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The RETIRED ART TEACHER



Tom Prestopnik

Retired art instructor Tom Prestopnik stays active as a roadie for the tribute band McCartney Mania. His vast collection of vinyl LPs and 45 rpm records number in the tens of thousands. JOHN BIONDO PHOTO

BY DEBRA MAGRANN

After 31 years of teaching art in Martin County, Tom Prestopnik says he took his watch off and never had a reason to put it back on. “It was the best job in the world. I tell that to everyone who will listen,” he says. But since retiring, he has gone in many new directions, journaling his adventures.

A member of the Florida Art Educational Association, he has attended every annual conference, even in retirement. A keynote speaker and friend, Professor David Y. Chang of Florida International University in Miami, presents a workshop with a slideshow of France yearly.

Having visited Vincent van Gogh’s birthplace in the Netherlands in 2000, Prestopnik’s desire was to attend an art tour in France, walking in the footsteps of the Impressionists, painting and sketching in the same locations. Finally, the time was right in 2012 with Chang as the guide.

“There were 13 of us; 12 females, mostly in their 20s, and me. They probably thought I was too old to keep up,” Prestopnik says of himself, “but the gals complained about their feet hurting from too much walking.”

Prestopnik stood on the hallowed ground that van Gogh once trod when he painted fields of wheat dotted with crows two months before his death. At Auvers-sur-Oise, Prestopnik painted his own version: Wheat Fields — No Crows.

His journal entry reflects the emotion he felt there:

“This is a day that I’ll remember for a long time. We were all set up with easels and paints and painted…for about three hours. Tears in my eyes all day and not because my easel blew over and my canvas landed in the mud, or because of the high winds. Most of you know of my admiration of Van Gogh and his passion for his art. This was a special day. Just thought you should know. T.”

Prestopnik attended art school following his time in the Air Force, joining the service because he didn’t know what to do with his life, but knowing that being a starving artist wasn’t it. While on a double date, he compared notes with a girl who had a college class on designing bulletin boards. “I can do that,” he thought, so after the military he attended the State University College at Buffalo where he trained to be an artist in design, technical drawing and studio arts.

While there, he learned printmaking (lithography, etching and silk-screening) showing and selling work at the famed Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo, N.Y., and besting his professors in competitions.

Stationed in England in 1963, Prestopnik saw the Beatles in concert before anyone in the United States even knew who they were — getting in for free. Before returning to the states, he sent his brother their records, who in turn contacted a friend at a radio station, WPTR, in Albany, N.Y., to tip him off about the band that would usher in the British invasion.

Retirement does not apply to this rock ‘n’ roll enthusiast. He keeps busy as a roadie for the tribute band, McCartney Mania, being dubbed as their spiritual adviser, doing most of the publicity, videos and promo photos. He is also organizing a reunion of Air Force buddies who get together every two years. In his spare time, he plans gallery shows at the Court House Cultural Center for the Arts Council of Martin County including the Marvin S. Cone High School Juried Art Show, which he has hung for the last 12 years.

A highlight of his teaching career was being selected as Secondary Art Educator of the Year by the Florida Art Educational Association in 2003. A personally rewarding aspect was teaching a sixth-grader at Murray Middle School in Stuart. “It was obvious to me the first time I laid eyes on him that he was very talented,” Prestopnik says of author/illustrator phenom, Tony DiTerlizzi.

DiTerlizzi’s formative years spent in Prestopnik’s art classes continued from middle school on to South Fork High School where Prestopnik transferred. Their relationship continues to flourish as DiTerlizzi returns to his hometown as often as Prestopnik can schedule him at speaking engagements for the Arts Council. His breakout book, The Spider and the Fly, which became a New York Times best-seller, received the 2003 Caldecott Honor Medal. George Lucas Studios tapped him to write a compilation of the Star Wars saga, adding that to the many projects in DiTerlizzi’s portfolio.



TOM PRESTOPNIK

Age: 74
Family: his 99 year-old mother, Suzy, whom he visits every August; wife, Dee; two grown children: daughter, Jill, 43, and son, Paul, 39.
Background: Grew up in Little Falls N.Y., on the Mohawk River; joined the Air Force in 1960; earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in art education from the State University College at Buffalo; moved to Florida in 1971 and worked for General Development Corp. during its boom time.
Why I chose my profession: It came naturally. I could still do art in my free time while teaching students and have summers off.
What inspires me: My family, meeting rock performers and spending time at art museums.
Something people don’t know about me: I make my own beer, collect oddball memorabilia (mostly autographs) and own a vast collection of vinyl albums.