Chalkboard Chats is an interview series highlighting the teaching artists who dedicate their time and expertise to ArtsConnection students.
Keenan Higgins, or as his friends call him “HIGz”, wears many proverbial hats: photo journalist, writer, music authority — all genres are fair game — and of course, teaching artist. When he’s not writing for magazines himself, he is working with the next generation of tastemakers, helping them focus their critical lens through ArtsConnection’s Teen Reviewers and Critics (TRaC) program.
Keenan walks us through the rewards and challenges of teaching during COVID-19, and the secret to balancing a personal artistic practice with a teaching career.
What’s your earliest memory of being moved by art?
I’d probably have to say seeing The Nutcracker as a kid. My Aunt Erica took me, my brother and cousins to see it when we were around eight or nine, and all the intricate, constantly moving parts of the show just stuck with me forever. I was even able to pay my aunt back by taking her to see it again a few years ago, just the two of us — all complimentary thanks to my PR connects at Pepsi!
What kind of music did your parents play while you were growing up… and did the apple fall far from the tree?
Both my mom and dad were born in the South and moved to New York — her from Mississippi, him from South Carolina — so I pretty much got exposed to their oldies during separate car rides between the two. There was a time I’ll never forget when we went to this cool roadside fair called South of the Border — the name is derived from it being located “south of the border” between North Carolina & South Carolina — and it was nothing but classic R&B oldies the whole time! I didn’t mind at all, and I can definitely say experiences like listening to music for hours together rubbed off on me and made my current musical tastes more diverse.
Describe your primary school arts education in three words.
Existent, but lacking.
How long have you been teaching with ArtsConnection?
Five years strong as of February 2021, and looking forward to many, many more!
What has been one of the biggest challenges?
It’ll sound cliché, but hands-down teaching through a pandemic while trying to simultaneously get both myself and my students acclimated to virtual class sessions. It’s gotten easier after doing it for over a year now, but I still miss physically seeing my kiddos!
Any surprising rewards?
Another cliché response, but the kids themselves! With each new semester of TRaC, I tend to get an even split between returning students and new faces. The ones coming back feel like family, and the new ones become family almost instantly in my eyes. It’s a truly rewarding experience overall.
How has teaching children changed your outlook on art?
It’s taught me to be more patient for sure, whether that be observing pieces on display at exhibits with a little more understanding, or just not rushing the process of how long it takes to create art — think photography sessions, Photoshop jobs, painting for pleasure and things like that.
Name an artist – living or dead – you’d like to have dinner with and why.
It’s funny, because most people who know me would assume I’d immediately choose Aaliyah. She’s my everything! However, I don’t think I could mentally handle spending only a few hours at dinner with a spirit quite like The Princess of R&B, so I wouldn’t even put myself through that irreparable heartbreak. Love you forever though, Queen…
However, there is another deceased music icon that I would absolutely love to break bread with, and that’s my fellow “bald-headed brother” and late hip-hop king Tupac Shakur. Also known simply and spelled as “2Pac,” this man had one of the most intellectual minds of any person that has, or ever will, walk this Earth. It would be a personal honor to sit with him and experience even a few hours of his way of thinking over conversation, good wine and maybe a few of his infamous “Thug Passion” cocktails. Look that up on Urban Dictionary if you want the real-life recipe.
Time management is hard. Any tips on maintaining a personal artistic practice while juggling a teaching career?
Make time for fun, but never take your business as a joke. That may sound like an oxymoron, but I promise you can maintain a healthy balance of both. That’s the only way you’ll truly enjoy both your passion for arts and your profession in academics at the same time.
In your own words, describe why the work we do at ArtsConnection is important.
During my time of working here, so far, I’ve found that ArtsConnection always goes above and beyond to make initiatives toward positive change. That could apply to curating unique experiences so that students in our supervision are getting the most out of our programs, or it can be internal work that ensures we are home to a diverse team of individuals from all creeds and walks of life. Both of those ways, and many more in between, are what make ArtsConnection and work we do so impactful.