The Man, The Myth, The Legend: Saying Goodbye to Mr. Lawrence

It’s the 1980s and soon to be retired Oyster River High School Art Teacher Timothy Lawrene is making bank. As a young guy working for himself as a freelance artist and earning tons of money, Lawrence said he felt like he had everyone’s dream job. However despite all of the benefits, he was miserable. It wouldn’t be until years later that he would find out why.

Next semester, the ORHS art department isn’t going to sound the same. Lawrence, known amongst students and faculty as a passionate artist and teacher who isn’t afraid to speak his mind, will be retiring after 26 years of doing what he loves most. It is without a doubt that the ORHS community will be mourning this loss, so before we get teary eyed, let us join Lawrence as he guides us in a walk down memory lane.

Growing up attending a private Catholic school in New York, Lawrence used his art skills and passion for the craft to wreak havoc, drawing demons that he knew the nuns wouldn’t be fond of. “I used it for evil,” joked Lawrence. “I try to use it for good now.” 

While it’s no doubt that Lawrence is using his skills for good, his mischievous side shows through when it comes to teaching students a lesson. Lawrence’s former graduate intern and teaching colleague of 16 years, Maria Rosi, recounts a story that demonstrates Lawrence’s in class personality. “This is a classic: Mr. Lawrence was sick and tired of his pottery students not signing the bottom of their pottery pieces. One day he decided to make an example of one unfortunate student with the goal of making a strong impression on the others so they would always remember to sign their work. He brought a gorgeous pottery piece out of the kiln room, I think it was a teapot, and asked his class to listen up. With dramatic flair, he showed them there was no name on the bottom of it and dropped it on the floor, smashing it. I’ve heard and told this story so many times that, at this point, it’s the stuff of legend. I don’t know if I was even there. I imagine I was and witnessed the looks of shock on everyone’s faces and then the dawning realization on Mr. Lawrence’s face when he learned that the artist of the unlucky teapot was none other than Mrs. Bilynsky!”

Before he was smashing his colleague’s artwork at ORHS, Lawrence was attending various universities. In his eight years in higher education, Lawrence attended three colleges: the Art Institute of Boston, Pratt Institute, and the University of New Hampshire. “I had amazing teachers,” said Lawrence. “Chris Van Allsburg, Maurice Sendak, I had some pretty heavy hitters as teachers and they were teaching during their most successful years so they didn’t need the money. They were teaching for the love of it.” 

Before transferring to UNH, Lawrence was studying to get his Bachelors in Fine Arts at Pratt Institute. “Everything was absolutely remarkable about my experience at Pratt. The only thing was it was located in a very violent neighborhood. After you get stabbed a couple times you start thinking to yourself, ‘you know I think I need to move somewhere else.’ I came up to Maine to visit a friend and one week later I had my car packed and I had moved to Kittery.”

Attending Pratt opened Lawrence up to an abundance of opportunities. Some of which, he had no idea would come to be of any magnitude. “I was doing a lot of freelance art and working for advertising agencies and I met this guy named Jake Burton one day. I had to meet him in his garage in Burlington, Vermont to do a painting of a pitbull with spit flying out of his mouth and his teeth showing and I asked, ‘what is this going to be used for?’ He said it’s going to be used for a snowboard. I asked, ‘what the hell is a snowboard?’ He said it was like a surfboard for the snow and my buddy and I both started laughing. We were thinking, ‘what an idiot- does he really think this is going to work?’ But I did the job and I went to Vermont and I met Jake Burton, who was inventing snowboards at the time,” said Lawrence. “I did Jake Burton’s first snowboard.”

While freelancing is some artists’ dream, it was around this time when Lawrence began feeling like something was missing. “Artwork can be a very selfish and individual thing,” said Lawrence. “Money didn’t make me happy and I felt like that was the only thing I was doing. I didn’t feel like I was helping anyone other than myself.” Realizing that he had to rethink his whole life, Lawrence found himself at the last chance hotel. 

The last chance hotel, as Lawrence referred to it, is better known as the Seacoast Learning Collaborative, a non profit school in Rochester New Hampshire that aids students who come from challenging backgrounds. “If they didn’t make it there they went to the youth detention center after that so that was the last chance hotel,” said Lawrence. “Once I started to teach these kids I realized, this is what I want to do. One way or another I need to be in a classroom with kids, I really dig their energy. Teaching was the only job where I felt like I was actually accomplishing something or doing something important.”

While Lawrence enjoyed teaching, he decided that he didn’t want to continue teaching every subject, he only wanted to teach art. Lawrence went back to school to get his masters degree and become a certified art teacher. He soon found himself with an internship at ORHS and it wasn’t long before he was employed. “When I got to Oyster River I thought to myself ‘oh damn, why would you go anywhere else?’ You don’t leave Oyster River to teach somewhere else. You come here and think, ‘thank god.’ So I put my roots down and I stayed. I’ve been the happiest guy ever for the last 26 years,” said Lawrence. “Working at ORHS is the first certified teaching job I’ve had. And the only one I’ve ever wanted.”

Teaching at the Seacoast Learning Collaborative and acting as a guidance counselor to kids who had experienced the worst helped shape the kind of art teacher the ORHS staff and students know him to be. “I admire his relationships with his students,” said Rosi. “He sees his students as humans first and students second and that kind of sincere connection is what teaching is all about. Teaching high school involves much more than just the curriculum we are trained and educated for. Adolescence is a dynamic time in one’s life, and ups and downs are inevitable. Mr. Lawrence develops trusting relationships with his students and has helped many of them navigate the tumultuousness of high school.”

