From Los Angeles to Munich to Tokyo, Henry M. Gunn High School art teacher Mark Gleason’s work has been displayed in galleries across the world. Closer to home, though, Gleason is known by students for his humorous style of teaching and artistic skill.
Gleason has been an exhibited artist since the early 1980s, with galleries across the United States and various international locations displaying his work. Since 2003, he’s also been an art teacher at Gunn, where his unique background as a professional artist has enabled him to bring a higher level of instruction to students.
“If I see somebody else’s artwork and I say ‘I think you need to put more contrast in there, and maybe reduce the focus in the background,’ … I say that because I know,” Gleason said. “I do this for a living and know what I’m talking about.”
An artist from the very beginning, Gleason remembers spending time as a young child drawing animals with ballpoint pen on cardboard.
“I felt more comfortable with animals than with other people,” Gleason said. “I was naturally kind of shy. It was my mode of expression, my mode of communication. I just prefer to make pictures of things rather than necessarily engaging with others.”
Gleason’s interest in illustrating animals remains to this day. Throughout his art career, Gleason has focused on several species that he feels a special connection to, including wolves, coyotes and ravens. These animals all share a common identity as trickster animals, which are associated with causing mischief and chaos.
“I like trickster animals a lot,” Gleason said. “Any animals in mythology from different cultures that are smart and can fool you take on different shapes and stuff like that.”
Eager to develop his skills as an artist, Gleason took a variety of art classes in high school, including photography, ceramics and painting. He developed a particular interest in animation during this time.
“I thought, ‘Wow, what a cool way to bring my paintings to life,’” Gleason said.
When he arrived at Syracuse University in 1980 to study filmmaking, however, he found directing to be a highly bureaucratic experience that centered around management and organization. This realization prompted Gleason to transition his focus to illustration, which he found to be a more creative and independent process.
Still, though, Gleason felt as though his skills did not completely fit within the art world of his university.
“Artsy people thought my illustrations were too fine and fine arts people thought my art was a little too illustrative,” Gleason said.
After graduating, Gleason struggled to find a profession that he felt truly passionate about. For a while, he bounced between odd jobs, working as a graphic designer, bartender, DJ and illustrator for the New York Times Book Review. Seeking a more intriguing profession, Gleason took an interest test, leading him to reconsider the fields of medicine and teaching, which he had previously been interested in.
But lacking financial means to finance an education as a teacher, Gleason had to find alternative methods to advance his education. He eventually found a master’s program at the University of Bridgeport that allowed him to pay for his tuition by teaching high school during the day.
“At nine o’clock in the morning I was working as a substitute teacher, and my master’s classes all started at five o’clock at night,” Gleason said. “I got a lot of experience being in front of the class instead of paying to attend.”
After graduating with a Master’s of Science in Art Education, Gleason began teaching in Connecticut. He initially taught fashion illustration, utilizing his experience as an artist to guide his teaching.
Gleason’s career as an art teacher continued after moving to the Bay Area. After a brief stint at a Montessori middle school in San Mateo, Gleason found work at Gunn, where he immediately felt a sense of connection to the school, created by a welcoming administration and staff body.
“I was like, ‘This is the school that I’m gonna retire from. This is fantastic,’” Gleason said.
During his time at Gunn, Gleason has filled numerous roles for the art department, teaching classes ranging from photography to ceramics. His professional experience as an artist gives him the skills to teach a wide variety of subjects. Gleason has taught AP Art History, Art Spectrum, Graphic Design and AP 2-D Art and Design.
Known by his students for his relaxed and independent teaching style, Gleason said he always strives to create a conducive learning environment.
“He’s easygoing and laid back,” rising sophomore Sophia Kim said. “He lets us hang out outside. It’s nice how he explains the projects to us and then he gives us a lot of time to just figure it out.”
While Gleason encourages students to work with a high degree of independence, he also provides valuable guidance and advice based on personal experience, which students appreciate and benefit greatly from.
“If we didn’t know how to do something, he would come over and help you,” rising senior Paul McBurney said. “His help is really useful because he is an artist himself. He does his own art, makes his own paintings.”
Aside from starting his teaching career at Gunn, Gleason’s relocation to the West Coast further expanded his presence in galleries, starting in Los Angeles.
“I’ve always shown my work in art shows forever,” Gleason said. “It wasn’t until I moved out here in 2004 that a gallery in LA started showing me, and then other galleries in LA did and then other galleries nationally and globally.”
Gleason’s gallery exhibitions have evolved and grown over the years. Gleason’s initial showing in La Luz de Jesus gallery in Los Angeles helped to promote his work to a wider audience, in turn creating opportunities in other galleries.
Beyond a hobby, pastime or profession, Gleason views art as a method of creating a lasting legacy, he said.
“My stuff is out there. People have it,” Gleason said. “They’re enjoying it or they may hate it on the wall, whatever. But still, it’s like your work is on the wall. It has this sense of immortality.”