Students appreciate Parkland prof for sheer artistry of instruction
Like many former students of Don Lake, Judy Ikenberry believes he had a profound influence on her life and art.
She saw her skills and confidence improve considerably after she began studying with Lake at Parkland College – and that was after she had taken courses at a museum-affiliated school in a big city.
So when Ikenberry discovered that Lake, who retired from teaching this spring, had spent his entire career at Parkland, she decided to pay tribute, in a lasting way, to his legacy.
With the Parkland Foundation and the help of other Lake acolytes, Ikenberry established the Don Lake Art Scholarship, aiming to build an endowment of $20,000. In a few months, they have received enough donations to nearly make that goal.
Lake, who said his jaw dropped when he was first told of the scholarship, will come up with the criteria for it. The award will be given each year to a Parkland art student.
"We at Parkland need to, at least once a year on honors day, remember this man and what he's meant to us," Ikenberry said.
Lake, 62, likely will be remembered on more than one occasion – at Parkland and in the community.
An affable yet extremely conscientious teacher, he not only mentored hundreds of students over nearly four decades but also helped build from the ground up the Parkland art and design department – for 25 years he served as its program director.
A guiding light, Lake also was instrumental in establishing the Parkland Art Gallery, which has helped build a national reputation for the department.
Lake started working in 1970 at the community college when it was a just a collection of storefronts in downtown Champaign.
The freshly minted MFA graduate in painting from Wichita State University thought he would stay two years and then move on to his next job. The two years stretched to 38 – and went by quickly, he said.
During that time, with Parkland concentrating on teaching foundation art courses, Lake brought many of his students, particularly the more mature and high-achieving ones, up to professional rather than Sunday-painter standards.
He strongly believes not everyone can become an artist but that most people can learn the mechanics, particularly of drawing.
"People often say they can't draw, but we are really very good at teaching that at Parkland," he said. "It's like a foreign language. Suddenly you realize you have the tools."
Indeed, Ikenberry emphatically credits Lake's teaching – and not her own talent – for her skills at watercolor painting. (One of her pieces recently sold for $2,500 at a charity fund-raiser).
"I think he can teach a stone with an arm to be an artist," she said.
"Don structures you to do a project that you don't think you can do. But he gets you going, and when you are stumped he's right there and leads you to find your answer. He teaches you at the teachable moment. It's the most wonderful thing."
Champaign artist Sandy Hynds, another perennial student of Lake's, said he "stands above all" as the best teacher she has had – and she has taken many art courses and workshops since she was a young girl.
"Part of it is he's challenging and encouraging," she said. "He has different ideas about using different materials. He shares everything that he knows. He's not lazy. He's very energetic. Some of the art teachers I had were laissez-faire and let you run loose.
"He set specific goals for you. If he wanted eight paintings out of you a semester he wanted eight paintings out of you. If you didn't produce, you paid the consequences."
And unlike many art teachers, Lake didn't turn out mini-versions of himself, or artists who ape his tight realism, said former student Alicia Henry, now chair of the Art Department at Fisk University.
Looking back, she now considers that unique.
"He's very in tune to each individual student to help him or her develop," Henry said. "He was always interested in what students wanted to say and tried to say in terms of their own style, and that was wonderful."
Both as a classroom teacher and a studio artist who continued to create and exhibit his own work, Lake served as a role model for Henry. She is a Guggenheim fellow with an MFA in painting from Yale University who has widely exhibited her work.
"He was really nurturing for me," she said. "He helped me fly on off and do great things."
Lake admits he wasn't a good teacher at first and felt inadequate for the challenge.
"Looking back, I see that guy as very naive and unprepared by my standards of 38 years later. I guess I won people over by sheer effort, but I did learn a lot of things. From the beginning, I had an enthusiasm. But as I look back on the content of my presentations, I wonder why anybody would come back the next day."
Lake pumped up his presentations by reading "a zillion" art history, art appreciation, design and drawing books. Then he tried hard to translate that into a teachable form.
"The art of teaching is a lot of preparation and learning and knowing how to deliver something at what rate of speed," he said. "And learning to recognize when the student is ready for the next step. Every student is different in that way."
At Parkland, he taught all of the 2-D courses: beginning and advanced drawing and watercolor, figure drawing, color theory and design. His favorite to teach was beginning drawing, even though he is a nationally recognized watercolor artist.
"It's great fun to introduce people to something new and watch them learn and develop so quickly, from nothing to something substantial," he said. "That happens in those introductory classes."
And Lake's more mature students, who already have skills before studying with him, see their own work take off. Ikenberry, who is in that category, said she wanted to do something tangible for Lake in return.
"That's the wonderful thing about an endowment. It keeps giving," she said. "We need everybody who's had this wonderful experience with Don to pitch in and help. If we all go together on it, there will be Don Lake scholars in the future."