Content note: mention of suicidal ideations.
One of my favourite art teachers of all time died yesterday evening after battling cancer for just over a year. I was fortunate to be able to communicate the following to him before he died, but I wanted to share with everyone else as a tribute to him.
Here’s to you, Mike Slattery, enthusiastic artist, kind-hearted soul, best of men.
The first time I met you was the day after Easter in 2008. I wasn’t a student at BJU yet. My parents and I had come down to visit our best friends and to visit the University—I’d been accepted at that point. We were allowed to sit in a couple of classes, but the only one we ended up going to was your art history class. I remember thinking at the time that I was nearly uncontrollably excited to take that class, to finally have more than an “Art Appreciation 101” understanding of art history, particularly learning under someone who so clearly adored the subject he taught.
By the time I got to BJU that fall, I was severely depressed. Suicidal, even. It was a struggle for me to get through every day, and my grades suffered drastically as a result. I’d graduated with high honors with my AAS in graphic design along with a web/multimedia design certificate, a 3.6 GPA, being a student member of my college’s graphic design advisory committee, having almost a year of experience in my field. Needless to say, I was used to academic excellence. But I was drowning at BJU—not because the coursework was too hard, but because life itself was too hard.
But your class was always a reprieve, a joy to sit through. I was so glad that I had it three times a week. For 50 minutes on those days, I could breathe. I could see the tiniest bit of hope for change outside of my suffocating depression, for life to have meaning again. I remember early in the semester, watching the video about Maya Lin and the Vietnam War Memorial, and you let me borrow it after class so I could finish it in my dorm. That meant a lot to me.
That semester ended badly, grade-wise. I had never been so humiliated. For perspective, I cried the first (and only) time I got a C at my community college—and that semester at BJU, a C was my highest grade. I was despondent, beginning to think that my ambition to be a designer and artist was pointless.We spent a class period trying to decide the man’s country of origin. We decided he was Italian, so I dubbed the piece The Italian Man. Despite it being unfinished, Mr. Slattery gave it high praise.
When I came back for my second semester, I had you for a drawing class. Drawing has always been amazing therapy for me—I can lose myself when concentrating on Bristol board with graphite in hand. And your class was so fun. It was almost like you were taking the class with us, like you viewed us all as respectable artists in our own right. Which, of course, you did. When we moved from drawing the cast model heads to drawing each other, you’d sit in with each group and draw and be drawn, and it wasn’t intimidating in any way. You’d twist your amazing eyebrows into unique shapes to make us laugh and to challenge us in our drawing. We laughed, we drew, we critiqued, though it didn’t even feel like critique so much as, “Hey, this is great! Wanna know how you can make it even better?!” Your enthusiasm was contagious, and once again, I felt tremendous hope.
I ended up leaving early in that semester, right after turning in my first project to you to be graded. I went to pick up my piece, and as you handed it to me you held my gaze for a moment and said, “This is excellent. I was going to give you an A. You do wonderful work. Keep it up.” That carried me through a really rough time in my life, and was part of what helped convince me to keep applying for design jobs when I got back home. I’m happy to say that I’ve been working as a designer since April of 2009, and am now a senior graphic designer with a reputable firm here in my hometown.
Your kindness, enthusiasm, and love for your students and your field were so contagious. You are loved by many, and I know I am not the only person to be so touched by your life and thankful for you.
If you would like to help the Slattery family, please consider donating. Between the cost of Mr. Slattery’s medical care for the past 15 months and now the costs that pile up in the wake of death, it would be such a blessing to them to have some of that worry taken away.