, that I want to get across is that it’s so important to be creative and to be able to work with your hands and sort of think outside the box nowadays, and not be on a screen and not be playing video games. That I think it’s really crucial to reach, to try and reach every kid, you know? And so that for me is what’s really great about visiting the classroom and doing workshops.

Nic: Yeah. And from the teacher’s perspective, it was amazing to sit back and watch you as the visiting artist kind of take the lead and for 29 sections, I mean, you were doing this over and over and over.

And for 29 sections, you were doing this over and over and over. We legit saw classes coming in nice and quiet, all calm. They were excited to meet you. But once you started talking and once you told them what we were going to be doing, the excitement and the enthusiasm from all of those students was really fun to watch. And then beyond that, what was fun is watching you. As a teacher, I’m always on, I’m always teaching, but when we bring a visiting artist in, I get to sit back and watch you interact with the students. And I think of … Do you remember the little kiddo named Brody?

Billy: Yeah.

Nic: Yeah. And I just … I think of you sitting down next to him and working hand over hand and just making sure that he had a moment with you. It was really special and really neat to watch.

Billy: Oh yeah. Thank you so much. I just … I think it’s just like I … I just think it’s so important, and I don’t want … I would never want kids to think art is time to space out or take off or … You know what I mean? Like, I want … If I’m going to be there and and you’re going to be there and we’re going to put time into a project, I want the kids to be fired up about it and I want it to go, and I want their creative energy to power it, you know? And so that takes a lot of energy from our side, obviously. But in the end, it’s like what we did there … I never really would’ve imagined we would have gotten as much done as we were able to get done, you know what I mean?

Nic: Yeah.

Billy: And with that project, I was so excited. I was so excited about the way that came out and how it all came together. And I think a lot of it was just … I think we chose a good project for the community and for those kids. And I think it really hit them. It hit a lot of them in a really good place maybe, that was inspiring, and then that was just … That was rocket fuel, you know?

Nic: Mm-hmm (affirmative), mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah. So you kind of led on to the work that we had to do ahead of time or even after. Can you touch on what it took … after I made contact with you, what it took to get to the project planning and the actual development of this project?

Billy: Sure. Yeah. I mean, like I said I have … There’s three or four areas of things that I’ve done projects with, be it a river project, a sign sort of urban sort of project … I’ve got a couple of sports projects with pennants and felt appliqué. So I kind of have this like, pu pu platter of stuff that I’m interested in that fits under my little umbrella. And we talked it over and I think we zeroed in on … I think I sent you some images of the Los Angeles River Project that I did out here, which was a similar sort of installation, only I just did that one on my own. And I think you said, “Oh, we have a river here.”

And honestly when I did the Los Angeles River Project and I was lucky enough to get to talk to press people about that. … And one suggestion always was like, “Oh, you should go do this … other places. Like, this is just a really interesting way to look at a community and their history and their ecology and their culture, and everything really can be seen through a river.”

So when we kind of settled on that as our idea, then it just … then we went into planning mode, and it was great. It’s awesome nowadays that I can make pdf files for templates and I can send them over to you and you can take a look at them and print them out and we can just really start doing just a lot of the nuts and bolts online over email and over the phone, and get a lot done beforehand so we’re sort of ready to go.

But then I was thinking like that as much pre-work as we did, it was … I mean, you still have to have that sort of flexibility, right? You know, when… and you hit the ground because it’s like we had a lot of stuff ready. But I think we definitely after the first day really tweaked what were doing and really zeroed in on the best way to get the kids involved and get the most done and really start making really cool stuff. So I think it’s a it’s a combination. I think you have to do a lot of the pre-planning. You gotta work everything out as much as you can beforehand, but then when you hit the classroom, you always have to have that little bit of flexibility, right, to be able to course correct if need be.

Nic: Yeah. The kids teach us so much, they really do. We sit back and watch them and then they’d teach us how to teach, but we knew we had to be extra flexible in our situation. We even had a snow day within that time.

Billy: Yeah.

