Lena Waltner deserves to be named the mother of Mennonite art education. She was the first full time art professor at a North American Mennonite College. She designed the first curriculum for an art degree at that college and her students became widely known within national and international art circles. Art students were her only children and she devoted her life to them.
Lena Waltner was born near Marion, South Dakota in 1895. She was educated in Freeman Junior College in South Dakota, Bethel College in Kansas, summer art institutes at the University of Iowa and earned an MA in art from Colorado State University. Her thesis on designing an art curriculum was adopted by the State of South Dakota for their kindergarten through grade 12 art education program.
After four years of teaching at Sioux Falls, Freeman Junior, and Yankton colleges in South Dakota, she accepted the challenge to teach art full time at Bethel College. It is remarkable that in 1934, at the height of the Depression, Lena and the college planned a new degree in art. Previous art instructors at Bethel had taught part time and only offered courses as electives.
Her curriculum included courses in painting, drawing, pottery, weaving and art education. Almost immediately the college began to offer a minor in art and considered plans for a major. Due to financial realities of the time, the art major was put on hold for a number of years.
Lena Walter emphasized a comprehensive view of art. She wrote, “The idea that art and artists are confined to art galleries is antiquated; instead, art must function in daily living. Art is expressed in everything that is done … It includes, therefore, vastly more than painting and sculpture.” Outside the classroom she devoted considerable energy to landscape design, developing plans and supervising the building of her own home, creating table service on a potter’s wheel and filling her walls with original art. Posters and reproductions were not her style.
A commitment to art research sent her to Paris, Cairo, Jerusalem, Beirut, Mexico City, the native peoples of South Dakota and the American South West. In the 1950s she was invited to Colombia, South America to lead summer workshops in painting and weaving. That trip offered another opportunity to research South American fabric design.
Throughout her career she had to contend with colleagues, churches and other audiences that did not appreciate art or understand how visual learning might be a valid field of serious study. Her struggles would be familiar with anyone who has worked in an academic arts program: space, materials, curriculum requirements and the general impression that the arts are not essential for life but luxury. According to her colleagues, she was very professional in how she could “hold her own” during contentious faculty discussions.
Lena took considerable satisfaction in the success of her former students. A significant number became professors of art at a variety of colleges and universities as well as designers for major publishing houses. Galleries in many cities, including New York, Milwaukee, Chicago, Basel and Berlin, have exhibited the work of her students.
Waltner was a member of the American Association of University Women, Western Art Association, Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, served as the president of the Kansas State Art Teachers' Association and editor of its publication, Art Scoop.
Lena retired in 1960 and remained active on the Bethel Campus. She was instrumental in designing the new art studios and galleries in the Fine Arts Center that was completed in 1965.
Even after all of these achievements, her greatest sense self-worth sprang from the art education program. She wrote, “The most important product of an art program is a properly educated child…to see the unfolding of intellectual, emotional and mental capacities of students.”
Surely the Lord would say of Lena Waltner, “Well done thou good and faithful servant.”
The Living Mirror: Archaeology of Our Faith