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Creative Connections: Art educator teaches students to engage, persist through challenge

Sarah Valentine
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Sierra Mckee believes in allowing her students to come up with “their own problem to solve” through art.
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STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Sierra McKee is not your everyday studio artist. She began her journey in kindergarten when she was asked what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I wanted to be an artist, and I feel like that kinda just stuck with me,” she said.

McKee studied studio art while attending the University of Vermont before falling in love with a degree program in art education. In 2015, McKee and her husband, Logan, decided to head west on a road trip. Originally from what she calls “Maryland suburbia,” the couple drove until they felt the pressure to choose a place to settle down.

“We (had) to pick somewhere to live, and everyone was the nicest in Steamboat,” she said.

McKee found seasonal positions working as a snow sports instructor, house cleaner and landscaper before getting back into art education. She now works as the art teacher at Steamboat Mountain School and an instructor at Make Studio above Lyons Drug.

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As a youth educator, McKee sees the value in teaching for artistic behavior. She believes creativity is good for wellbeing, both for kids and adults.

“I like art, because it helps people get in touch with their emotions,” McKee said. “I like that it’s challenging in this unique way. It can be meditative.”

On the value of art in people’s lives, she says, “I think people have this innate urge to create whether that’s fine arts or cooking or building something. And I just think it’s important as humans. We’ve been doing it for so long.”

In her teaching style, she explains she does not choose assignments based on techniques.

“I’m not telling (students) what to do. So they have the challenge of coming up with their own problem to solve,” McKee said.

Instead, she identifies themes wherein the students can choose their own medium and learn skills as they go.

An example of McKee’s greeting cards. The cards are currently sold at Ohana in Steamboat Springs.
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Margi Missling-Root, director of experiential education at Steamboat Mountain School, reflects on the impact of Mckee’s teaching method.

“My office is above the art room, and the sounds and projects often surround my office,” Missling-Root said. “The sentiment spread throughout class time represents joyful engagement. Students seem to be liberated to express themselves in a manner where fear of judgment is lost, thus creating an atmosphere of freedom to express and happily create.”

McKee believes art can teach life skills that students may not be getting anywhere else.

“For kids…they’re making these things, and they’re learning these creative problem-solving skills that they can apply to everything else in life,” McKee said. “One of her favorite things to teach is how to engage and persist through problems by not giving up. If you hit a challenge, instead of getting stuck in that spot, you just keep going. You keep working through it.”

When she moved to Colorado five years ago, McKee applied this concept to her own life and creative process.

She recalls the challenge of being in a new place without art supplies and the more structured classes she had while in college. She had moved from a comfortable college town surrounded by friends to an entirely new environment.

“What am I going to do now that it’s just me out on my own?” she asked herself. She found the process scary — making friends again and finding the right job to feel good in. And then in 2016, she broke her leg. She found herself spending a lot of time on the couch, and she began creating again.

“I definitely had a hard time at first, and I just kept going,” McKee said.

By engaging and persisting, she built a life that now allows her to teach, create and sell her work. She believes that any good art teacher should also be committed to creation themselves.

Though McKee enjoys a variety of artistic mediums, her recent work includes playful digital illustrations. She finds inspiration from the outdoors, humor and bright colors. She enjoys the fearlessness she sees in her young students before they are taught to judge themselves.

Her artistic style matches her classroom style — joyful, uplifting, whimsical. She is less interested in having her work be sold for high prices in galleries, preferring it to be accessible to everyone with her art gracing things like greeting cards and Instagram.

McKee said finding the right markets is one of the biggest challenges in town. She sells at local craft markets whenever she gets the chance and has greeting cards for sale at Ohana and on her website.

To see more of McKee’s work, visit her website at wilddawn.bigcartel.com and follow her on Instagram @Sierra__Mck.

Visit McKee’s website, wilddawn.bigcartel.com, to purchase her art, such as this piece, “Silly Book.”
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Routt County is home to a diverse collection of creative people and practices. Inspired individuals thrive at our crossroads of the wild outdoors, rustic grit, and fun lifestyles. To share your creative story, contact Sarah Valentino at sarah.e.valentino@gmail.com.


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