WISCASSET — This week, former students of retiring high school art teacher Thomas Block will gather at a midcoast gallery to toast the man who changed their lives.

“When I started at Wiscasset High School, I was a lonely, invisible outcast with nothing to pull me through the day except my love of art,” said Juli Lamb, who graduated in 1999 and works as a photographer in Auburn. “When I discovered how much I could express myself through various art forms taught by Mr. Block, I truly found myself. I couldn’t stop. He created a monster.”

“I had it in the back of my mind that I would quit school altogether,” said Wilder Oakes, a midcoast painter who had Block as an art teacher way back in the 1970s at Georges Valley High School. “I was sort of a rebel. I wasn’t comfortable in my own skin a lot of the time, and I wasn’t fond of the establishment.

“Tom showed up, and I was blown away. There was Tom Block, a redheaded, mop-headed, bearded guy who looked like an artist should look. He saved my whole hide from quitting school. I likely would have. My whole life would have been very different.”

“Mr. Block was my favorite teacher,” said Courtney Sonia, a 2008 graduate of Wiscasset now living in Portland and pursuing fashion design. “Mr. Block taught us the importance of just having confidence in yourself, and that all art is good art. He told us that it’s important to do what you want to do and not worry about the money or the social implications of your decision.”

Those are voices of three former students among three dozen who will show their own work as a tribute to Block and his influence on their lives. “Tall Oaks from Small Acorns Grow: A Celebration of Thomas Block’s 37 Years as an Art Educator in Midcoast Maine,” will be on view briefly, from Thursday through June 22 at River Arts’ Gallery II, 241 Route 1, Damariscotta.

At a reception from 4 to 7 p.m. Thursday, former students will gather with their mentor and let the memories flow.

Block began thinking about this show in January, when he reconciled himself to the idea that his rewarding teaching career was winding down. With the close of the current academic year, he will have logged 37 years in public school education. The first 18 years he spent at Thomaston, St. George and Cushing. He’s been at Wiscasset since 1992.

Rather than put together a show that included his own work, he wanted his retirement party to be about his students and their accomplishments. Many of his former students have made their lives in art one way or another, and all of them can trace the foundation of their interest directly to Block.

“Tom Block let us be,” said Kelly Thorndike, an illustrator from North Haven. “He had the basic curriculum he had to teach — with no money, no budget. But Tom Block allowed us to be. He was the change agent who set me on the road of fine art.”

A crusader, Block views this show as a final statement – a demonstrative pitch for the accomplishment of arts education.

“I didn’t want a retirement thing about me,” he said. “I wanted a retirement thing that said, ‘This is what 37 years of work in a public school can do for kids.’ Art changes lives entirely. Art is the center from which the students can go out and do other things. Art is the center of their lives. It’s part of their soul.”

The arc of Block’s career reflects the ebb and flow of arts education. When he began teaching, many schools in Maine offered little or no art education. For a while, things were flush, and art programs flourished. Now they’re being cut to the levels of the days when Block began his career as a mop-headed, wide-eyed enthusiast.

In his early days at Georges Valley, Block stuffed two cardboard boxes with drawing paper, charcoal and ink. He lugged the boxes from school to school, teaching seventh-graders to seniors. He was fully committed to the idea of teaching art in a part of Maine where art is deeply ingrained in a shared visual culture.

Block taught the kids about their neighbor artists, and held up Wyeth, Welliver and Langlais as examples of the possibility of a life in art.

Over time, he built up the art program and landed a dedicated art room in the high school. When it became clear, because of budget constraints, that he had accomplished all that he could at Georges Valley, he applied for an opening at Wiscasset, a much larger district with more resources.

He got the job, and immediately began building an art program that would grow to include a team of three art teachers and became the heart and soul of Wiscasset High.

“We had the best art program in the state,” Block said. “But little by little, it’s been whittled away by superintendents. Now it’s very small again.”

Block, who just turned 60, knows it’s time to go. It’s not so much that he’s tired of fighting. He’s stood up for the arts his entire career, and will continue doing so.

He just wants time for his own work. He recently illustrated a children’s book about Togus, the famous Maine coon cat, and he’s got a mile-long list of things he wants to do.

The exhibition of work by his former students stands as a final statement, an exclamation point on a career full of accomplishment.

“My entire life, I have been trying to convince people that the arts are damned important,” Block said. “You want to cut your dropout rate? Then invest in your art programs. Invest in music. Invest in theater.

“The arts create so much self-worth in so many people.” 

Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at 791-6457 or at: [email protected]