La Center high losing patron of the arts

Don Landes-McCullough retiring after three decades of teaching at school

By Tyler Graf, Columbian county government reporter

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LA CENTER — The halls of La Center High School are like wings of an eclectic museum, where artwork from various periods, of different styles and motifs, mingle.

There are presidential photos shot by Pulitzer Prize winner David Hume Kennerly in a hallway. There's a sarcophagus mask from Egypt behind a Plexiglas case in the library. And, hanging atop the school's front entrance, a massive sculpture representing the solar system expands across the ceiling.

Art and drama teacher Don Landes-McCullough is the school's archivist, its curator and its biggest cheerleader.

But after a 30-year teaching career, he's calling it quits. Landes-McCullough will retire at the end of the school year.

Looking closely at a model of the HMS Victory — the oldest naval vessel still in commission, the replica of which is displayed in the school's library — Landes-McCullough reflected on a decades-spanning career spent bringing students closer to art.

"There's so much detail in here," he said, referencing the art displays in the library, and elsewhere in the school, "because everything here was chosen for a reason."

For decades, Landes-McCullough was the point person for making those decisions. In 2005, he contributed $13,500 worth of art to the school. A lifelong art lover, self-taught in various media, those who know him say he isn't above spending his own time or money on artistic pursuits.

He's twice traveled to Italy to study marble carving. He regularly writes his own plays — including his latest, "Prairie Matinee," melding improv, scripted theater and videotaped segments. And he's taken students to glass sculpture conventions in Seattle.

That's plenty of balls to have in the air — and Landes-McCullough doesn't even teach juggling.

Teaching both drama and art, Landes-McCullough rarely has had time to sit still, but he concedes, "They can cross paths."

"If I ever have a moment, though, I'm very ADHD. I cannot stop; I cannot sit," he said. "So even though I was in the middle of just intense work on ("Prairie Matinee"), I had no time at all. But I still fit it in, because I can't sit still."

Landes-McCullough's retirement will be spent at his art business, Splendid Season, and traveling to Italy, where he made friends during his previous art-based adventures there.

The retirement has reverberated outside the walls of the high school, with community members trying to start a scholarship endowment in his name.

La Center City Councilor Elizabeth Cervany is one of the community members pushing for the scholarship to take shape. However, before that happens, she and others will have to raise $10,000.

Cervany has known Landes-McCullough since she moved to La Center in 1992.

During the early 2000s, Landes-McCullough and Cervany helped organize the La Center Arts Festival, which brought various artists and craftsmen to the city, along with an estimated 2,500 visitors. Some of the artists were big names in their fields, including glass artists Dale Chihuly and Fritz Dreisbach, along with contemporary artist David Garcia.

"His passion is one of those contagious things that instills other people with excitement," Cervany said. "He's done some amazing things for such a small district. Even bigger schools don't have what it has."

The scholarship, $1,000 or $2,000 a year, would be awarded to students interested in pursuing the arts later in life. So far, Cervany and La Center resident Barbara Barnhart are the sole contributors to the fund.

Landes-McCullough said he didn't know about the scholarship endowment, but was flattered nonetheless. But it fits his goal: inspiring students to pursue creative lives outside of school.

His final project is intended to do just that. It will meld photography, costume design and theater.

Students are designing paper costumes centered on fairy tale themes. Actors will wear the costumes and be photographed in front of a backdrop as they act out a scene.

As part of the project, Landes-McCullough is teaching the students how to make prosthetics, so they can transform actors into strange-looking creatures. The end results — photographed scenes of wonder — will go into the students' professional portfolio.

With retirement looming, Landes-McCullough vows not to forget about art. For the guy who can't sit still, that's not in his nature.

"I think I was born doing art," he said. "It was just something I always did."