He Graduated In '91 And Still Hangs Out With The Art Teacher Who 'Changed My Path'

Floyd Nordwick and Rhode Montijo met when Montijo was a student in Nordwick's art class at Tokay High School. (Sabrina Sanchez for KPCC)

When Rhode Montijo was a student at Tokay High School in Lodi, he took every art class Floyd Nordwick offered. When he ran out of classes to take, Mr. Nordwick created a new one so kids like Montijo would continue to have space and a place for creating.

Montijo graduated in 1991 and has spent his professional life since in the arts, co-creating the animated web series "Happy Tree Friends," and writing and illustrating children's books, including Cloud Boy.

And now, Mr. Nordwick has many of the books Montijo illustrated. One of them - part of The Gumazing Gum Girl series - is dedicated to him.

"I remember one time, I went through one and I said, I've studied every one of these illustrations and I cannot find any drawing mistakes on any of these. I thought I'd have to be the art teacher to the end here," Nordwick said. "It's just amazing to see all the buds of the flowers in bloom ... and remembering this little freshman kid who came into my classroom."

All these years later, the two still have a close friendship - even though Montijo has since moved to Southern California.

So when Montijo heard we were looking for stories about influential art teachers, he wrote in to tell us about how Mr. Nordwick changed his path by encouraging him to pursue art professionally, and how he still visits him.

We tagged along to one of Montijo's recent visits to Nordwick's house. Here's what they chatted about.

This conversation was full of laughter and tears, and has been edited for length and clarity. You can also listen to it as it aired on our radio station, KPCC (though, fair warning: you may tear up, too - I did!)


THIS STORY IS PART OF AN ONGOING SERIES WHERE WE REUNITE ARTISTS - LIKE SANJAY PATEL, SOLVEJ SCHOU, AND RHODE MONTIJO - WITH THEIR MEMORABLE TEACHERS.

TELL US YOUR STORY IN THE FORM BELOW.


THE SACRIFICE OF BECOMING AN ART TEACHER

Nordwick: They tell you when you're in college that if you are an art teacher, your own work will suffer. And that's true. I really couldn't paint seriously until I retired. And then I started back painting again.

As an art teacher, you are constantly giving out of your talent, thinking of ways to help your students, guiding them, showing them different ways to do things. And it's true - any art teacher - it saps their creative energy because you're giving it out to your students.

Montijo: It's a sacrifice.

Nordwick: Well, in a way it's a sacrifice, but it's certainly worth it ... And another thing is my students' talents are far beyond my talent. I'm a mediocre artist, but my students really have exceptional talent.

Montijo: No, Floyd's just being —

Nordwick: — Good, now argue with me (laughs)

Montijo: — Floyd's being too humble. He's super talented. It was a treat when he'd bring his personal work [to class].

THE FIRST IN HIS FAMILY TO GO TO COLLEGE

Montijo: I was called into my counselor at the time, and they were prepping people for college. And they pulled out a paper that I had filled out in junior high. It asked me back then what I wanted to be, and I had answered "a mechanic." But, I knew nothing of cars. I mean, I can draw a car (laugh)

And they said maybe you could go to the career center and take —

Nordwick: — A vocational test.

Montijo: And I answered all the questions as truthfully as I could, and I think what it said I wanted to be was a marine biologist (laugh)

I can't even swim ... so I left that counselor meeting disillusioned. I'm like, what am I going to do? And you said, "have you thought about going to art college?" And I said, "art college? There's no such thing ... You mean you draw for every class?"

Nordwick: Well, then I phone California College of Arts and Crafts. I got the registrar, and I told him, "I'm an art teacher at Tokay High School, and I have this student who's absolutely gifted in art. And, what can you do?" So they gave Rhode a freshman year semester scholarship.

FRIENDSHIP AFTER GRADUATION

Montijo: When I'd come visit, I remember when you said, "You can call me Floyd. I'm not Mr. Nordwick. You can call me Floyd." ... I remember that was a big deal.

Nordwick: Because we do not have a teacher-student relationship

Montijo: That's right, but I still learn a lot from you ... Even when I was dating. Floyd was like, "You know, life's too hard to go at it alone." And — which side of the brain is it that artists think with?

Nordwick: Remember, left brain is language. Right brain is art.

Montijo: There you go. So he's like, you've got to find someone left brain because —

Nordwick: Yes, we don't need two right-brained people together, that's for sure. That's funny Rhode, but it is true.

Montijo: For me, it ended up being true.

Nordwick: I think people in the arts have a tendency to fly at times. And I've always told my students, you know, be creative, but please keep one big toe on the ground. And you can fly. But you must keep contact with the earth.

Montijo: That's right. Now that you say that, I remember —

Nordwick: You remember that.

"YOU'VE CHANGED MY PATH"

Montijo: Floyd, I've tried to share with you many times how you've changed my path. I had no idea that this kind of world was out there, so you opened up my world, and all these things I got to experience - because of you. I thank you. I love your friendship, and your support, and I know teaching isn't easy ... It's a gift, and I appreciate everything you did for me, and I know you helped others as well ...

One of the biggest things is that art makes me happy, so by you presenting me this world, you gave me all this happiness.

Nordwick: Well, I feel blessed. I feel blessed.

This story also aired on KPCC.

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This activity is supported in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency. Learn more at www.arts.ca.gov.