An art teacher in Loudoun County, Va, Erin Welty, set out to change the lives of animals by using art to cultivate compassion in her students. Inspired by An Act of Dog, she has gone way beyond a teacher's role and instead, has moved her students to become stewards of compassion. To learn more about Erin's journey, continue reading our interview with her and share it with your friends.
Erin, where did your love for animals begin and how did they impact your life as a child?
Over the span of 18 years from kindergarten to 12th grade my Mom and I moved five times. It was very difficult to make and keep friends each time we started over. Although I had two sisters I grew up as an only child due to the fact that they were 15 and 17 years older than me and had already moved out of the house by the time I was 4 years old. My world was in a constant state of flux in which I often felt all alone. The only real constant and source of comfort throughout my childhood was our cat Muffy and our Siberian Husky Katie. Muffy died my Junior year of college at the age of 21. Katie also passed while I was away at school. When I think back to my childhood they were everything that was good in my life. We always had pets growing up, both cats and dogs, but Muffy & Katie were always by my side from very early on.
Shortly after graduating from college I rented my first town house and answered an ad in the paper for free kittens. I immediately chose the orange and white tabby as I had always had a fascination for Tigger from Winnie the Pooh. After giving it some serious consideration I decided to name him Elmo. I lost Elmo to kidney disease after almost 18 years. Without going into much detail, like Muffy and Katie, Elmo was the only constant in my life from age 18-40 and was my entire world. I have never experienced a love greater than that for Elmo. I miss him everyday!
Who has your heart at this time?
When I first learned Elmo had kidney disease I never thought I would get another cat, I was too afraid of the what if’s. I soon came to realize that was not an option. I had the power to save another animals life and provide them with a forever home where they would learn what it truly meant to be loved. Nine months after Elmo passed I was finally ready and I went to our local shelter where I adopted my Finnegan; a 20lb orange and white Maine Coon. His “family” surrendered him at the age of two and a half where he had spent three weeks at the shelter as he kept getting passed by.
I remember thinking I had made a mistake and feeling sick the first few days, but on the third night I knew we were meant to be together when he laid on my chest and began head butting me continuously in the middle of the night. I'm guessing that was his way of saying THANK YOU! He has never done that since. The most amazing thing is that I see Elmo in him everyday, they are so much alike.
A little more than a year later I decided to rescue a 4 month old kitten (Sophie) so Finny would have a friend to keep him company. He has been the BEST big brother and the two of them bring so much joy to my life.
How did you become interested in teaching?
I was originally a portrait photographer and trainer and found that I loved teaching others my craft. Unfortunately the job only paid $10 an hour with no job security or benefits so I decided to take my passion for the arts and love of teaching and go back to school for art education.
Although I enjoy teaching art I have always wanted to be an event planner/designer, so much so that I just recently earned a certificate in conference management and event planning. I love the idea of starting with a blank canvas and being able to orchestrate even the smallest of details as it unfolds right before your eyes.
I feel very fortunate that in the past year I had the freedom to combine the two and design a school wide event that focused on saving animals all the while teaching compassion.
How did you first put your teaching and organizing talents towards saving animals, and how did you integrate the powerful medium of art?
When I was student teaching in 2004 I created a mixed media Pop Art lesson using animals as the subject matter. We studied Andy Warhol and his Endangered Species series from 1985. Students created animal prints that we displayed around the school to help raise awareness for the plight of endangered species. A few years later I began collecting donations for the World Wildlife Federation throughout the duration of the unit. With the money raised each class was able to symbolically “adopt” a species that was currently on the endangered species list. As the unit evolved I found great success with it and submitted it for publication to NASCO where it was accepted and sent off to print.
At the completion of the 2014-2015 school year I had made the decision to change focus. Right around that time I was introduced to project based learning which was a determining factor in which direction I would go. I knew I wanted to address the many forms of animal cruelty and discuss with each of my 6th graders how they could make a difference in the lives of an animal. In doing so, we discussed how artists use their art for social change. After a great deal of research the kids and I agreed to hold an art exhibit where they would display and sell their prints to raise money for local animal rescue groups.
How did you discover Mark Barone and An Act of Dog?
Students were asked to research artists that create art for social change. While in the computer lab looking up inspiring artists, I noticed that the vast majority of screens had “An Act of Dog” website up. Seeing as how I was not familiar with the artist I was very curious to learn more. Two hours later after having read every article I could find on Mark Barone I was so inspired and in awe of what he was doing for animals I introduced all of my 150 6th graders to “An Act of Dog.”
What prompted you to contact us?
I was so moved by the project I could not imagine going forward without at least reaching out to you to see if you would be interested in speaking with myself and the students. I wanted my students to learn about you on a deeper level. I showed them all of your trailers and paintings and wanted you to know how excited, engaged and inspired the students were to create a piece of art that would literally save an animals life just in the way you have. When I told them you had agreed to a Video call, they were ecstatic.
We had orchestrated a huge event and wanted An Act of Dog Charity to benefit from it, along with a few other local animal rescue groups, and this catapulted their engagement to a whole new level.
Mark and I have such fond memories of that Video session and were blown away by the depth of questions and excitement. How was it for you and the students?
In my 12 years of teaching, I have never seen that level of excitement, as I did on the day of the Video call with you both and then again on the event day. To see the students so invested in something that was bigger than themselves was the highlight of my teaching career. I had only anticipated about 30-50 students to attend the Video call, and was shocked to see over 100 students show up because they were so moved by your work and wanted to meet you in “person.” They were so proud to share with you the impact your work has had on them and their desire to help the animals in a very real way. (They all boycotted the Circus, too). On the event day they all I had a job whether it be to volunteer their time and sell artwork or educate the public, they were ready. They enrolled between 500-600 adults on the evening of the event and used their art for the animals and social change.
How did meeting us affect your relationship to teaching?
Before I connected with you and An Act of Dog, I was very close to giving up teaching. After our time together on this project, I realized that teaching is a powerful platform that allows me to change the world through the hearts and hands of the kids. I am able to touch and inspire hundreds of lives and influence how the next generation treats our animal friends. I would being doing a disservice to myself, the students and our furry friends if I walked away from the opportunity to teach these children the depths of what it means to have compassion for others, especially those that don’t have a voice and rely so heavily on us to protect them.
Did this process affect the way you relate to your students?
Absolutely! Before doing this project, I often had a difficult time building relationships with many of my students, I spent more time teaching to the curriculum than I did getting to know my students or connecting with them on a deeper level. This past year we had a shared experience that allowed us to be vulnerable and honest about what we were feeling. I witnessed their depth of character, their integrity and compassion and was moved as I watched them be moved to tears. I am so proud of them for watching your videos, empathizing with the animals and then sharing them with their friends and parents.
Together we felt the pain of these forgotten animals and came together as a force for change. We changed lives and saved lives!
Erin and her students will be featured on the upcoming documentary by Sagacity Productions, to be aired on PBS!