Listening to Jo-Anne Kirkman talk about art can be heady stuff.

She jumps quicker than a frog from the Chinese concept of "ch'i energy flowing from your furnace and coming out of your brush" to a discussion of Renaissance shading and cross-hatching before comparing the artistic process to a Navajo philosophy that "you think, then you plan, then you do and then you reflect."

When you realize Kirkman's audience includes 650 kids a week, ages 8 through 11, at Orono Intermediate School, you can see why the National Art Education Association recently awarded her the 2011 Minnesota Art Educator of the Year Award at a ceremony in Seattle.

Growing up on the Iron Range in Virginia in the '60s, Kirkman never would have guessed she was heading down a path toward such lofty honors. A lefthander, she struggled with the rigid penmanship lessons of the era -- not to mention the righthanded scissors in school.

"I never did well in art because all we did was color in the ditto sheets of the Virgin Mary, who always terrified me because, in her plaster of Paris statues, she was always standing barefoot on a serpent."

Her father, a traveling Keebler cookie salesman, believed Minnesota kids should spend summers in the woods. So the day that school let out, they loaded the car and headed to their log cabin with no electricity on Lake 14.

"Those summer days collecting and sorting pine cones were my happiest," she said. "And that's why I became pretty good at doing art."

Reading Fyodor Dostoevsky's "Notes from the Underground," at the College of St. Catherine in the '70s vaulted her into a career as an artist, which included a scary studio space in the downtown Minneapolis basement below Nate's Clothing shop. Now married to a lawyer with two grown kids, she's building a studio above a sauna at their lake place near Ely. The multipaneled social commentaries she paints, she says, are too controversial to show the kids.

Kirkwood has taught college and high school art but loves working with third-, fourth- and fifth-graders best.

"In middle school, they start worrying about what people think and in high school, it's all cliques," Kirkman said. "At this age, they're not fearful -- they are brave."

In recent years, her students have tackled themes from Japanese art to ancient Greece. Right now, they're walking around the woods near their Long Lake school, jotting down what they see and hear and then using Ojibwe and Lakota natural themes adopted from the people who once inhabited the area and translating their ideas on paper moccasins.

That's when they're not making thousands of origami swans to raise money for Japanese tsunami relief or riffing on the Chinese Year of the Rabbit theme.

"My deal is to get the kids thinking about visualizing their ideas and making choices about how to make those ideas come across to people," she said. "It's complex and often times overwhelming with 100 questions at one time. But that's what art education should be."