Nic: That was cool. But you know what, what was really fun is that we had that opportunity to then prep and work and change things. And we made the frame in that time. And we still worked pretty darn hard during that time. But-

Billy: Yeah, and I would almost say I if as a piece of advice, it might be worthwhile to build, if possible, to sort of build a day in there to do prep work once the artist hits the ground. You know what I mean? Because in our instance, I think working on this thing was … It was kind of abstract in a way, but we had that day to really make the giant support frames that things would go in. And I felt like once that got up on the wall … We have … I have a saying with my old studio mates: it’s on the wall. Like, if you can get something up on the wall, then you can look at it, you can step back, you can think about it, right? And so I think once we were able to start getting stuff on the wall after we got those big frames made, then things really snowballed. I felt like like … And I didn’t really … I don’t know that that was something we could have anticipated beforehand. You know what I mean?

Nic: No, and I think you’re right. Like if we were to do it again, I would try to do one day of teaching. That’s how the snow day worked. We had one day of teaching and then we had a snow day, and we just were able to collaborate in physical form as well as … All that prep work ahead of time was great, but being in the same room, working as teammates was really positive.

Billy: Yeah. And honestly, I think one other thing too is that like this was a particularly … It wasn’t like we were just going in and doing high school kids or … You know what I mean? This was kindergarteners all the way up, right? To 5th graders. So wildly different skillsets and just technical abilities and what can we have them do, how can they feel part of this and get something done. So it was complicated in that way, and so that sort of extra day I think helped us really hone in on the best way to get each class and skills level of kids to get the most out of the out of it you know.

Nic: Yeah, absolutely. Is there other things that, like if from your perspective as the artist, that you would suggest to teachers to have ready or for prep work or for during the actual events of making? What would … Are there suggestions that you have?

Billy: Let me think. I mean, I think it’s so dependent on the project and the sort of age and skillset of the classes or the people if it’s a workshop or even the people that you’re going to be working with. But you can never go wrong … The more prep work you do, the better. The more templates you make, the more you think out everything, all the materials, all the tools you need, everything like that obviously …

But then I think the day of, I think that that was what was so great working with you is that there was a very strong sense of how to manage the classroom and how to get the most out of the kids, but also just like a real great flexibility, that if you’re bringing an artist in, they’re not a teacher, so there’s a certain amount of give and take on both sides I think you have to get the most out of the the relationship, you know what I mean?

Nic: Yeah. Agreed.

Billy: That would be my … I think flexibility on both sides a little bit, and then … But I think all of that can be overcome with just real enthusiasm and passion for getting the most out of the kids for the project you’re doing. You know? Like, I think that’s the … To me that’s the key to the whole thing, you know?

Nic: Yeah, yeah. Yup. And is that … Do you have additional things? Is that your takeaway from … Because we presented at the Art Of Education summer conference together as well as during this podcast; what would be the takeaways that you would want teachers to receive from hearing your information and just getting to know you as an artist?

Billy: Well, for me personally, like the teachers, I’d love to come to your class.

Nic: No, perfect.

Billy: You know what I mean? Like, I got a bunch of projects and I’m always thinking of new ones. I think in general though, I just think having a … In my experience, having different artists, even architects, scientists, whoever, come into your classroom, not just to bring different energy, to bring different experiences, different ways of looking at things … I just think just really can bring a lot of energy into your class, can make you think of new projects and maybe even in some cases even see kids in a different way. Like some kid maybe was so not into art that they were disruptive, all of a sudden is really zoning in on something. It’s just … It’s really cool to see from everybody’s perspective.

Nic: Yeah, for sure. Well, thanks for bringing that up about bringing you in. So you are willing to come to other schools?

Billy: Sure. Yeah. Yeah.

Nic: How can one contact you or get a hold of you?

Billy: My website, Bkeel, B-K-H-E-E-L-

On my website, bkeel, or Instagram be @bkeel, both ways. You can reach me through there on the contact page. And Yeah, I love, I like doing, I’ve done sort of longer term visiting artist stuff. I’ve done sort of week long things like we did or I’ve also done just, day long workshops or, a couple of day workshops. It’s just, it’s really inspiring to me. I always come away thinking of different ways to make things myself. Coming away with different ideas that, kids or teachers have brought to me. Or different ways of looking at things. I always think, being an artist is, it’s a conversation, and you kind of start the conversation by putting something out in the world.

But the second half of it is, what people are going to say back to you. What they’re going to, what they are going to see in what you made and what they’re going to tell you and how that affected them, which is just as important as the first part, of making the thing in the first place, you know?

Nic: Yeah. Wow. Absolutely. And I’m thinking, just as you were talking and I was thinking about your, I’ve seen felt masks that you’ve been doing with students or children, the library, something like that.

