Interview with Barry Stebbing, How Great Thou ART
It would be hard to imagine unless you were in the middle of it: sitting in a large room (think â€śballroomâ€ť or â€śconvention hallâ€ť) with a couple hundred young homeschoolers and their parents. A wiry, energetic man stands at the front of the room, drawing on the screen with an overhead projector, while issuing a steady stream of instructions. As you follow, you draw a line here, a curve there, an ellipse... and before you know it, you've drawn an object. Or you're mixing colors together, following directions, loading your brush, and then daubing color into a pre-printed circle on your worksheet. Guess what? You've just learned how to make the center of a sunflower, glowing with color.
The room hums with quiet, purposeful activity; everything is harnessed creativity. The course is well-organized and orchestrated, without being stifling. Helpers walk up and down the rows of tables, handing out supplies or helping with a new concept. Mr. Stebbing keeps the lessons moving; there's no time to be bored or distracted.
Tables line one wall of the room, piled high with books, videos, and art supplies. One table holds Mr. Stebbing's journals â€“ he practices what he preaches. (â€śThe way to learn to draw is... to draw! Draw something every day, and write about it.â€ť) He encourages families to take his journals home each night of the workshop, page through and be inspired. Examples from the art curriculum are taped to the walls to give parents and students an idea of the type of exercises involved. Each session begins with a slideshow of famous artworks, a taste of art appreciation and art history in one. Classical music plays in the background.
During breaks, Mr. Stebbing checks homework assigned the previous day, and offers encouragement and advice.
The three-day workshop, teaching fundamentals and the academics of color theory, is enough to get you and your young students started. The rest is up to you, but plenty of help is available from How Great Thou ART in the form of videos, books and art supplies, to keep you going, growing, and learning.
If you talk to the Stebbings about their classes, their curriculum and their endeavors, you find that it's all bathed in prayer, with the purpose of bringing glory to God in every aspect of their work and lives.
How did your art seminars come about?
Nearly 20 years ago, we were vendors at homeschooling conventions, representing our new products. At the time, we were advertising in Teaching Home Magazine (out of Portland, Oregon). Sue Welch, the magazine's editor, asked if we would come to their conference in Hudson, Florida to teach the children of all the state leaders in a three-day art class. There were 120 students. We put together a well planned workshop. After that, during our travels to various conventions, we started to advertise this same three-day class. At first, classes were very small (18 students in Louisiana, 20 in Massachusetts, etc.); from there the classes grew in proportion. We now have instructed over 60,000 homeschoolers in classes throughout North America, including Canadian homeschoolers.
You play classical music as a background for art. Why?
Quality music is an integral part of the creative process, especially good classical music, as it is a wonderful source of inspiration. It also gives a student a more balanced education, nurturing academic study, and seems to have a calming effect in the classroom.
Why is art important? Why is teaching art important? How can a non-artist teach art to his/her children?
Art is important for many reasons: It offers a well balanced education, has medicinal qualities and can offer some of the most enriching time of one's day. Research has also shown that students who take art excel in the academics in comparison with students who do not. God is an Artist and we have all been created in His image with the ability to create. All we need to do is believe in ourselves and practice as much as possible.
Tell us a little about your books. What was your first book? Do you have a favorite?
The first book we created was How Great Thou Art. It is a book on drawing (ages 12 and up) and sold for $10. We sold 1,000 copies the first year. It was originally called, Look Mom, Grandma Can Draw and Paint. After the book sat several weeks on a shelf, my wife said, "Why don't you call it, How Great Thou ART, and dedicate it to God?" And so we did.
God and the History of Art has been a very successful program. It was a real delight to put together as I delved into art history, correlating with the Word of God, prayerfully considering godly artists, periods and styles. There are many questionable topics pertaining to art history where one has to read between the lines, and I had to offer my opinion to such concerns spiritually. I Can Do All Things and Feed My Sheep were also great texts to create. We believe our new book, Nature Drawing & Journaling, is one of our best.
These books all seem to be very special and all serve their purpose. I'm not doing anything fancy, I guess God's just given me a gift for writing art books over the last 20 years. They have all received a good report from many families and won awards. We have a money-back guarantee and have very few returns, only three or four a year. And it's not because they didn't like the programs but reasons such as purchasing the wrong book for their childrenâ€™s level or they're not homeschooling any longer.
Each book we do is offered to the Lord as first fruits. I pray that the Holy Spirit will fill every jot and tittle with godly instruction.
How and when did you get started with writing?
My father was a poet. But the desire and ability lay dormant in me until my early forties when I started journaling. Now, 50 journals and many books later, I find writing to be just as inspiring, just as creative, as painting. Like everything else, it is a discipline that has to be nurtured.
