If you want something done right, do it yourself–and that’s exactly what elementary art teacher and Illinois State University graduate student Nikki Bussan did. Bussan has written, illustrated, and published a collection of children’s art history books to supplement her elementary art classroom and diversify its curriculum.
Since she was a child growing up in the small town of Prairie City, Bussan has had a passion for education, the arts, and creativity. She earned her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Monmouth College in 2001 and is now enrolled in Illinois State’s master’s in art education program.
For the past four years, Bussan has been an elementary art teacher for Bloomington Public School District 87. There Bussan noticed the lack of equal representation of minority groups in art history books, specifically those meant for children.
“We’re all taught art history with ‘the great’ artists, who are usually white males, even though anyone can be a great artist,” said Bussan.
It was when she struggled to find a children’s book for her class on the culture and artwork of ancient Egypt that Bussan decided enough was enough. In February, she published her first book in the collection, A Little Mud from the Nile. Bussan self-published this title, along with all of her other books, through Kindle Direct Publishing’s self-publishing services on Amazon.
When creating the pictures for the book, Bussan kept several key points in mind. “I did all the illustrations in black and white, but I made sure that the water from the Nile was blue and the silt was a reddish-brown clay color because I wanted the river and the pottery to stand out and take center stage in the book,” said Bussan.
Bussan has also published three other books, each story representing a particular period in art history and containing different morals and lessons to be learned. These books include A Little Basket for Ho-sa-gowwa, which is about taking care of one’s friends and respecting nature, and A Little Home in Harlem, which is about following one’s dreams.
Bussan was inspired to write A Little Home in Harlem after teaching her class about the Harlem Renaissance using a booklet of activities that she received from Illinois State alum and fellow art teacher Jordan DeWilde, M.S. ’16.
“It got my wheels turning, and then when I realized it was the 100th anniversary of the Harlem Renaissance, I knew I had to write about it,” said Bussan.
Seeing the books in print has been a dream come true for Bussan. “When I saw my first book out and I actually held it, it was unreal,” said Bussan. “It had been a long time in the making and was something I had wanted to do forever. It took some time to really hit me, but I was so excited.”
Most recently, Bussan published A Little Chalk on the Walk. This book is about staying positive and using the arts to find joy through creative expression during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. It features illustration ideas and 30 blank pages for children to draw on.
“I wanted the kids to be able to share something about themselves, especially with everything they’ve been through. So I created the sketchbook in the back of the book along with questions about this time in history so that they can express themselves and really be creative,” said Bussan.
Bussan has received support along her creative journey, including a grant from DJR Tax Services of Bloomington and business owner Diane Ryon, who donated funds to help cover the cost of books and art supplies for Bussan’s classroom. In addition, Jeff Geringer ’92, M.S. ’01, the newly retired principal of Bent Elementary School, donated A Little Mud from the Nile to all of the District 87 elementary schools. Bussan then went on to donate the rest of her series to those schools as well.
Bussan’s family was also instrumental in the creation of the books, specifically her daughter, Brooke, who contributed to A Little Basket for Ho-sa-gowwa, as well as her students to whom she dedicated A Little Home in Harlem.
“It’s the best feeling knowing I’m helping my students find their voices through art, and to see them growing in their confidence is so rewarding,” said Bussan. “They inspire me every day.”
Bussan has gained so much from writing the books as well. “Writing books has been a tool for me to be able to better my teaching, and I’ve learned a ton from doing my own research,” said Bussan. “I feel like I can bring so much more to my students now because I did that.”
Bussan is focused on the school year ahead, both in her own classroom and as a student at Illinois State. And she has been impressed with the University and its art program. For example, during the Foundations of Art course, Bussan made a decision about art history that will continue to be a driving point in both her writing and teaching careers.
“I realized that you can’t change history, but you can change the way you teach it,” said Bussan.
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