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Teacher marries science with art

Phil Fader sees himself as a balanced man.

He says he functions from the center of his brain, and he sees science and art as one and the same. While the two subjects may seem like opposites to most people, Fader sees them as exercises in observation and creation.

So, for him, the switch from science teacher to art teacher was a lateral move that combines his interest in creating with his love for children.

"I tell my kids that everything that they see in nature is art," Fader said. "Everything in nature is a masterpiece, a work of art."

The Fox Chapel Middle School art teacher gave up teaching sixth-grade science at Powell Middle School last spring. He has no regrets. In fact, he chose his new position as an art teacher with as much excitement and enthusiasm as a child who views the world with awe, wonder and curiosity.

"I thought that I'd better start doing something that I really love to do," Fader said. "Here, I'm submersed in art, and I'm learning about how to teach it, too."

Whenever he took career tests, Fader always scored right down the middle, he said. He never showed a preference for being overly logical and practical or for being overly artistic and philosophical. He is equally talented and interested in both areas, he said.

"I've always had this kind of dilemma," he said. "I'm interested in everything, I like everything, and I think everything is interesting.

"Trying to choose a career was very difficult for me, because I wanted to be everything. But I chose teaching because I love the kids."

However, his outstanding artistic ability is indisputable, and his interest in the environment and the unseen chemical relationships that exist are evident in his pen-and-ink sketches, sculptures and paintings. He has a feel for human nature, and his obsession with creating is an outlet for what he describes as his low self-image.

"I strive for perfection in everything that I do," Fader said. "But I never make it because I know that I could have always done a better job."

The walls in his classroom are covered with his artwork. A series of pen-and-ink drawings that someday will be part of a series of children's books that he is working on covers one wall. A life-size plaster of Paris sculpture of a dinosaur foot hangs above his desk, and a 3- by 5-foot oil painting of goldfish swimming among plants hangs on another wall.

"I love nature and animals, and I especially love dinosaurs," Fader said. "To be a good artist, you have to learn about the things you're trying to create."

After studying the dynamics of a beetle, he designed a flying vehicle and created one out of clay. The body of a beetle is heavy, like the body of a car, but the wing design allows it to fly, Fader said.

Before he begins drawing animals, he first studies their skeletal and muscular structures. Then the drawings truly look realistic. Sometimes he adds unrealistic characteristics to give the animals personality, he said. A grandfather frog in his children's books is almost true to life, except for the rolls of fat around his midsection.

"You know, he's got that kind of pot belly look that wise old grandfathers sometimes get."

Understanding chemistry and physical science is a way to understand art, too, Fader said. When mixing glazes for pottery, he relies on his chemistry background, he said, and when his students ask him why they must work out air bubbles in the clay before they begin a project, Fader can explain to them exactly why air bubbles can ruin a piece of pottery.

"Air expands when it gets hot," he said. "It's plain and simple, but it is also a scientific principle."

Fader's teaching philosophy has not changed that much since he began teaching art. In fact, his new position supports his belief that education should indulge his students' creative expression. Every student is not going to be a great artist, he said. But each student is allowed to explore his or her talents.

"No one fails in here," Fader said. "If they try, they get a good grade. I don't grade according to how good a project turns out."

Fader taught elementary education in West Palm Beach before he taught science at Powell Middle. He earned a bachelor's degree at Florida Atlantic University. He lived in Hawaii for two years and carved black coral for jewelry design. He also studied architectural drafting in Michigan.

But he gave that up to teach.

Fader's students respect his artistic ability and enjoy his sense of humor. His work inspires some of the students to do their best.

"He's definitely an inspiration to me," said Vincent Schuyler, an eighth-grader in Fader's advanced art class. "His stuff is just so good. Look at it," he said.

"But mostly he's a lot of fun because he lets us work on what we want," said Tyler D'Andrea, also an advanced art student.

"He gives us freedom, and I think that motivates us."

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