Heart for Art

teacher has been inspiring Altoona kids for 28 years

Haley Wright, photos by Andrea Paulseth

PULLING THE RIGHT STRINGS. Donna Walther of Pederson Elementary in Altoona has been known for decorating her classroom with large-scale pieces of art, including a harp that magically plays when students work hard.
PULLING THE RIGHT STRINGS. Donna Walther of Pederson Elementary in Altoona has been known for decorating her classroom with large-scale pieces of art, including a harp that magically plays when students work hard.

Donna Walther, an art teacher for the past 28 years at Pederson Elementary School in Altoona  and perhaps best known for her memorable large-scale creations and beautiful and unique classroom, is ready to begin a new project: life in retirement.

Thankfully for her students and the local community, retirement for Walther means continuing to create art and continuing to teach. “After retiring, I will pursue my own art. I love making Ukrainian eggs, working with stained glass, making cement creations, painting, creating paper sculptures,” she said. “I want to learn more about the arts of the world and still teach. Art will always be a big part of my life.”

The realization that being an art teacher was her calling came to Walther while she was just a kid. “When I was in fourth grade, we had to write about what we wanted to be when we grew up,” she said. “My favorite subject in school was always art. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be an art teacher.”

She comes from a family of very creative people. Her parents built a 60-foot windmill playhouse for Walther and her four siblings while they were growing up. “This cool place allowed us to imagine, play, and be creative,” she said. “I knew I would need to be in a job where I could be creative and could do things to help others bring out their creativity.”

After graduating from UW-Stevens Point, Walther was offered a job as an art teacher by both the Eau Claire and Altoona school districts on the same day. She opted for Altoona’s smaller school district – it reminded her of her hometown of Clintonville, Wisconsin – and has taught art there ever since.

Walther says her favorite thing about teaching art to elementary school students is their excitement and enthusiasm in learning.  “They always enter the art room anxious to see what they are going to learn and create,” she said. “Elementary students don’t have a preconceived notion of what they are capable of doing.  They don’t know they have limitations. They are capable of creating things beyond their years given the right inspiration.”

She says one of the most rewarding part of teaching over the past nearly 30 years has been to have former students come back to tell her they still have a project they completed for her class years ago, and that they still remember what they learned in creating the project.

Walther credits her unique and memorable classroom – which has been decorated with large-scale pieces of art, including a castle that surrounded the doorway – in part to having had fantastic parent volunteers throughout the years who shared her vision of fostering students’ imaginations. “Students know that when they are doing their jobs and following classroom rules, magical things happen in the art room,” Walther said. “The dragon’s heart may light up, her crystal ball might start changing colors, and the magic harp might start playing. It magically turns on when students are working hard.”

She said hanging up student art has also been a way to inspire students by helping them realize the importance and rewards of hard work. Walther reports that students have placed every year they have entered the Wisconsin Junior Duck Stamp Contest, and this year the third graders won four out of the top nine awards in their age group.

There is no doubt that even in retirement, Donna Walther will continue to inspire this community with her creations, passion, and enthusiasm for art.

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