What is the source of artistic inspiration?
For almost four decades, Jan Herr put aside his personal artistic pursuits and focused on his students, teaching art in DeLand public schools. His philosophy demanded nothing less than full focus.
“I was an artist, but I chose to teach. My students were my canvas,” Herr said.
After he retired in 2011, inspiration for a huge art project soon engulfed Herr. Its impetus sprang from a demonstration he attended in which an artist quickly painted an image before an audience.
When the music director at his church invited Herr to attempt a similar experiment, the artist realized he had a ready source of inspiration: more than 200 sketches, a love of jazz and the environment, and memories from childhood and family vacations.
Since that successful artistic effort — and with the support of four pastors at First Presbyterian Church of DeLand — Herr created a stained-glass window and is almost finished with a series of large-scale mixed-media pieces titled Jesus is Light.
The window, which depicts Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper painting, is currently housed at the church.
The Jesus is Light series has yet to find a home. Herr would like to keep the paintings together, housed with a local organization, as a remembrance of his work as an artist in West Volusia.
Herr’s long residence in DeLand was triggered by an encounter in 1975 with Dorothy Johnson, lovingly remembered as Volusia County’s first art-education supervisor and fondly called “Mother Art” by many who worked with her.
Herr was a graduate student at Louisiana State University when Johnson first saw his artwork. She encouraged him to move to Volusia County to teach. Herr soon landed a job at DeLand Middle School, where he taught for almost four decades.
Herr’s enthusiasm for art deeply affected his students, according to Peggy Banks of Orange City. As an art teacher at DeLand High School for 23 years, Banks was in a good position to witness the impression Herr had made on his students when they were in middle school.
“Jan Herr's students all spoke glowingly of him,” Banks said. “Many had taken his after-school sketchbook class, and those that did had an advantage in my class.”
Herr’s commitment to his students and his enthusiasm for art projects spilled over into one especially memorable after-school effort, remembered Harry Messersmith, an educator and sculptor.
Messersmith recalled his involvement with Herr and his students in the creation of the iconic Chill Out Terrier, the mascot sculpture that sits at the entrance of DeLand Middle School.
“Jan wanted to build a permanent monument that would celebrate the relatively new middle school,” Messersmith said. “With the help of his after-school Art Club and other students, we built a 12-foot-long terrier dog. The terrier is ‘chilling out’ with its legs crossed, paws folded behind its head holding sunglasses, dressed in DeLand Middle purple-and-gold jersey, seated on a giant wooden lawn chair, with a boombox.”
It was no small project, Messersmith said.
“About 150 students worked months after school, carving foam, wrapping over 2 miles of fencing wire around the foam, and mixing Portland cement, sand and steel wool together and applying it over the steel wire, to form the image of the mascot,” he recalled.
The Chill Out Terrier is still at his post, 30-plus years later.
Herr’s ability to work with a range of students and his partnership with “Mother Art” Johnson were recalled by Jennifer Coolidge of DeLand, former director of the Museum of Art - DeLand and currently an art consultant.
She remembered when Herr taught children in association with the museum, when art classes weren’t always readily available in public schools.
“The museum was the first organization in the area to provide arts instruction for children, and Herr was a key member of the cadre of art teachers assembled by Dorothy, our art mother,” Coolidge said.
Herr’s community service anticipated one of Downtown DeLand’s most popular features today: its many outdoor murals. Banks remembered that Herr led a mural-painting effort on New York Avenue that included work by one of her star students.
“At its completion, it was stunning,” Banks said.
He also directed students in the creation of the first mural on the wall at Painter’s Pond Park, one that was eventually redone by Courtney Canova.
Surveying his work as a teacher and now as an artist in retirement, Herr finds his “only true peace is in my studio.”
In addition to studio work, he is focused on finding a home for the Jesus is Light series. Fulfilling that goal would give Herr great peace of mind, he said.