Could you describe the â€śwriting journey,â€ť from the initial idea to the published product? (What did writing a book involve? Prayer, study, research, organizing, thinking, writing, proofreading? What came after the writing?)
A book would be birthed because of demand. Wherever we see a weak area, something that needs to be expounded upon, a new book is born. I carry a tape recorder with me. My most creative time comes in the early morn. I usually get up between 2:00 and 3:30 in the morning. I'll lie in bed; that's when I believe the Holy Spirit illumines me and gives me these wonderful ideas. I believe every single thing we've done has been inspired by the Holy Spirit (see John 14:26). Without the Holy Spirit I'm absolutely nothing. I would take notes and put them on pages; it makes for a good thought process. Our art programs are very comprehensive and range from preschool to adult, involving areas of the fine arts such as drawing and painting.
The art lessons build on the premise of â€śprecept upon precept.â€ť All an art book is, is an instruction manual, a â€śhow-toâ€ť book, like putting a bicycle together. I believe in the art of simple instructions. This was instilled in me when teaching high school in the public schools, as I would have to create daily lesson plans for substitute teachers. They would need specific instructions along with detailed learning objectives that would be easy to follow.
Iâ€™ve been a student of art my whole life and have read and researched many art books. What I've found is that most art books look great at first. (Call this â€śHamburger Helper.â€ť) Then they get bogged down with a lot of unnecessary words, but don't clearly explain things in a way to help students comprehend various techniques.
What sort of help did you have along the way?
None, save for God. However we have had helpmates, homeschooling parents who've come along and rolled up their sleeves and helped us at conventions and art classes. As far as gleaning from anyone, I go back to the Holy Spirit and believe that our entire method of teaching is new and fresh. We have not been influenced by other art programs.
And God continues to open doors for us, which I think is wonderful. For the last four years, we've been doing productions for the American Family Association (AFA). They bring us to their studios and film our courses.
How were you introduced to the idea of self-publishing?
We came into this in a bizarre way. What's really neat is that computers made it all possible. I started with Word Perfect. Then we worked with a printing company, printing minimal orders. That's how it started and it grew from there. Now, with Word, you simply send your PDF files to the printer â€“ it's phenomenal what you can do with books and how much easier it is to produce them.
We came in at the right time with computers, and also with the homeschooling conventions. I spoke at most of the conventions throughout the country. That was the peak of the conventions, about ten years ago, and since then they've died down considerably. We've been to homeschooling conventions with over 10,000 people â€“ that was almost standard back then. Medium size conventions would have around 7,000. They've dropped off about 90 percent.
How are your books distributed? How do you advertise? (I know you have your own website; do you sell through any other outlets?)
We do no advertising now. We used to be one of the biggest advertisers in homeschooling: every card deck, every convention, magazine advertisements, mailings. However, it was not cost effective. Five years ago we stopped doing all advertising. The downside is that many of the homeschoolers lose sight of who you are. We've gone to our distributors; they do all our advertising. They go to the conventions, display our programs. I believe that's prudence.
We have a great relationship with Christian Book Distributor, My Father's World, Rainbow Resource and a couple of other large homeschooling companies.
What would you say your biggest challenges are? The greatest blessings?
I don't see many challenges. Being goal oriented, I have developed discipline and perseverance in obtaining my aspirations. And it is always good to have God in with all the plans. Probably getting my aging body (67) in shape and doing God's will are my greatest objectives. My greatest blessings are my wife, Saundra, who has the temperament and fortitude to live with (and encourage) an artist, and the Holy Spirit. As mentioned, the Holy Spirit has been my major source of inspiration in creating these programs along with the various methods we use in teaching.
What is your goal? Your vision for the future?
We love the homeschoolers. They come into class so meek and generally lacking such confidence in their abilities. It makes me think of Churchill, when he said, â€śGive us the tools and we will do the job.â€ť If we can inspire and encourage them, give them the tools... Isaiah 28:10 talks about â€śPrecept upon precept and line upon lineâ€¦â€ť we show them how to draw step-by-step. Our approach learning to draw and paint is like simple mathematics, putting things together, one plus one equals two. It's a traditional method and takes discipline along with a good attitude. At the point weâ€™re not just focusing on self expression but laying a good foundation learning the fundamentals. We always pray before class and have found that all the students become totally locked. Homeschoolers are an exception and it's an honor to be their teacher.
Could you give the readers a â€śpictureâ€ť of yourself? Whatever you care to share is fine. What are your areas of interest, where do you live (â€ścityâ€ť, â€ścountryâ€ť, â€śsmall townâ€ť is specific enough, you donâ€™t need to be exact), do you have any pets, whatâ€™s your favorite color?
We live in a very rural area, population 97, McFarlan, NC, a healthy place and we love it. We have lived on the farm for now and it is 15 years where I really commune with God. Under the sky, I fall on my knees in the meadows and often pray. It's a privilege to live in such an atmosphere. You might describe our lifestyle (when we're at home) as monastic.
