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Artist, former LAHS teacher Garoian inspired a generation of 'misfits'

Ellie Van Houtte/Town Crier
Charles Garoian, left, who taught art at Los Altos High School for 17 years, reunites with former students at his gallery exhibition, part of “Project Los Altos.”

He wasn’t supposed to get hired. When Charles Garoian arrived at Los Altos High School in 1969 for an interview armed with his portfolio of creative work, he was a bit flummoxed when the principal explained that he was actually looking for a tennis coach.

“I can play tennis, but I’m not that good,” said Garoian in his interview. “I just want to teach art.”

With a few more words and a portfolio review by the outgoing art teacher, Garoian was hired. Thus began his 17-year tenure at Los Altos High, which resulted in many more hits than misses, particularly for the students he unabashedly calls the “misfits.”

Reuniting with students

Fast-forward 43 years. Garoian, now a professor of art education at Pennsylvania State University with decades of performance-art experience, papers and awards under his belt, returns to Los Altos as one of nine featured artists in “Project Los Altos: SFMOMA in the Silicon Valley,” which opened last week and runs through March.

Before the grand unveiling at 359 State St. of a video of stills that chronicled the most memorable performance his Los Altos High students created, Garoian sifted through Facebook to locate former students and invite them to a reunion viewing.

Hugs, smiles and a few double takes cascaded forth as a dozen former students and colleagues trickled into Garoian’s exhibit space. Conversation flowed with ease. Except for the grayer and/or diminished hair, it was nearly as if they were frozen in time, simply returning to a routine conversation after class. As students shared stories of the paths they had followed with Garoian and his wife, Sherrie – who remembers spending many hours with students in their family’s home – it was clear that Garoian had been more than a teacher to them.

“I hated high school,” said Jeff Loughridge, Class of 1971, who enrolled in sculpture and ceramics classes taught by Garoian during his inaugural years at Los Altos High.

Loughridge said Garoian’s impact was rooted in his ability to challenge students to think “beyond their level.”

“I think you improved my life drastically, but ruined my life for college,” Loughridge humorously told Garoian.

Decades into his career, Loughridge has enjoyed success as art director for a national magazine and owner of his own graphic design business.

Learning experiences that lasted

Although somewhat unconventional or even wacky by some accounts, Garoian pushed his students to “flip the metaphors” through conceptual performance art.

Adrienne Levine, who graduated in 1985, recalls the time she sat behind the glass facade of a school trophy case with another classmate. Although she noted that doing homework would not normally warrant attention, when it took place in an unusual public context, it became a noteworthy focal point. By following Garoian’s encouragement to dare to do things differently, she grew as an artist. Such experiences spurred her to major in photography at New York University.

Larkspur architect Mark Sandoval enrolled in Garoian’s class because he wanted to learn to draw. Instead of teaching him, Garoian turned the tables and informed Sandoval that learning to draw was in his own hands.

“He made an enormous difference in my life by taking me under his wing to show me what the visual arts were,” Sandoval said.

Not every project went without a hitch. Sandoval and Garoian can now laugh about a “disastrous” group mural painting project.

“I learned that you can’t put artists together unless they’ve agreed to be collaborators,” Garoian said of his mistake of assigning his best art students to a project that resulted in more practice in the politics of negotiation than in art. “It remained unfinished but still looked good.”

“Sometimes the student is the teacher,” Garoian said. “I’m not interested in art as an academic subject, but as an experiment.”

Another near-miss was a choreographed homecoming parade performance appropriately titled “Drill Team.” When a group of students approached him with the idea for a homecoming prank in 1973, Garoian challenged them to think deeper.

After a late-night practice on the empty streets of Los Altos, his art students arrived at the annual homecoming parade ready to infiltrate as 40 blue-collar workers marching with military precision as they cranked hand drills into pieces of wood – a play on the words “drill team.”

Unsettled by the surprise entrance in the parade, Principal Dude Angius attempted to sidetrack the group and placed the team directly behind a collection of Porsches, adding even more irony to their creation as they marched through downtown. The performance elicited lots of laughter and was so successful that the principal asked Garoian to continue the tradition. He refused the offer.

“Some things have to happen organically or they lose their power,” he said.

Garoian left Silicon Valley behind when he moved to Penn State to continue his teaching career, but his influence remained.

“This guy was the one who made the biggest impact on me,” said Alan “Eye Bone” Eglington, a cartoonist, conceptual artist and musician who graduated in 1971. “He taught us what else you could do in life.”

For a full guide to "Project Los Altos: SFMOMA in the Silicon Valley, " click here.

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