Billy: Yeah, I did. Actually I did it at an art gallery here in Los Angeles. I did a mask making workshop that was in conjunction with an art show that they had, which was very, had a lot of animals in it. We did sort of animal masks.

Another one I just did last weekend that I’m really hyped about was for an organization that does art therapy for trauma victims. They actually, it was similar to when we started working together where, I just sort of said, “Hey, this is the kind of stuff that I’ve done.” And they said, “Oh, well we have a lesson that we do with that where people make a little paper flag, that memorializes or just commemorates positive aspects of themselves.” And so I actually did a workshop where we made felt pennants and was, I was really into this one.

They precut all the pennants shapes. We had all that ready to go. This is an organization called Window Between Worlds, a really great organization here in Los Angeles. And then I actually laser cut wooden, sort of a flat wooden templates of just sort of, hearts and a strong arm and wings and even a cloud, a lightning bolt, just stuff that you could, that then the people at the workshop could combine, they could then use the templates, just use a Sharpie to just cut out the felt really easy and they could combine and make sort of their own pennant of themselves. Of their own positive aspects or things they see or want to work on in themselves.

And that was just, I was really, I was really happy with the way that that one went, just because it was sort of open source. People go kind of, they brought their own ideas. We just kind of supplied, sort of some parts to it. And yeah, that one I was really into that one. That’s one where, it’s like, I’ve done pennants before. I’ve done felt workshops before, but I had never sort of put them together and then having the whole angle of sort of healing trauma was something I never would have thought of.

Nic: Yeah. For sure. Well, and you’re right. There’s that conversation again, just bringing in your talents and your skills and your background along with the needs of the school or the organization. Wow. Fun stuff. What a fun life you live.

Billy: Yeah, yeah, yeah. No, it’s, I really just, when something like that comes along, it just, you’re like, oh. It’s fun to be an artist and work in your studio and be in your own head and you know what I mean? Or do a commission for Jordan brand is something I’m working on now, which is, it’s a great process and it’s really cool. But you need that other half, you know what I mean? You need that. You need to sort of spread the creativity. You need to kind of spread your ideas and the things that you do. If it could be helpful to people, it just, it’s the secret sauce, you know what I mean? It’s the kind of thing that, I think keeps you from being just sort of stuck in your own head or in some tower or something.

Nic: Right. Yeah. Oh, Billy. Hey, thank you so much for joining me today and just, and also being a part of the Art Ed Conference. I think we had a lot of information to give to our viewers there as well. But thanks a lot. I hope that, I hope that you get to continue working with teachers in the future here because you do an amazing job. Thanks for meeting with me today.

Billy: Yes. And thank you so much for having me. And, I think, and just from my end, what you’re doing, just, the project we did in Minnesota was great. I was extremely proud of that whole experience and working with you on that. But I think this second half of it, of what you’re doing of showing people how to bring an artist in the classroom, making it like a, showing them a roadmap on how to do it and what you can do. I think it’s a great thing, for students, for teachers, but also for artists. I think it’s something that I think, the more of it, the better. The more we can have different viewpoints come in and, the more we can make sure that our kids are, our students are really creative and know the importance of creativity is I think just so important. It’s great work.

Nic: All right. Hey, thanks again.

Billy: Yes. Thank you so much. Great to talk to you.

Nic: I wish you could see the big smile on my face that I have after interviewing what I consider to be a friend now Mr. Billy Keel. He just really inspired myself and my students. I hope you got to hear that in our voices. We connected on a very creative level and it was fun to have him into my classroom.

Guys, I encourage you, I encourage you so much to make efforts to bring in someone. Someone different than yourself. Maybe it’s someone, a parent or a grandparent of students in your school or someone from your community or think bigger. What artists in this world would you like to bring in and how are you going to do that?

For me, it was an awesome challenge and one that I’m very proud of, to have his art displayed with all of our hands helping and creating with it in my school. Highly encourage it. Listen to what Billy had to say. Follow his advice. Watch the online conference if you have not already done so for the Art Of Education, summer conference 2019 and yeah, thanks a lot. We’ll talk to you next week.

Magazine articles and podcasts are opinions of professional education contributors and do not necessarily represent the position of the Art of Education University (AOEU) or its academic offerings. Contributors use terms in the way they are most often talked about in the scope of their educational experiences.