Veteran teacher finds ‘best job ever’ at McPolin
"Ms. DebVinci." That’s what the kids at McPolin Elementary call Debra Kulig, their elementary visual arts (EVA) teacher. That’s because she explained to her kindergarten through 5th grade students on the first day of class that she and Leonardo DaVinci had at least three things in common: they are both Italian (Kulig’s grandparents were from Italy); they both loved pizza and pasta; and their favorite subjects were art and science.
"I love my job here," said the veteran educator, in just her second year as the McPolin EVA teacher. "I keep telling my husband this is the best job I’ve ever had and I’ve been a teacher for 40 years."
EVA teachers are relatively new to the Park City school district. Funded by a grant from the Park City Education Foundation and guided by a lesson plan developed at the Kimball Art Center, Kulig and her counterparts at Trailside and Parley’s Park elementary schools bring art projects into the classroom once a month.
At McPolin, Kulig introduces her art students to a variety of techniques.
"I especially like mixed media art," she said. "Last December we did sculpture using Gaudi’s towers in Barcelona, Spain as inspiration. I collected plastic bottles, paper towel rolls and other recycled materials for the towers. Then we decorated them with pom-poms, sequins and glitter. They were absolutely gorgeous.
"This December we’re drawing Utah landscapes using oil pastels in unexpected colors like purple and orange. Then we’re smearing them with baby oil. It’s an unusual technique and that’s the ‘magic.’ In every class I want to add that element of magic to it. It’s fun and it encourages students to think outside the box."
The job is a perfect fit for Kulig, whose passion for teaching art to children has driven her since she moved west to Sacramento, California from Washington, D.C. in the early 1990s.
Growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania, Kulig remembers ice fishing with her father and summer swims in Lake Erie. After high school, she was undecided when she enrolled at Mercyhurst College in Erie.
"I didn’t know what I wanted to do," she recalled. "I loved art but that wasn’t considered cool in the 1970s. Instead, I majored in food and nutrition science."
Kulig went on to take her M.S. degree in food and nutrition science at The Pennsylvania State University. She met her husband, Michael, while a student there.
"We share common values and interests: faith, family, football and food," she said.
They also share two grown children, Allison and Ryan.
Settled in the Virginia suburbs of Washington, D.C. from 1980 to 1992, Kulig immersed
herself in food and nutrition research and teaching at the Georgetown University Medical Center and, later, through her own nutrition consulting firm. At Georgetown, she conducted studies in zinc metabolism and the effects of taste and smell disorders on food and nutrition intake.
In 1992, the family uprooted and moved across the country to Sacramento, California, where Michael was a partner in KPMG, a large accounting firm. There, raising young children, Kulig began a new chapter when she returned to a long neglected love.
"I decided to pursue my passion for art by volunteering at the Crocker Art Museum in Sacramento," she said.
Kulig was a volunteer there for 10 years and went on to teach art at several private schools in the Sacramento area before the family made another major move in 2012.
"When my husband retired, we decided to move to Park City and reunite the family," Kulig said.
Their daughter, Allison, was already here, following in her mother’s footsteps as a 4th grade teacher at a private school in Draper, near Salt Lake City. Soon after the move, their son Ryan joined them.
"We love the four seasons here, being outside, strolling up and down Main Street or taking in a Deer Valley concert," said Kulig.
She thought she was retired, but couldn’t resist when the opportunity to teach art again presented itself.
"I love art, I can talk about it for hours," she said with enthusiasm.
Kulig insists all works of art tell a story.
"I love placing artworks into historical perspective, discovering the stories they tell and then packaging that information into a narrative to educate others."
There’s never a dull moment at McPolin, Kulig said.
"It’s so much fun walking down the halls, getting hugs from the kids. When we do classes, some of them say, ‘this is the best day of my life.’"
Kulig reflects on the ultimate meaning of her life’s work.
"Some people think the job of an art teacher is to teach kids how to draw the vase on the table. That’s not it. The real job is to give every child the confidence to do the project and also enable them to talk about the art in a studio or a gallery, recognizing its story and value. When they can do that, I’ve done my job. I don’t ever see myself not doing this."
Steve Phillips is a Park City-based writer and actor. Send your profile comments and suggestions to him at email@example.com
Favorite activities: gardening, snowshoeing, cooking, travel, Main Street strolls, volunteering at Sundance Film Festival
Favorite foods: Pasta and pizza, organic and fresh foods
Favorite reading: Historical fiction. "I just got through the Ken Follett ‘Century’ trilogy."
Favorite performers/music: Elvis, Sinatra, Diana Krall, Rolling Stones
Bucket list: visit all the national parks and all 50 states
Animal companions: Cinnamon Toast, an 11-year-old Pug
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Sian Heder’s “CODA,” one of the Sundance Film Festival’s opening-day films, follows a 17-year-old high school student who is torn between pursuing her love of music and staying to help her hearing-impaired family’s fishing business.