Art teacher Carol Shutt helps sixth-grader Tyler Lunt with his “Respect for Nature” clay creation. Photo: Thalassa Raasch/MaineCF

Carol Shutt’s life as an artist and art teacher has been enriched by grants that have sent her around the world. 

On a Wednesday morning in mid-December, the art room at Mount Desert Elementary School in Northeast Harbor is buzzing. About 20 sixth-graders are seated at four work tables creating clay sculptures. The kids perfect their pieces while talking about their work. A couple of girls break into song: “It’s starting to feel a lot like Christmas….”

The room itself is a work of art. Images by Escher and Kahlo, Picasso and O’Keeffe line the walls. There are artbooks and easels, and plenty of tools – drills, saws, brushes, chisels. The students’ clay pieces are bound for the Bar Harbor Garden Club’s annual sculpture contest. The theme is “Keep our planet green and get involved with saving our environment,” and the subjects of the students’ creations include butterflies, snakes, stars, and plants.

Moving from table to table, guiding the students in their art-making, is Carol Shutt, the school’s long-serving K-8 art teacher. Her position requires a diverse skill set: from class to class she moves from clay and collage to paint and photography. The students continually surprise her – “They do amazing things,” she says.

Over the years, Shutt has drawn her own inspiration as the recipient of 10 grants from the Vincent Astor Incentive Fund at the Maine Community Foundation. The fund, set up in 1984 through an endowment gift from the Vincent Astor Foundation, supports teachers at Mount Desert Elementary School and Mount Desert Island High School, as well as staff at Northeast Harbor Library. The grants, which range from $300 to $3,000, allow recipients to pursue projects that will broaden their experience or education, or otherwise contribute to their skills or curricula.

A Californian by birth, Shutt studied at Syracuse University and worked in a fine crafts gallery in Philadelphia before heading Downeast. There she developed a quilting business using Amish colors and her own designs. She became a teacher “kind of through the back door” when she accepted a part-time position at the Steuben school. A year later, in 1991, she became the full-time art teacher at Mount Desert Elementary School.

Shutt’s earliest Astor grants allowed her to attend workshops and study one-on-one with Maine artists. After her two children were grown, the grants helped her explore the world, with trips to study art in Nepal, Portugal, Italy, France, Holland, and Cuba.

As Shutt traveled, she became a collector. Her found materials, including printed words, became collages that filled books after she returned stateside. In turn, she encouraged her students to play with words and put them into their art. “I think the [Astor] grants have made me more of an artist and a teacher,” says Shutt, “deepening what I know and what I do.”

After the students have left, Shutt tends to their sculptures, stabilizing some pieces, carefully tucking others away in drawers, handling each one as if it were a prize-winner. On the cusp of retirement – she’ll leave her classroom at the end of the school year – Shutt looks forward to further developing her art practice. But she will miss the energy and excitement of teaching children how to think creatively and critically.

Art, says Shutt, provides a way “to reach all students.” And she has spent 27 years proving it. 

One of many notebooks filled with the creations of Shutt’s travels and art studies, supported by Astor Incentive Awards.