Craig woman merges love for art with passion for teaching |

Craig woman merges love for art with passion for teaching

Bridget Manley

Deb Coniff displays a dish she made as she stands in the basement of her Craig home. Coniff has been teaching art off and on since she was in her teens and with more free time on her hands now, she hopes to eventually make it a full-time occupation.

When Deb Coniff talks about art, she doesn't use esoteric terms or complicated jargon.

Instead, she talks about what she believes art is really like — personal, expressive and sometimes, unpredictable.

"I'll sit down with same-sized pieces of clay to do a set of mugs or bowls, and each one, the clay kind of says, 'No, I want to do this,'" said Coniff, 53.

"And so, I let it. …. I have more of a conversation than a dictatorship."

She's helped others discover art over the decades by offering lessons and, she believes most importantly, encouragement.

Her Craig home bears witness to her longstanding passion for the pursuit.

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The bowls, mugs and dishes she's made fill a bookcase in her basement, which she hopes to eventually convert into a studio where she can teach art full time.

Coniff doesn't subscribe to the theory that art belongs in a lofty realm far removed from everyday life.

Life, she said, is what art is all about.

"The mechanics of art anyone can do," she said.

"But, the actual art comes from getting your inner self out onto the paper or into the medium that you're using. … And that has to do with life."

An artist is born

Art has been part of Coniff's life for as long as she could remember.

"I've just always drawn," she said. "My earliest memory was getting chastised in kindergarten for drawing instead of doing my work."

She began teaching art as a 16-year-old high school student in Cleburne, Texas, about 30 miles south of Fort Worth.

"This was rural Texas in the '70s," she said. "Art wasn't a big priority then. … And I'd already had everything in junior high (at another school district) that they had in the high school.

"So they kind of ran out of things to do with me," she said.

She was allowed to teach art in the area grade school, which had no art classes until then.

Coniff continued to study art, first at Texas Tech University, then at the University of Kansas, and finally at Stephen F. Austin State University in Nacogdoches, Texas, where in 1993 she earned her bachelor's of fine arts and a teaching certificate.

She also majored in biology, and her ability to switch gears between science and art was cultivated through her experience as a "lefty," she said.

"If you're a left-handed person, you have to grow up ambidextrous," she said, adding that this also helped shape her mind.

"I can really feel myself switching between the analytical brain and the creative brain," she said.

Ultimately, having a foot in both the airy realms of art and the grounded nature of science impacted her other great love: education.

When she began teaching in public schools, she used art to help students grasp other subjects like math or literature, "and that way it brought those things out of that one classroom into the rest of the world," she said.

Those who can, teach

Her teaching career eventually led her to a short stint at Craig Middle School from 1999 to 2000.

There, while she was teaching physical science in place of a teacher who had fallen ill, she met fellow educator David Morris, who currently teaches language arts and drama to seventh- and eighth-graders.

"One day I mentioned, 'You know I've always wanted to play with clay,'" he said. "And she said, 'Why don't you come and take a class with me?'"

But Morris kept putting it off. Finally, after about three years, Coniff gave him an ultimatum.

"I said, 'You know, put up or shut up,'" she said, laughing.

Morris took her up on the offer and under her tutelage, he learned how to craft bowls, then mugs, then clay figurines. Coniff eventually helped him learn how to market and sell his creations, he said.

He credits her for giving him the nudge he needed to achieve a longtime goal.

"She pushed me — she pushed me pretty hard," he said. "She really talked me into trying something I maybe never would have tried."

Like art, teaching is intrinsic in Coniff's life, with roots reaching back to her childhood.

As a girl, her family moved frequently, and "I was always the new kid," she said.

She learned that if she could amass knowledge she could share with others, and acceptance usually followed, she said.

"I guess that was my defense mechanism as a child," she said.

Coniff continued to lead an almost nomadic lifestyle, moving 34 times through her life, but that period of her life ended when she moved to Craig nearly 14 years ago.

"Of all the places I've moved and the different countries I've been in, I like Craig, Colorado, better than any place I've ever been," she said.

Coniff's life is now firmly rooted in Craig, and she has no plans on leaving anytime soon, she said.

It's home not only for herself but also for her husband, Marty Coniff, and her daughter, Holly, 15, a Moffat County High School freshman.

Coniff has other family scattered across the country — her son, Jordan, 27, who's serving in the U.S. Army at Fort Campbell, Ken., her daughter Miranda, 31, of Houston, and her granddaughter, Sarah, 13.

Art remains the other constant in Coniff's life — personal, expressive, unpredictable and, in her eyes, fulfilling.

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“The actual art comes from getting your inner self out onto the paper or into the medium that you’re using. And that has to do with life.”

— Craig resident Deb Coniff about art, a subject she’s taught since she was about 16 years old.

Calling all artists

Craig resident and longtime artist Deb Coniff is offering weekly lessons in drawing, painting, ceramics and sculpture. Classes cost $40 per month, plus the cost of supplies, and are open to all ages and ability levels. For more information, contact Coniff at 620-2583.

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