We have chickens, ducks, geese, roosters, and a dog who came onto the property as a puppy. His name is Hohty, and he's about a year and a half old. We also have a cat named Boots, barn cats and plenty of birds.
My favorite color is blue.
We are hard working people, but it's healthy work. Saundra's very independent, too. We go from being totally immersed in homeschoolers to solitude. We love the embrace (being with homeschoolers), the precious homeschooling families, and we also love the lifestyle on the farm. We go from one extreme to another. I think we all need more time alone. We fervently encourage homeschoolers to journal. It's such a medicinal time. My mind has become so pure, solid and pure. It's being renewed by Godâ€™s Word (Romans 12:1), but also from the ambience, of the peace and beauty of life in the country, places that make the mind healthy. When I journal, I try to be as sincere and open as I can without being too personal. I always try to focus on good things, as Paul describes in Philippians 4:8. The mind is a delicate thing. I also invest quality time in the studio to paint.
What is your favorite animal? (My youngest daughter wants to know. She says hers is a horse.)
As I get older, it's a dog. But not just any dog, a dog I really connect with. And thatâ€™s Hohty. I see so much of God's creative hand in all animals, and there's so much joy in all of the life on the farm. Ducks and geese, mother hens raising their chicks, roosters with their vibrant colors.
We also tend to a lot of strays; Canada geese with broken wings, stray dogs, abandoned kittens. One of our books was written, (a true story) about a goose (Joseph) with a broken wing who lived on our pond.
How is God at work in your life?
God is at work in all of our lives. You can have as much of God as you want; the more you seek Him, the closer you will become. We're on this fervent quest to seek God with all our hearts, focusing on things above. We take many long walks in the mornings and evenings, praying and reflecting. This is an exciting time for us. I sense His confirmation almost daily. I believe that if you're on the right path, He is going to revel it to you. We've been extremely blessed; this recent trip (teaching art workshops in the autumn) has been wonderful.
Do you have any advice for homeschooling families?
It seems like the majority of these parents are homeschooling because the Lord had placed it on their hearts. I would tell them to persevere. All homeschooling parents go through unbelievable ordeals and doubts. You hear from the old timers to press through. I would encourage them to give their children art, even with their hectic schedules. I'd say that 99 percent of parents have no confidence when it comes to teaching art and yet, in our classes we have all these children who are overflowing with joy, who innately love art. Parents simply have no time for art. Their plate is overflowing and art isn't a priority. But it is for children. A lot of families will procrastinate on â€śextras,â€ť put academics first, and then they don't get to the enrichments. One homeschooling mom told me, â€śWe used to end our week with art, and then I changed things and started our week with art. This met with great success!â€ť
What would you â€śdo overâ€ť if you could, and what would you do exactly the same way?
I have no regrets. The things in my life I'm not proud of are a part of my testimony. What would I do over? Well, I now feel like a complete person. I've been very goal-oriented most of my life. When I was younger I had no discipline or goals. Then as I became older I started setting goals. If you learn from your mistakes, they are well worth it and can be a great tool for learning and growing.
As we go into old age, our goal now is to be healthy. I want to continue teaching these classes into my 80s. I'd like for our marriage to glorify God, that we might truly be ambassadors of Jesus Christ. To be an example of health leading a life with godly wisdom, as Psalm 92 states, â€śEven in your old age you shall be bearing much fruit.â€ť I want to be a testimony. If you've girded up your mind in Christ Jesus, live your life with wisdom and discipline, you can be a godly success in old age. That's my desire. Teaching these classes is intense, demanding, and strenuous. As Paul said, â€śI'm being poured out as a drink offering.â€ť It's also glorious. It's teaching at its best. I especially love the little ones: five, six, seven-year olds. Being around these wonderful families is a reward in itself.
What have you learned in this process?
I've learned to be humble. Itâ€™s been a slow process. It's not by might, nor strength, but by the spirit of God. You'd really have to be in my shoes to see God operating through us (as in art classes). I don't know what I have that communicates so well with the students, but we see it continually in the classes. I look out (you can hear a pin drop) in a room with over a hundred students (ages five and up) for 2-1/2 hours a day. They hang on to every word. Our largest class was 250 students in St. Paul, MN. It can't be me. The Spirit of God is at work and thatâ€™s the honor.
Is there anything else you'd like to say?
Our lives, our business are in the Lord's hands. We believe that we have favor from God. We're still winning awards without marketing, that's pretty good stuff.
My work is much more than art. It incorporates discipline and a godly perspective. I consider what I do to be as much preaching as teaching.
I consider our worldly success to be minimal. But, in terms of spiritual success, tremendous. To God be the glory!