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Featured Artist: Debra A. Price Agrums Sposa of Artisun

by EBlack on November 2, 2014

DPAS- A Seniors

Debra with 2012 art student grad, Alyssa Olea

Publisher’s Note: This week’s post is a bit different…this week, we are celebrating an educator who is passionate and has dedicated her life to teaching and developing not only the next generation of fiber artists, but also the future leaders of our country so I have a special reverence for her and her work.  Debra A. Price Agrums Sposa, of Artisun, is a talented art teacher who has been instructing students for almost 35 years at Whitney High School in Cerritos, California.   Debra has found a way to not only teach more traditional classroom fine arts but has now made fiber art a primary part of Whitney High School’s curriculum. Students are spinning, dyeing, knitting, and much more, all under Debra’s careful and passionate guidance. Debra’s teaching abilities are not her only talent; she is also a fabulous fiber artist in her own right. Debra definitely gets an A+ in my grade book!  

Spin Artiste (SA): It is great to have you with us this week. Tell us, how did you find yourself doing and teaching fiber art?

DPAS- A Hand Spun Yarns

Handspun yarns to share with students

Debra Price Agrums Sposa (DPAS): I started weaving on a child’s metal pot holder loom when I was in 1st grade and it was instant love. I began making so many pot holders that my mother suggested I put them in my red wagon and go door to door and sell them to the neighbors which I did for 25 cents a piece. Back in 1962 that was a big deal for a 6 year old. Then my best friend taught me to knit in the 4th grade. I was hooked again and began knitting clothes for my Barbies and troll dolls. I also learned to sew my own clothes in the 7th grade. Since my mother was a professional seamstress in Los Angeles, she was able to help and show me short cuts and tricks as my wardrobe expanded. In high school, most all of my elective classes were in the arts and my love for fibers along with clay began to grow.

SA: What a privilege it must have been to have such a talented fiber mother. Which passion came first, teaching or fiber art? And why?

DPAS-A Felt Journal

Debra’s sample for the Felted Journal Assignment for Intermediate 3-D students

DPAS: I clearly remember being in the second grade and knowing that I wanted to be a teacher. Both my first and second grade teachers were amazing and I wanted to emulate them. As I grew the feeling only became stronger. When I took my first ceramics class in high school, I came into contact with the most influential teacher/mentor that I’d had to that point, Sally Foster Wilde. She believed in me and instilled a passion for the arts and teaching that I have carried with me to this day. I still remain in contact with her 42 years later. Another significant mentor was Robert Hardy, my ceramics instructor in college. So I would say that both passions came fairly close together.

DPAS- A Handspun Yarns class #2

Beginning 3-D students skeining their first handspun yarns

SA: Sounds like both fiber art and teaching are in your blood, and I’m sure all of your students are thankful for that. What do you believe students take away from their classroom experience, especially in regarding fiber arts?

DPAS: Seven things come to mind immediately: love, passion, honesty, integrity, fairness, generosity, and respect.

DPAS- A Student at Drum Carder

Senior Kaili Hamada showing senior Nick Tudor how she uses the drum carder

I’ve been teaching all the arts (drawing, painting, ceramics, sculpture and textile arts) at Whitney for the past 34 years. From the feedback I get from my students and alum, I would have to say that they see a teacher who loves and is passionate about passing and sharing the arts with others. They see someone who LOVES their job, they experience a teacher who tells it like it is. I am very real with them, I don’t sugar coat anything, so they get a good, healthy dose of honesty and integrity. I mean what I say, and I try to treat everyone fairly. I am also not afraid to admit my mistakes or tell the kids when I goof up. They see a very generous person. I share all my art supplies, especially all my fiber arts equipment with them; my drum and hand carders, drop and spinning wheels, hand dyed rovings, ball winders, warping boards, looms, the list is endless. Because of this, they are taught to respect all the supplies in the room. They also get to see professional fiber pieces. I have built quite a collection over the years from artists all over the world. I share my extensive collection of art books and magazines with them as well. So they are heavily exposed to every aspect of the fiber arts world, and they receive a strong emphasis on the designs elements and principles as they relate to producing a visually pleasing piece.

DPAS- A Student at Loom

Senior Karisma Dev weaving on the Saori loom Debra purchased for the students

SA: What an amazing opportunity you have to instill  such powerful skills through fiber. Wouldn’t it be great if fiber art was a class in every school? Tell us about your fiber art curriculum.

DPAS: The First Year – I teach the kids to sew and embroider, to understand and use color theory for visual flow within each project, to felt, weave, spin, quilt, book bind, Kool-Aid, eco and tye –dye, to make Shibori cloth, and to solar print on fabric.

The Second Year – We move into machine quilting using the liberated techniques of Gwen Marston and Ricky Tims (both artists I have taken workshops with), knitting & crochet, coiled basketry, intermediate Shibori and eco-dyeing, and felt sculpture.

The Third Year – We do solar dyeing, building drop spindles from wood, spinning on the spinning wheel, knitted sculpture, stitchpaper quilting ala Kelli Nina Perkins, free motion machine quilting, mixed media fiber/wood dolls, adv. felt sculpture, Saori weaving on loom, garment de-construction, and handmade paper.

