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story.lead_photo.caption Deborah Kuster, a professor at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway and a fiber artist, has a display of her works at UCA Downtown. The exhibit features hand-woven textiles and vessels. Kuster plans to retire from UCA in May. - Photo by Staci Vandagriff

Deborah Kuster has been teaching art education at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway since fall 2003. This year is a milestone, albeit bittersweet — it’s her last year to teach.

“This year is extra special to me,” she said. “I will be 66 by the time I retire in May. I love what I do, but it’s time to retire. I want to be able to spend more time with my husband, John, and our family.”

Not only is Kuster a professor; she is also an artist — a fiber artist. Her work is on display through Oct. 1 at UCA Downtown in an exhibit she titles The Makings of a Teacher: Textile Art by Deborah Kuster. The gallery is open from noon to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 1105 W. Oak St., and there is no admission charge.

Kuster, who holds a doctorate in art education from the University of North Texas in Denton, will present a teacher professional-development workshop from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Friday, which will be followed by a public reception from 4-6.

“And on Saturday, I’ve arranged for a ‘reunion’ with my former art education students that I’ve taught since 2003,” she said. “About 50 of those students are currently teaching in Arkansas, and many in our region. It will be held on the UCA campus in the Mirror Room at McAlister Hall from 1-3 p.m.”

Kuster will also host a gallery walk-through from 1:40-2:30 p.m. Sept. 27.

“Kristen Spickard asked me last spring if I would be interested in having an exhibit at UCA Downtown,” Kuster said. “At that time, she was curating the art exhibitions at UCA Downtown through UCA’s division of outreach and community engagement. She has recently transferred to the university’s marketing and communications division as a graphic artist and project manager.

“She helped me think the exhibit through and schedule the dates and additional events, such as the reception, teacher workshop and the gallery walk-through on Sept. 27. That time period on Sept. 27— 1:40-2:30 — is what we call X-period on campus, and no classes are scheduled then, so we are hoping to get some students and faculty to come to the exhibit.”

Bryan Massey, UCA professor and now chairman of the art department, has known and worked with Kuster for several years.

“Dr. Kuster is a one-of-a-kind art educator,” Massey said. “Her field of expertise is in art education, and it is a rarity to find many art educators who are also exhibiting artists. So she is not only teaching our future art teachers but is a great example of showing them how to exhibit professionally as a studio artist.

“Speaking of her upcoming retirement from teaching here at UCA, she will be greatly missed and difficult to replace. She is like a mother hen when it comes to nurturing and caring for the art-education students/majors. She makes sure they are up to date and well aware of what they need to do to be successful in the classroom. That characteristic is a rare gem.”

Kuster’s exhibit at UCA Downtown is a compilation of her works, including hand-woven textiles in the form of quilted wall hangings that often reflect quotes by her grandchildren and, more recently, vessels she has created using her hand-woven textiles.

“Creating vessels is new for me,” Kuster said. “I began visualizing these vessels from a sentence in Brennan Manning’s book Abba’s Child: The Cry of the Heart for Intimate Belonging. After sharing a personal narrative of a friend, Manning described the experience as ‘an earthen vessel with feet of clay laid hold of his belovedness.’

“My quilts from grandchildren’s quotes and my vessels from this idea of us as earthen vessels that are beloved by God all hold layers of meaning for me. When asked to display my work here [at UCA Downtown], I chose works that illustrate some of my reflections about teaching. The wall quilts hold insights about curriculum, student engagement and teacher satisfaction, and the vessels suggest our students — people of value whom we desire to have a positive impact, no matter how small.”

Kuster was born on an Army base, Fort Hood in Killeen, Texas, and grew up in Dallas. In addition to her doctorate from the University of North Texas, she has a Master of Arts degree from the University of Texas at Tyler and a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of North Texas.

Kuster has been involved in the field of art education for 40 years, having taught art to all ages in schools and museums. Her art is made from her personally hand-woven textiles. Her work has been in many regional and national exhibitions and, most recently, featured in issues of the national publication Art Quilting Studio.

Kuster said she always had “teacher ways” about her.

“I would play teacher even as a young child, and I was always making stuff out of all kinds of materials and for all kinds of reasons,” she said.

“I would say that I can adequately work in a variety of media. I have taught many art processes at every grade level throughout my teaching career. It all brings me pleasure, but really, only since 2006 would I say I found my voice as an artist,” Kuster said.

“I began cutting, piecing and quilting my hand-woven textiles in 2006,” she said. “This is a time- and labor-intensive process that combines all that I love doing — reflecting, visualizing, designing, weaving, assembling, sewing and embellishing. The quilted weavings on the main wall [at UCA Downtown] were inspired by quotes from my young grandchildren with multiple implications for the viewer, such as metaphor or pun. Most recently, I have been forming my pieced weavings into three-dimensional vessels with terracotta clay ‘feet.’ These are created to suggest our human experience — obviously flawed, yet highly treasured.

“Teaching is a large part of my life. I have come to realize how my artwork inherently reflects my life’s journey on many meaningful levels. Hence, this art embodies my own endeared stories and insights about teaching and about those I have had the honor to teach.”

Kuster and her husband, John, who is retired from structural engineering in Texas, have one daughter, Julie Steck, who lives with her husband, Adam, in Mineola, Texas, with their children — Adam, 15, Mackenzie, 12, and Zachary, 9.

“I am hoping they are able to come visit and attend the reception,” Deborah Kuster said.

“I am having a really good year,” Kuster said. “In addition to this exhibit at UCA Downtown, my artwork Got to Go Dance is currently featured in the Autumn 2018 issue of the national publication Art Quilting Studio in my article ‘Dance, Dance, Dance.’

“And my vessel Cautious was selected for the 2018 Form, Not Function: Quilt Art at the Carnegie, an annual juried exhibition of contemporary art quilts held at the Carnegie Center for Art and History in New Albany, Indiana,” she said. “It was on display May 25 through July 21.”

Kuster will have several pieces of her artwork in a fibers art show set for Oct. 29 through Jan. 5 at the William F. Laman Library in North Little Rock. Rachel Trusty of Russellville, one of Kuster’s former students who now teaches at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton, will curate that show.

“At the present, I have not entered any other competitions, but I am always looking into the latest calls for entries to see what might be a good fit for my work,” Kuster said.

“My plans are to retire from UCA in May. I have many, many ideas and directions for my art and look forward to more focus time in my ‘loom room’ studio,” she said.

“I plan to do lots of hanging out with my husband as his new fishing buddy,” she said, laughing. “And who knows — this fly-fishing may begin to influence my art and open up new venues for exhibitions.”

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