When Director of Visual and Performing Arts Matthew Neylon attended the 2017-2018 session at School for Art Leaders at Crystal Bridges, he met former Disney illustrator Niki Stewart, who immediately became a friend.

When he returned to MV, he shared his experience with Upper School Art Instructor Mariana Depetris, who explored how she might integrate Stewart’s experience, expertise, and knowledge into the work we do at Mount Vernon. Depetris invited Stewart to visit the School for two days to conduct a variety of Visual Journaling workshops for students and faculty.

Prior to weaving visual note taking through classroom experiences and faculty instruction, Stewart presented a TED-talk about the story of her life – a crooked path. She went to college to fulfill her dream of being an animator, and upon emerging with her BFA in Illustration degree from Ringling College of Art and Design, she found herself working for Disney, as a costumer. Through a succession of a variety of roles there (see below), she finally landed her dream job as an animator on the Pocahontas film. Ironically, it wasn’t the dream job she thought it would be and realized how much she enjoyed other aspects of art and design. What she learned, however, is to continue to follow your dreams and you may just find yourself down a different path. The one that was intended for you all along.

Visual Note Taking

  • Thinking through many angles and ideas
  • Connecting thoughts with words and pictures
  • Offering space to make learning visible

Using simple images to synthesize content and demonstrate understanding comes naturally to students. Kids learn to draw before they write, and pictures are how they make sense of the world. The purpose of the entire Niki Stewart series was to increase observational skills/visual literacy in our students and to apply visual synthesis techniques for teachers.

Upper School Humanities teacher Dr. Michael Griffin reflects, “Niki Stewart visited my class — “Superheroes: The American Gods” — on the afternoon of Thursday, January 31. Stewart introduced students to a particular technique of visual analysis called “Interview with a Portrait.” Students learned a protocol that relied on asking questions to get at a deeper interpretation of art, ultimately showing that how you analyze art can be a deeply personal, imaginative affair. I was excited that she was able to visit my class because we were reading a novel-length comic by Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross, Marvels (1994). Ross’s art is deeply influenced by the illustrations of Norman Rockwell and the technique of portraiture plays a significant role in Marvels. Overall, Stewart’s visit was a success, and I wish she could have visited more class periods.”

Middle School Literature teacher Maggie Menkus shares, “I went to Nikki’s workshop, and I plan to teach Sketchnoting to my sixth graders for their current unit of study, The Odyssey.

Upper School students share feedback about their experience:

Niki Stewart: Experience

Chief Engagement Officer at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Opening team member, actively participating in building the museum, both physically and programmatically. Overall focus on creating outstanding guest experiences through meaningful engagement with the museum’s collections, architecture, and natural surroundings. 

Associate Curator of Education: Scholastic Programs at The John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art

Managed all scholastic programming for the museum complex. Designed and delivered all programming for teachers and students including school tours, professional development programs, and educator resource guides. Trained and assessed school docents.

Entertainment, Costuming, YES Programs, Disney Institute, Disney Cruise Line, Disney Design Group at the Walk Disney Company

Character Show Artist, Disney Design Group: Created One-of-a-Kind and Limited Edition character watches and merchandise.

Assistant Manager of Program Development, Disney Cruise Line: Opening team cast member of the Disney Wonder, built at the Fincantieri Shipyard in Marghera, Italy. Hired, trained, and coached an international crew of youth facilitators from over many countries. Designed programs for children and teens. Trained cast members to facilitate all programs. Supported many phases of the ship’s construction.

Senior Instructor, Trainer and Manager, The Disney Institute: Opening team cast member. Designed and facilitated 28 different programs in animation, entertainment, theme park history, storytelling, Disney Imagineering, and theater. Trained and coached cast members to facilitate all programs. 

Senior Facilitator and Trainer, Disney’s Youth Education Series: Designed, trained, and delivered 10 programs for the youth education series.

Entertainment Costumer, Walt Disney World: Designed, constructed, and maintained costumes for all shows and parades in the Magic Kingdom.

Direct the vision, strategic design, and development of all visitor engagement initiatives, manage the Interpretation and Exhibitions departments, and lead New Project Development. Launch and oversee the development of major new initiatives, concepts, and physical sites that further the Museum’s mission through arts-centered learning and art making. Oversee the continuous assessment and evaluation of educational programming and exhibitions.