DPAS- A Flower Stitchpaper

Alum Ashley Morris’ stitchpaper quilt from the Advanced 3-D class

The Fourth Year – is independent study going more in-depth into areas of personal interest.

*In all levels of the 3-D classes we also work in other sculptural media like wood, wire, paper collage and mache’, and metal.

SA: Wow, this makes me want to go back to school! How do parents and students respond to students’ artwork being showcased on the blog?

DPAS: Both parents and students alike love it. Besides my students, I actually have a couple parents who told me they follow my blog regularly.  I usually average about 700 hits a day from around the world. The kids tell me that’s it’s a big deal if I show their work on the blog, and that it’s an honor to be featured. Between themselves, they’ve also turned it into a yearly contest to see how many times I showcase them. I also teach with my blog, showcase other fiber professionals, and use it for homework as well.

DPAS- A Flower Pot

One of Debra’s early clay bowls, circa 1980-ish

SA: Your use of a social and educational media platform with adolescents is so smart! You clearly know how to meet students where they are. How does your personal style show up in the classroom?

DPAS: In all my 3-D classes, I touch on and teach clay, metal, wood, collage and paper mache’, but because I’m a textile artist, my curriculum leans heavily towards the fiber arts. I am also a big believer in guiding the kids outside of their comfort zones; challenge them to use their critical thinking skills to design at the collegiate level, and encouraging them to be as original as possible. I don’t do holiday themed projects or anything cutesy or sweet that you’d find at the elementary level, or even at the junior/senior level that I’ve seen so much at other schools due to lack of funding, complacency or energy. I also move the kids fairly quickly thru the assignments so that I can fit in as much as possible in the school year.

DPAS- A postpartum blues

Post Partum Blues by Debra, 1984. Her first art quilt which she made after her daughter was born.

SA: And talents have not gone unnoticed. What was it like to be featured in Quilting Arts Magazine, and how have you grown since the article was published?

DPAS: It was an absolute thrill to have my students work noticed by the Assistant Editor Pippa Eccles at QA magazine. My students were so exciteded! We were featured in the June/July 2010 issue along with many of my favorite fiber artists, Morna Crites-Moore, Jane La Fazio, and Laura Wasilowski. I think I must have bought at least 10 copies and handed them out to all the kids that were featured, plus one for my principle and superintendent. I was so proud of my students and their work!

DPAS- A liberated quilt

Debra’s first Liberated quilt made in Gwen Marston’s class, 1996-ish

In terms of growth, if I do repeat an assignment I try to add one more element to it so that each year it evolves and doesn’t get stale. I come up with new ideas by staying current in the art world thru publications and social media. I try my ideas out during my summer vacations. Also, I get excited and inspired by the kids when they come up with something new and creative and I’ll add that into the next year’s curriculum. I also try to take at least 2-3 art workshops a year, some online and some that require travel. I’m still learning… just like the kids.

DPAS- A Students Spinning Yarn

Advanced 3-D students learning to spin on Debra’s wheels.

SA: I can only image your desire to grow and learn makes you an even better teacher. Describe your classroom and studio.

DPAS- A Liberated Quilt #1

Intermediate 3-D Alum Julia Chanco pin basting her quilt on the classroom floor

DPAS: I have been teaching in the same classroom now for the past 34 years. It is my home away from home. I try to make it as warm and inviting to the kids as I can. It is one of the most popular and welcoming rooms in the school. I play a lot of right brain music which is very soothing and encourages creativity. The room is open every day before school, at snack, at lunch and after school for the kids who are running behind on projects, or who need some extra time with me. The school was built in the 1970’s. We are a public school, and sadly the arts and funding for it are not a priority in the state of California, so unfortunately I have to ask for donations from the parents where many of the student population are coming from the poverty level or below. Each year I kick in about a 5th of my salary to get the quality program I want to teach. My class numbers are as high as 36 kids per class with only two small sinks to accommodate all the clay and paints. I’ve learned how to manage it all with student helpers and allowing 10 minutes at the end of each class for checking in of supplies and cleaning up. I’m also extremely organized and in a constant state of movement; picking up the room and putting supplies away and taking new ones out, grading, loading kilns, etc.. I teach my students to respect the supplies because they are consumable and limited.

DPAS-A After Troprez House

Debra’s home/studio space

We put on an incredible Open House every year, where over a thousand pieces of student art are featured on walls, hanging from ceilings and on table tops. Many of the students choose to try and sell their pieces. I’ve had several students in the past earn over $500 at the event. Our teachers and staff here at Whitney are very supportive of the arts and enjoy purchasing their favorite student’s pieces and hanging them in their classrooms or offices.

Soon I will have two personal studio spaces, one up at our mountain cabin (in progress), and one in the garage of my second home where I often love host visiting artists with a space for them to stay and teach workshops. My second home/studio is where I house a majority of my arts & crafts collection, my looms and spinning wheels, books and magazines and other art supplies. It’s one of my favorite places to be because I’m surrounded by so much beauty.

