Teacher and artist – or is it artist and teacher? – Fiona Kennedy Altoft embarks on a new adventure with a decidedly DB perspective to guide her. Elizabeth Kerr reports
PHOTOS BY Baljit Gidwani – www.evoqueportraits.com
When Discovery College Head of Visual Arts, art teacher and artist Fiona Kennedy Altoft parks herself in front of her computer for yet another video chat, she’s the first to admit she’s of two minds about the phenomenon that has quickly jumped from the realm of sci-fi to daily life. She’ll cop to the fact that for the bulk of the past two years, her laundry has been heavy on shirts. Really, who’s needed fresh trousers every day?
Fiona is what you might expect of a working artist. Her blonde hair is offset by bright teal glasses and she’s sitting in her studio with canvases scattered in the background. A laptop tour reveals more of them, some being packed up for the move back to Australia this coming summer. The conversation jumps around, from creating art in the digital age and what exactly NFT art is (the jury’s still out on full comprehension of that one), to how quickly we’ve all adapted to life online.
“You get into habits fast,” Fiona says with a chuckle. “I was always saying I didn’t want to go online but then I found that teaching remotely has its advantages. I would look at the clock and say, ‘Oh, I’ve got a 40-minute gap, I’ll just have a lie down.’ You can’t do that at school.”
Fiona is a small-town girl, so to speak, and it shows in her gregarious nature and genuine affection for a good jabber. After growing up in Roma, a little town of just under 7,000, she went to secondary school in Toowoomba and then university roughly 500 kilometres away in Brisbane to study art at Queensland University of Technology. The BA in visual arts was followed by a degree in education, because Fiona was convinced teaching was in her future somehow.
She was right. She got married to Grant Altoft, also a teacher (also at DC in the Individuals & Societies department) and moved to Gold Coast at 24, where she taught and headed up a few art departments, most prominently at Marymount College Burleigh. “I got lucky with work and wound up as head of several departments at a few schools. [Marymount] was good to teachers. I wanted time to do my art and asked for a year off and they gave it to me,” she recalls.
That year off, 2007, was partially successful: Fiona achieved quite a bit but didn’t like it as much as she thought she would. “Art is lonely work, schools are very social,” she says with a laugh. “At home trying to paint by myself all day was isolating. After a few months I was ready to talk to someone, ready to be back in the classroom.”
Needless to say, Fiona bristles at the notion of “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.”
“You hear that kind of snobbery all the time,” she scoffs. “‘Oh, you’re not an artist, you’re an art teacher.’ It’s why I make my teachers exhibit. The students love it. I think some don’t even realise it’s possible to be a working artist-teacher. I find it exhilarating that they trust me, and that I have certain skills.” That belief slots nicely beside supporting students in their decisions, providing a safe space (her art room) for them to resolve issues and assuring them, at 12 years-old, that there’s plenty of time to blossom into the next Dalí.