Bill Slack was there when the doors opened to a state-run high school dedicated to the arts, a first-of-its-kind vision of Gov. Rudy Perpich that became and is still very much a nurturing reality for talented teens.
Even weeks into that first school year in 1989, Slack knew his work and the efforts of others on behalf of the innovative tuition-free school were far from done.
Slack, focused and with a bearlike physical presence, watched a class perform an impromptu dance exercise on the lawn outside the Golden Valley building soon after inaugural classes ramped up.
“For now, I’m satisfied,” he yelled to the dancers, and with emphasis added, “For now.”
Later, he explained, “I’m trying to get them in the habit of understanding you should never be satisfied with anything,” calling those first two weeks “a test for all of us. … The students are a lot more flexible than we are.”
Slack, a visual arts instructor whose lifelong dedication to art was felt all across Minneapolis and reverberates in the generations to follow, died May 9 following kidney trouble. He was 62.
Slack was involved in the birth of the Perpich Center for Arts Education “because of his reputation of being an outstanding art teacher,” said Barbara Shin, who was principal at Andersen Elementary School in south Minneapolis and hired Slack there in 1992. “They collected, statewide, the best artists and teachers to open that school.”
Slack started teaching in the Minneapolis School District in 1986, and while at Andersen he also was a leading instructor at the Multicultural School housed there. Slack was teaching at Nellie Stone Johnson Elementary upon his retirement in 2005.
Shin recalled that Slack, a “very talented artist” as a master print maker, “had a commitment to educating all of the children. He worked very well with young students and high school children.”
Slack’s ability to connect with kids spawned a curriculum he called PYMP (Project Your Mind Power), an art exhibit in 2008 at Homewood Studios in north Minneapolis that tapped hip-hop and featured shoes, jackets, caps and other clothing plus sketches and drawings by young artists.
Linda Slack said that her brother was “always excited about whatever new community-based initiative he was working on to unify the unknown and emerging artists in the Twin Cities to highlight their talent and skills and claim their place in the unique cultural blend of the Twin Cities.”
In particular, she remembers him as “interested in opening the eyes of children to the world around them culturally through art using different mediums. The subject could be animals like ‘how a giraffe always sticks its neck out’ or wooden kalimbas — African thumb harps — made with Popsicle sticks.”
Seexeng Lee had Slack in fourth grade nearly 30 years ago at Wilder Elementary and credits him with setting him on a life’s course in art.
Lee, a Hmong refugee who immigrated to America as a child, came full circle and began teaching art in Minneapolis while Slack was still with the district.
“Without Mr. Slack’s guidance and support back when I couldn’t speak English,” said Lee, who now teaches at Minneapolis Edison High School, “I wouldn’t be who I am.”
Lee remembers Slack as “big, but so gentle, and with a big smile. He was always the first one to say hello. That to me was something, as a new arrival to this country. I embraced that.
“He was so passionate about the arts and so passionate for me. He did that for so many.”
Along with his sister Linda, Slack is survived by his wife, Janet; stepdaughter Kendra of Minneapolis; brother Fred of Akron, Ohio; and sister Pheobie of Akron. A memorial service is scheduled for 5 to 9 p.m. Friday at the Cremation Society of Minnesota Chapel, 4343 Nicollet Av. S., Minneapolis.
Paul Walsh • 612-673-4482