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Teaching through visual arts

It looks pretty simple – just a handful of classic-painting replicas on the wall of the Tahoe Truckee High School library. But the framed subjects are meant to teach everything from psychology to geometry.

The man behind the art is part-time Northstar resident Dr. Milton D. Heifetz, who, along with his wife, Betsy, wanted a way to inspire education through visual arts.

“We realized that the education system has been having problems, and we wanted to do something about it,” said Heifetz, who has a diverse background in medicine and the arts.



The 85-year-old Heifetz is the former head of neurosurgery at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and has published several texts on astronomy, ethics in medicine and aesthetics. He continues to invent instruments for neurosurgery and he is a visiting professor at Harvard.

Heifetz and his wife wanted to set up an education and visual arts program through the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but the couple found better luck at Sierra Nevada College.



“We’ve had this idea smoldering for the past 10 to 15 years,” Heifetz said.

So the couple funded the multi-discipline program through the Incline Village college. This semester the project is in a trial period. Next year the exhibits will begin a four-year rotation through Sierra Nevada College and seven high schools, including Truckee High.

The project uses eight art categories – 15-17th century masters, 19th-20th century masters, surrealism, visions of nature, American realism, masters of light and shadow, shapes and colors, and social commentary.

Heifetz wanted to make the project so there is no burden on teachers; he provides the lesson plan for each subject and the desired outcome.

With English, for example, teachers ask students to compile a list of words that relate to emotion. The lists are combined, and students approach the art exhibit and use those words to describe their reaction to the art.

The outcome for students, Heifetz said, is an expansion of vocabulary, personal emotional awareness and awareness of the emotional impact of art.

Education through osmosis

Truckee High, which is currently hosting “visions of nature,” is the only California school participating in the program so far.

Teachers at Truckee High have not integrated the project into their curriculum yet, but Principal Mike Finney said educators have expressed a great deal of interest.

“[Heifetz] came in and presented the program,” Finney said. “To me, it sounded like a marvelous way to expose children to art history.”

Regardless of whether teachers incorporate the project into their curriculum, Heifetz said there’s still room for students to learn.

“Even if the students just walk past it, by osmosis they’re going to know something about it,” Heifetz said. “If you walk by a Botticelli for a semester, you’re going to learn something about it.”

The program is cost effective – Heifetz estimated the outlay is approximately $1,100 to outfit one school forever – and he’d like to get another set of eight schools on board.

The project, he said, is a creative way to circumvent budget challenges in public schooling. Just this month, Tahoe Truckee Unified had to deplete next year’s budget by $1.4 million.

“My wife and I would be happy to lay out the whole program,” Heifetz said. “All they would have to do is pick up the cost – and that’s not a lot of money. It’s one shot – forever.”

As for the exhibit at Truckee High, librarian Jan Polochko has seen students’ reactions to the art first-hand.

“[The students] will come through and pick their favorite,” Polochko said, adding, “It just makes the library look so classy.”

To find out more about the program, contact Dr. Heifetz at 546-0215.


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