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Derry Area art teacher takes photography to a new level

| Tuesday, May 14, 2013, 9:08 p.m.
Derry Area art teacher Richard McWherter controls his electronic palette using a stylus as a “virtual reality” paintbrush to create his expressionistic photographs. This image titled “Carolina Morning” will be on display at The Panza Gallery in Millvale during the Significant & Sublime exhibit from May 11 to June 1. The group exhibit is designed to highlight the critical role of art teachers in public education.

Artist Richard McWherter uses a keen eye to add brushstrokes to his paintings, giving them what he calls an “expressionistic” look.

The brush, however, is a stylus, and the canvas is an electronic palette and screen.

McWherter, an art teacher at Derry Area High School, began digitally enhancing his photographs using layers of small, short strokes over layers with longer, broader strokes.

“It's just like I'm painting without getting messy,” he said, as he “paints” the photograph to share the spirit and the feeling of the moment when it was taken.

His work is now a part of an exhibit, “Significant and Sublime,” featuring work by 23 public school teachers from across southwestern Pennsylvania.

The exhibit opened Saturday and is on display through June 1 at Panza Gallery in Millvale.

Rachel Klipa, who organized and helped jury the exhibit, said McWherter's work with digital art draws in the viewer and enhances the image.

“It's so serene and beautiful,” she said of the piece, “Carolina Morning,” taken when McWherter was visiting South Carolina.

“You can see some of the digital strokes that he's made. It just works,” she said.

Klipa, a Spanish teacher for West Mifflin Area, organized the exhibit as a part of her senior project to earn her second bachelor's degree in art history from Carlow University.

She wanted to highlight the importance of the arts in public schools and education by showcasing teachers' work and their impact on students.

“Art is really good for helping critical thinking and becoming better problem solvers,” she said. “I want people to think about education in broader terms ... there's so many different ways to learn.”

McWherter's piece was chosen from 40 submitted from school districts in Allegheny, Westmoreland, Washington, Beaver and Butler counties.

“I always thought of myself as an artist even though my tool was a camera,” he said.

As the art teacher at Derry Area High School, McWherter teaches about 120 students per day and has incorporated some of the digital technology into classes, such as 3D animation, digital fantasy painting, digital special effects and commercial art.

In 2000, he wrote a grant that allowed the school district to purchase equipment and software for those classes.

Principal Kathy Perry said she appreciates McWherter's efforts to reach out to students.

“He's tailoring our courses to the students' needs,” she said.

Despite tightening budgets, Derry Area has tried to maintain art and music as part of each student's education, Perry said.

“We're trying to cut corners in other ways,” she said.

McWherter said digital art allows students more freedom to try new things without fear of “ruining” a project.

“They're intimidated by it, but it's like Etch A Sketch, it can be wiped clean,” he said. “That fear is wiped away.”

Perry said McWherter's artistic talent is recognized through the exhibit.

“He is one of the most creative people I've ever met, and he allows the students to be creative,” she said.

McWherter prints his “tactual dreamscape photographs,” to be displayed but said ideally he would like to use flat-panel screens one day like English pop artist David Hockney, who opened one exhibit using iPads to display each work.

Klipa agreed that would be the best medium to showcase the bright colors and depth.

“The picture he sent and the submission just don't do it justice at all,” she said.

Most often his work is of landscapes, but not the “postcard pictures” of local scenes such as the Laurel Highlands. McWherter was inspired by photographer Ansel Adams and has been taking photographs for decades but began digitally enhancing them in 2010.

He said his work is sometimes dismissed by traditional photographers or traditional painters, as it falls somewhere in between.

As with “Carolina Morning,” he said he gives consideration to the composition as both a photograph and a painting.

“I like it as a photograph,” he said. “There's nothing wrong with it, but I always thought, ‘What can I bring to it as an artist?'”

Stacey Federoff is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-836-6660 or

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