Driven by a passion to teach visual literacy to his students and his own desire to be a lifelong learner, John Rhett has discovered his calling through his position as an art professor at Houghton College.
Rhett has always been interested in art, but never imagined he would become a teacher. After graduating from Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) in 1979 with a degree in painting and printmaking, he began working part-time as an artist, focusing on painting and drawing.
A series of providential events opened the door for Rhett to teach at the University of Richmond as a sabbatical replacement. Rhett couldn’t believe he was being paid to talk about the art he was so passionate about. After his time as an interim was complete, he decided to pursue his master’s degree so he could continue teaching.
While working on his master’s degree, a conversation with another student (a Houghton alum- very important!) in the program led him to apply for a position as an art professor at Houghton College
Rhett has taught various art courses during his time at Houghton and has had the joy of seeing students gain a real grasp of the complexities of formal and expressive creation. “Seeing the lights come on” for his students never gets old, he said.
The opportunity Rhett has to study human cultural accomplishment across centuries and continents is another of joy of his position at Houghton. Rhett considers it a gift to be able to study as a part of his job expectations.
“I have stood in front of the greatest paintings by Vermeer, walked with students past the Parthenon, painted alongside a Chinese calligrapher and danced with the Masai in the Tanzanian countryside – all as an extension of my role as an art professor,” Rhett said.
“But I realize if these experiences simply stop with me, and do not serve to help me understand and then communicate our incredibly rich and diverse human experience to students, then I will have failed. As a professor at an institution such as Houghton, our privileges are as the talents from the parable: They must be multiplied, and offered up,” he said.
In the classroom, Rhett faces the challenge of navigating between the two poles of truth and beauty in his teaching. He recognizes that in the church, art has served a role where it is expected to elevate, edify and instruct. However, he also recognizes art is a reflection of the human condition and with that come works of art that some may consider unacceptable for study at a Christian institution.e
“Which subjects as artists do we leave off of the table? Which aspects of our condition, or our fallenness, are we forbidden to consider? As viewers we are often confronted by work of candid brutality and squalor, which for some is an attempt at a more honest ‘truth’ than work of simple beauty and grace,” Rhett said.
“This is one of the greatest challenges for a teacher at a Christian college – for a teacher that is a believer – how to educate, expose and equip young minds to make their way through a visual culture that is increasingly shrill, coarse and provocative,” he said.
Teaching students how to navigate through the arts with discernment is a responsibility Rhett does not take lightly. After 25 years at Houghton, he continues to pour into the lives of students, taking them on a journey toward visual literacy.
For more information on Houghton College’s approach to education and beauty visit Houghton.edu.