Students bustled around the long room at Carl Stuart Middle School Thursday morning, hot-gluing hardware together and making penguin feet out of puzzle pieces. Art teacher Becky Thornton meandered between groups, giving permission to use certain supplies and steering students to look at their project in a new way.

"Do you want to use these colors?" she asked one group. The base of their project was covered in primary-colored popsicle sticks and they had gold, purple and green Mardi Gras beads on the side.

"You need to make it work together. Pick a main color and go from there," she said, pointing to a silver hardware nut. "I like the shape of this. You could use silver as a base and go from there if you want."

The students were making sculptures out of materials from home and in the classroom. Some sculptures were easy to identify, others were a little more obscure on Thursday morning.

"Mrs. Thornton, can I paint this can white?" one student asked.

"Well, what kind of white? Stark white or more of a bone white? Bring me a written design from your group and we’ll talk about it."

Thornton has been teaching for 39 years, but she said she was surprised when she was named Arkansas Art Educator of the Year this year. In fact, when the president of the Arkansas Art Educators organization called her to tell her the good news, she initially thought he was going to ask her for a favor.

"I teach middle school art," Thornton said. "Usually it is a high school teacher who gets this honor."

Carl Stuart Principal Harvey Benton told the Conway Public School Board of Education that Thornton cares for her students and other art educators across the state hold her in high esteem.

"I was able to go to this awards ceremony and just see the love they have for her and how proud the are of what she’s doing," Benton said.

Thornton said she tries to get her students involved in art activities outside of the classroom. Her students have participated in Toad Suck Daze, encourage younger artists and help paint murals around town. Thornton said she hopes this gives them a sense of accomplishment and strengthens their personal ties to Conway.

"I truly believe art is the window to the soul," Thornton told the school board. "The more of these we can open and the more experiences we can give them, the better each of them are."

The walls in Thornton’s classroom are covered in art, very little of which is her own. She said she may have some of her own art out at the beginning of the year, but she likes to take it down as her students create things to put on the walls.

A few minutes before lunch, an alarm goes off on Thornton’s phone. Students scurry as they put their supplies away, making sure their workspaces are cleared and their projects safely stowed away where no one can harm them.

Thornton looks over the activity, talking about the goals she has for her students.

"I want them to come up with their own ideas. That’s why I don’t show them completed examples. I want them to think strange," she said. "Weird is good. We just have to focus it."

(Staff writer Angela Spencer can be reached by email at or by phone at 505-1212. To comment on this and other stories in the Log Cabin, log on to Send us your news at