How they spent their summer vacations

Lilly Endowment fellowship winners share their experiences

By Rebecca Berfanger

A visit to Alaska to see how residents interact with large predators, a walkabout of Australia’s national parks in a camper van, and an artistic endeavor involving art made from books are three of 100 different projects this summer that were funded by the Lilly Endowment’s Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program, now in its 30th year.

Each year, teachers around Indiana receive grants up to $12,000 to support projects they pursued this summer that touched on their personal and professional interests, which, in turn, they will bring back to their students.

Five southside teachers received the grant. Center Grove High School English teacher Shiela Bickley, who traveled to Alaska; William “Rusty” Cullom, a Center Grove High School biology teacher who traveled to Australia; Our Lady of the Greenwood School art teacher Julie Perigo, who traveled to Alaska and California to study materials and techniques used for iconography; and Center Grove Middle School North band teacher Michael Bolla, who traveled to Amsterdam, Rome and Dublin to study cultural aspects of music. Whiteland Community High School art teacher Emily Litsey, who traveled to California this summer and will go to Italy in the fall, also received a grant from Lilly.

In late July, we caught up with Bickley, Cullom, and Litsey — right before their school years started  — to follow up after The Daily Journal reported about their grants in January.

Wild places

English teacher Shiela Bickley’s trip to Alaska was inspired by “The Beast in the Garden,” a book freshmen read at Center Grove High School. Set in Boulder, Colo., it is the story of a high school boy who was killed by a mountain lion while running on a trail behind his school during the day. The book considers how and why there are large predators in urban areas due to changes to the landscape that are attracting prey.

As there is less open land to share, humans will have more interaction with wildlife. “In the past, our solution was to kill anything that frightened us, but we have seen that removing predators can cause a dangerous imbalance in the environment,” she says. The English teacher hopes to bring back to her students a concept of living more harmoniously with nature.

“We need to begin thinking about practices we can put in place to help us live together with large mammals instead,” Bickley says.  “That’s the message I hope to bring back to my students.”

In Indiana, landscaping plants attract deer to urban and suburban areas. The deer attract coyotes, which have been spotted even during daylight hours. Those coyotes are not only preying on deer, of course, but also other wildlife and even small livestock and pets.

Bickley wanted to go to Alaska because of the population of large animals. “Anchorage has approximately 30 wolves, 60 brown bears, 250 black bears and 1,900 moose,” she says.

From July 3 to 27, Bickley traveled around Alaska. She took the park tour in Denali; took a seaplane flight to Katmai to see the brown bears at Brooks Falls fishing for salmon; went on cruises from both Whittier and Seward to see large marine mammals such as sea otters, seals, sea lions, orcas and humpback whales; and witnessed salmon runs in many places, including Kenai, Hope and Anchorage. She also visited a musk ox farm in Palmer that uses the animals’ fur to make a warm, soft yarn, and a commercial reindeer farm.

“All of these tourist expeditions focus on containing the humans in a small area and keeping a respectful distance from the animals,” she says. For instance, when she went to Katmai National Park, she had to go through bear safety training with a ranger, which included leaving anything that would associate people with food — including flavored lip balm or even clothes worn while preparing food — in a food cache building.

Right before she arrived in Alaska, there had been several reports of bears either attacking people or people killing bears. She also saw a young black bear while at a café at a trailhead for the Rendezvous Peak Trail, while many people were walking near it, oblivious.

“We saw [the bear] approach the steps to the deck and stand up to get a good look at the man. It was frightening,” she says. “I felt like it kind of summed up the problem. There was the [café owner] trying to be responsible but hitting roadblocks. He didn’t talk about killing the bear, but for a lot of people, that is the first thought.”

The Alaska ecosystem shows that there are ways for people and wildlife to inhabit the same spaces, but that none of these ways is easy or perfect. “There will always be people who mess up the system and animals who mess up the system,” Bickley says. “But I think Indiana needs to start being more aware of what we are doing that affects wildlife and how important it is to have predators as part of the ecosystem.”

From the pages of books

Whiteland Community High School art teacher and artist Emily Litsey has been incorporating book-altered art into her courses since the early days of her 11-year career as a teacher.  “After my first year (of teaching), I did a summer workshop where we took book pages and circled words and then blacked out the rest of the text to create something new,” she says.  She sought other artists who alter books, as well as old books at thrift stores she or her students could use for projects.

“Once students know what we do, they or their parents will bring in books, and the school library brings me books they take out of circulation, such as encyclopedias,” she says. “It’s kind of a way to recycle, too, to reutilize instead of using new canvases or new paper, start with an existing object.”

For her grant, Litsey and her husband spent 10 days in the Bay Area of Northern California, where Litsey worked with book artist Lisa Kokin. For part of the trip, Litsey spent time in Kokin’s studio in El Sobrante, just north of Berkeley, where Kokin showed Litsey her processes and offered critiques as well as ideas.  Kokin also shared examples of binding tools and different types of glue, so that Litsey can offer “a buffet of options” to students this year. She added the grant money can also be used to buy supplies for her students and that the altered book art can be part of art students’ course portfolios.

Litsey took advantage of the California scenery by sketching, taking photos and gaining inspiration from art galleries and museums.

In October, Litsey will travel to Venice, Italy, for an artist residency. She went to the same school when she was in college as part of Indiana University’s study abroad program. There they offer printmaking, bookmaking and altered book tutorials.

For Litsey, using the grant been a great experience so far, but the opening process of writing the proposal helped her focus on what gets her excited about teaching, what will make her a better teacher. “I had applied before and not gotten it, but that helped me come up with a better idea. … [This grant] helps you do something creative you didn’t have the resources to do, and it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she says.

A walkabout to talk about

Rusty Cullom, a biology teacher at Center Grove High School, also witnessed large predators, but in a much different setting.

From June 3 to July 3, Cullom traveled around Australia’s national parks in a camper van. “Because it is isolated, biologically, Australia’s species are totally unique, particularly the wide variety of marsupials,” he says. And even though the seasons changed from fall to winter while he was down under, winter brings the mildest temperatures.

Cullom drove about 4,000 miles and visited more than 30 of Australia’s 500 national parks. He started his trip in the northeastern part of the country at Cape York in Queensland. He spent about a week there, including snorkeling along the Great Barrier Reef. He also explored Daintree Rainforest, the oldest continuous rain forest in the world, which is estimated to be 180 million years old. He traveled to Darwin in the Northern Territory, down the Steward Highway, to Alice Springs and Uluru, also known as Ayers Rock, in the middle of the country, to Adelaide in South Australia territory. He took the Great Ocean Road to Melbourne, stopped in Canberra, where his nephew works for the U.S. Embassy, and ended the trip in Sydney. While he was alone for the start of the journey, his daughter joined him for the last 10 days.

Along the way, he saw kangaroos, wombats, koalas and whales in the wild, along with a Southern cassowary, the third-largest bird in the world after ostriches and emus. Cullom said the flightless birds look like dinosaurs because of their clawed feet and the large, horn-like crest on their heads. They can also be aggressive.

Following the trip, Cullom said he plans to use photos and share his experiences with students. “I don’t want to just teach biology,” he says as he heads into his 37th year of teaching at Center Grove. “I want to get kids to be excited about biology. I just want them to know this is something they can do on their own.”

Photo: Rusty Cullom in Australia.