DPAS-A  Demo at Trinket Trader

Debra demonstrating handspinning in Crestline, Ca at Trinket Traders where she sells her work

SA: Both your studios and your classrooms sounds like dreams! Tell us about your wheels.

DPAS: My first wheel was a traditional Ashford that I got to put together from a box that was shipped to me from New Zealand. I remember I was in my early 20’s and I put all the parts together myself. It was a very satisfying experience. I’ve been spinning now for about 35 years on that wheel. But of course it’s really hard not to indulge in other beautifully designed wheels, so I also own a Schacht Matchless with inlaid cheery wood, another Ashford, a Kromski Sonata and two others that were donated to my program. For myself, I like to alternate between my Ashford and my Kromski, but I’m also eyeing a Majacraft Aura; after all, there’s always room for one more, right? The other three wheels are being borrowed by students who are using them at their homes, and spinning like wild women. They are Karisma Dev, Bianca Tolentino and Kaili Hamada.

DPAS- A Appliquilt Journal

Debra’s sample for the Appliquilt Journal Assignment with Tye-Dyed cotton

SA: What a collection of wheels you have.  Now tell us more about your passion for the fiber itself. How would you describe your relationship with fiber?

DPAS: I love fiber!!! I’m surrounded by it, take it everywhere I go, knit and sew at stoplights to and from school; I just have to do at least one fibery thing a day or I feel like I’m wasting time on this earth. It could be hand stitching on a journal, spinning yarn for a new project, or crocheting granny squares … you name it, I’ve got at least 25 or more projects going at any one time (a lot of these are ideas for new assignments) and all the supplies to go with each technique. A lot of these unfinished projects are potential new assignments for my 3-D classes.

DPAS- A Granny Knit Felted Bag

Crocheted and Felted bag Debra made from sample yarns she spun for her students

SA: Wow, you sure know how to keep yourself busy. Which of your personal projects proved to be the most difficult to complete, and how did you ultimately overcome that obstacle?

DPAS: I would have to say that most all of my projects are difficult to complete. For me, the fun is in being inspired from the world around me, the thinking about doing it, the designing, choosing colors, fibers, etc. and in the getting started. But honestly, once I get started I tend to slow down, that’s why I have so many projects in the works. What really helps me finish something is a deadline. Then I will work like a madwoman to finish on time.

DPAS-A finished garden sphere

Debra’s Mosaic Sphere, 2009, made as an example for her students

SA: I can totally relate, inspiration is such a powerful motivation. Speaking of inspiration; who do you turn to for inspiration?

DPAS: That’s easy. Some of my biggest influences are Jude Hill, India Flint, Christine Mauserberger, Muriel form Clothogancho fame, Ashley Martineau, Chad Alice Hagan, Glennis Dolce, Heike Gerbig, Judy Coates Perez, Judith Martin, Lisa Jordan, Nat Palaskas, Pam De Grout, and Renee Harris. The list is long and continues to grow. If you go to my blog at www.artisun.blogspot.com you can see all the artists I follow religiously for inspiration. I have taken classes with many of these artists and I love learning new things and being around others who love fibers as a much as I do.

SA: How has your time as a teacher helped make you a better artist?

DPAS- A Eco Bundles

Beginning 3-D student Eco-dyeing on Silk

DPAS: I’ve made many mistakes over the course of my teaching career, and I feel I’ve learned from them all. My first 5 years of teaching were challenging and frustrating; I made mistakes, and I had so much to learn about classroom management and discipline. I would say after about 10 years I was feeling a bit more comfortable, but it wasn’t until after I had my own children that I really began to be a more compassionate and understanding teacher. I have become more easy going and flexible. This has carried over into my art pieces. My work is looser now, more fluid then static, but as a perfectionist I still struggle in this area. I’m also more confident now when I demonstrate for the kids because I have become proficient with so many different media. Confidence goes a long way with the students. They want a teacher that is good at what they are teaching. I have found that most students only have, at the most, a 20 minute attention span, so I’ve learned to work very quickly. The pieces that I make at school are much more spontaneous then the pieces I make on my own at home; especially my work in clay.

DPAS- A Drop Spindles #9

Advanced 3-D student’s handmade drop spindle and her hand dyed roving

SA: It sounds like you have created a great learning environment, and that your students have positively impacted you as an artist. For our last question; if you could have anyone in your classroom as a student, who would it be and why?

I’d love to have my husband, Jim, in my classes. He is so much fun and playful. My students love him when he comes to visit because he’s so good with them. Jim is also a musician and already has great focus skills, so he’d be easy to teach…except for his smart mouth, which I work on, on a daily basis. He enjoys being crafty at home in wood and leather, and this summer I’m going to teach him to weave on a Saori loom. Oh yeah!!


SA:  Thank you so much, Debra!  How I wish I had been fortunate enough to have you as my teacher.  Readers, please check out Debra’s blog, Artisun where she posts regularly about what she and her students are up to.

And, as for me…I will be back in a few days with another Featured Artist post for you to enjoy.  Until then, all my fibery best, Arlene




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