Art teacher has global perspective

New Soroco instructor hopes to introduce classes, community to Zambonian artists

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On the outside of the Withers' family garage is a "Vagabond" sign from the blue ski run at the Steamboat Ski Area. They got it long before their travels, but now Cindy Wither laughs at how well it fits her family.

Her husband, John Wither, is a third-generation Steamboat Springs resident. "We really thought we would always be in Steamboat," Wither said.

But in 1992, Wither got the travel bug and she and her husband and two children moved overseas to Berlin. They stayed there for two years, came back to Steamboat for a couple of years, and returned to Berlin for six years.

After their two children graduated high school, Wither and her husband thought they'd move closer to home.

But they ended up moving to Zambia, where they worked as teachers during 2001 and 2002.

Wither now teaches art to middle- and high-schoolers at Soroco in Oak Creek. Her husband is a math teacher in Hayden.

Her international travels have convinced her that one of the best ways to learn is to meet and talk with people from other countries. And for people who can't get overseas on their own, Wither hopes to bring a feel of Africa to Colorado.

Wither is raising funds to help two African artists come to the Yampa Valley next fall. She met both artists while she was working and teaching in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia, and said that during their trip, they could show and sell their work.

Ideally, Wither said, the artists would come during the school year so they can visit with her art classes.

Wither's own art background is in textiles, specifically with weaving and batiks. She has taught art since 1972, but this is her first year teaching at Soroco.

She likes her students to experience art. She took her high school art students to Denver last week to visit the art museum, as well as the Rocky Mountain School of Art and Design and the Colorado Art Institute.

Her students raised money for the trip by selling handmade cards and calendars.

The experience of seeing an original Picasso, Monet or Renoir is something that broadens thoughts and ideas, she said.

"I think when you see an original, you'll always remember," Wither said. "Suddenly that name means something."

She also likes her classes to be structured and challenging, something that isn't always popular with the students, she said. But, it encourages them to learn and work hard.

"They are really creative, and they've done such good work," Wither said. "They're impressed with what they can do."

Introducing the students to two successful African artists would be a great learning experience, she said. If timing doesn't bring the artists during the school year, Wither said she hopes to find a way to help the two men come.

One of the artists is Mwamba Mulyngala, a top painter in Zambia who has held several shows in the United States. Wither has one of Mulyngala's works on display in her kitchen.

The large painting is bright, with thickly carved purples, blues, pinks, oranges and browns. It shows an African mother folded over her young child as she wrestles his feet into striped socks to keep him warm. It's titled "Stubborn."

When Mulyngala paints, he uses the canvas as a palette so he doesn't waste paint, Wither said. The technique lends a distinct feel to his work.

"I'm sure it got started because Mwamba couldn't imagine squirting paints on a piece of paper and throwing it away," Wither said.

In Zambia, a typical daily salary is $2. A jar of paint can cost $20.

Compared to Steamboat standards, many Zambians are very poor. The country, like many African countries, also has been hard hit by AIDS.

But, Wither said, Zambians are happy.

"They're the happiest people in the world," Wither said. "They're so proud of what they have."

Wither has bags of unsorted photos of her stay in Zambia. One of her favorites shows nine children smiling. The children were standing outside a guard station, but when Wither went to take the photo, she said they all collapsed in giggles. Their smiles are wide and easy.

The second artist Wither hopes to bring to Colorado is Stary Mwaba, a young artist who hasn't traveled to the United States. Wither also has one of his paintings on display.

It shows people milling around two mini-buses, which are meant to hold 12 people but typically carry 30. The mini-buses are stalled at a light, which almost never work in Zambia, Wither said.

The colors are warm pastels and the people are relaxed, wearing clothing typical to the area. The piece, Wither said, shows good perspective and depth, something Wither said she would point out to her art students.

Once they retire from teaching, Wither and her husband hope to travel more, she said.

"I listen to the news and I just think, 'You've got to get out and meet these people and not be afraid of the world,'" Wither said.

Wither is selling international jewelry, most of which is from Africa, Afghanistan and India, to raise money to bring the two artists here. She will have an open house at 2 p.m. Dec. 7 at her house at 1788 Trouvaille Court in Steamboat Springs. Refreshments will be served. Call her at 879-7499 for more information.

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