By J. Michael Kearsey


At last month’s Buckman Foundation fundraiser, Buckman Art and Sell, Fine Arts teacher Michael Simmons was one of the proudest faces of all, as the hallways and tables were adorned with works by his students from all grades.

Michael Simmons

Michael Simmons

Simmons, with his salt and pepper shock of hair and broad smile, has taught Art at Buckman Elementary for twenty-two years through the pitfalls of budget cuts, strikes, fundraisers, repurposed materials and cramped quarters. Through it all he has created an environment of productivity and joy in his classes that relate to the school’s current mission to collaborate with the classroom teachers to integrate arts into the core curriculum.

“Along with reading, writing and math, every child will dance, perform, sing and do art while they are here,” Simmons notes with enthusiasm. “The different departments have to work together on a constant design of props and sets for the many school plays, dance presentations and musical shows.”

It is no surprise that lack of funding has cut deeply into the Art, Theater, Dance and Music classes offered in the Portland School district, but since Buckman became an Arts Magnet School, it has attracted some of the best teachers in the city, state and nation.

Among them is Simmons, just named as the Elementary Art Educator of the Year in the 11 state Pacific Region of the National Art Education Association Elementary Division. He will fly to San Diego March 30 to accept the award and speak at the national convention of Art Educators. Several years ago he was cited as Oregon’s Art Teacher of the Year as well.

Buckman School has stood proudly at 16th and Pine for nearly 100 years. Toward the end of last century, it had fallen into disrepair with a lowered school population and families fleeing inner SE.

The school struggled to stay open and though continued participation by the neighborhood at its small but friendly public swimming pool kept city fathers (and mothers) involved, there was a change needed.

It came in 1989 when Buckman Elementary School was re-established as Buckman Arts Magnet Elementary School. That is how this needy stepchild of the school district moved forward to be one of Portland’s most sought-after K-5 schools, rated 22 points above the average for Elementary schools in the city – and it has after school marimba classes! It is a school where parents actually move into the neighborhood to have their children receive such a special public education.

Simmons brought his teaching talents to Buckman in 1991. A graduate of West Chester University with a master in Arts Education from Florida International, he was drawn to move to Oregon after summer visits to Welches, where his great grandparents created the town from a land grant in 1880.

One of Buckman’s best-loved teachers by parents and students alike, Simmons teaches all disciplines: painting in all mediums, drawing, clay hand building, constructing, printmaking and sculpture.

“All five grades plus kindergarten go to work in the art room with a ‘scope and sequential’ curriculum that connects with other classes,” he explained. “The themes and materials will change each year: when the overall theme was ‘motion and movement’ we designed carnival and circus projects of all kinds.”

Along with the success of his classes at Buckman, Simmons is also an adjunct professor at Portland State, teaching a class in how to bring fine arts experience to the elementary school levels.

Though he works in many mediums, his favorite technique over the years has been working with clay in the Japanese art of Raku pottery: infusing glazes with natural elements like leaves, wood and sawdust to bring unexpected color combinations to his work.  He credits master salt-glaze ceramist Daniel Stevens with changing the focus of his career.

Simmons’ stunning personal work includes bas-relief sculptures, vases, masks, sconces, mosaic tile head busts and birdbaths. Many of these examples of his work were on display at the recent school fundraiser and the pieces mix whimsy, iridescent colors and altered forms from the moon, sun and stars.

His next major show will be at the annual exhibition for the Oregon Potters Association’s Ceramic Showcase on May 2 – 4 at the Oregon Convention Center. His work can be seen online at

Buckman’s programs and Michael Simmons’ Art Department have brought accolades to the school including an Outstanding rating from the Oregon Department of Education.

The best comment on this “Art for All” philosophy came from an unidentified student: “The arts help you be happy and you need to be happy to learn.”


Who could say more?