Abigail Orringer (‘21), who had Lawrence as a teacher for Drawing and Painting I and II, Advanced Art, and currently has him for Senior Studio, spoke to how Lawrence acts as a teacher. “Honestly, having Mr. Lawrence as one of my art teachers has been an amazing experience, both as his student and as a fellow artist,” said Orringer. “He’s open and friendly to everyone. He’s always encouraging his students and is always pushing them to experiment with art and step out of their comfort zones. His classes have always been a lot of fun, and they’ve been one of the highlights of being in high school.”

Lawrence does his best to encourage students and push them to get out of their comfort zone, including helping them have their artwork displayed in local galleries and begin selling their work. “Last year I started doing more professional development so that my kids could start exhibiting their work in a gallery and start making money and they did,” said Lawrence. “I’ve been exhibiting my work for a long time and have turned on a few of my kids to the gallery. I started the season off last year as the first and only show at the Kittery Art Association Gallery because of the pandemic. My show was February first to March first and it was the only show that year. I had a solo wall and sold all of my pieces. The only people who sold all of their work were from Oyster River.”

Maddie Hoppler (‘20), a former student who had her first showing at an art gallery in December 2019 and has made hundreds of dollars from exhibiting since, spoke to how Lawrence played a role in her career as an artist. “My Oyster River High School experience would not have been complete if I never took a class with Mr. Lawrence. His classes really evolved around each student becoming successful in their own unique way in regards to art,” said Hoppler. “Not only did Mr Lawrence strengthen my skills in painting and drawing, but helped me establish myself as an artist in the community. He encouraged me to sell and exhibit my work at the Kittery Art Association. He guided me through the entire process of preparing for gallery shows by teaching me how to tediously matt and frame my work and how to price my work. Without his help and encouragement I would not be the artist I am today and I am so eternally grateful for his guidance.” 

Lawrence’s efforts to help his students become the best artists they can be can be seen in more than his student’s exhibits; they can be seen on the big screen. “One of my former students is turning down work from Disney because he’s too busy,” said Lawrence. “He did the backgrounds for Adventure Time and the second season of The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack. He bought himself a massive piece of property in Vermont and started a school for artists. Another former student is the Vice President of National Geographic and another made all of the models for Men In Black 3. Robert Eggers, who did the movies The Witch and The Lighthouse is a former student of mine as well.”

Maybe we’ll see another big time artist come out of ORHS in the near future. Who knows, since Lawrence’s current students have been accepted into the top art institutions in the country. “Mr. Lawrence has helped me improve my art so much throughout this year, and I’m extremely grateful for all the guidance he’s provided me as an artist,” said Orringer.

It’s not just the students he’s reached; Rosi commented on how Lawrence has taught her to be a better teacher. “I’ve learned many things from Mr. Lawrence over the years and a few very important lessons during our first year together,” said Rosi. “I remember being amazed at how he started a class and, after greeting his students and assessing where they were at, decided right then and there what the best plan was for that class period. He would allow his students to participate in the planning process and so they were invested from the start. Before observing this I thought I would always have to have every detail of every day planned completely. He may have had a plan but part of his plan was to allow for flexibility and student buy-in. This lesson has been very valuable for me over the years.” 

Part of Lawrence’s ability to bring out the best in his students and colleagues may be due to his light hearted attitude and contagious laugh. “Mr. Lawrence laughs A LOT,” said Rosi. “I’m really going to miss hearing his laughter echo through the department. Even right now, while I’m home teaching remotely and he is in school teaching in person, I can sometimes hear his laughter in the background of my class meetings and it makes me smile.”

Rosi continued by saying what she’s going to miss once Lawrence has retired. “What I will miss most about teaching with Mr. Lawrence will be the routine of a typical, ordinary day, greeting each other in the morning, maybe chatting and carrying on about something for a while. The day starts to flow during the first two periods and the three of us, Mrs. B included, organically flow through the three main teaching spaces, often on the move, crossing each other’s classes, stopping to chat or assist with each other’s students. We pride ourselves in being non-territorial. Over the years we often threatened, sometimes following through, changing places in the middle of class. I might transfer into Mr. Lawrence’s drawing class and he into my Intro to Art class. We enjoy these moments of light-hearted spontaneity, students included.”

So where is Lawrence going? What will he be pursuing after his departure? Lawrence joked that the reason for his retirement is his newest art endeavour. “Lately I’ve been carving granite which is why I’ve got to retire because it takes so damn long,” said Lawrence. “I did a 300 pound harbor seal that’s in my front bushes, I’ve got a 500 pound Icarus that I built into my wall, and I made a sink for my upstairs bathroom. My wife wants a tub so I’m going to build her a tub. It may take two years but she’s going to get a granite tub.”

While retirement may be something a good majority of people long for and look forward to, Lawrence is soaking up every second of in person interaction he has with the ORHS students and staff. “We’ve got a really amazing faculty. As much as I diss them now and then, they’re really a remarkable group of people. I don’t think I’ve ever been miserable to come to this building,” said Lawrence. “I love the students here. I love the people I work with. I adore Mrs. Bilynsky and Ms. Rosi. I’m leaving because of Mrs. Bilynsky. I couldn’t fathom being here without her. We started together and now we’re leaving together.”

While discussing his plans for life after retirement, Lawrence got choked up as he thought about not going to school on the first day of the upcoming fall semester. “The first day of school is going to come around next semester and I bet you I’m going to be the most miserable guy on the planet and I’m going to think that that was the worst decision of my life. I’m probably going to be a basket case on the first day of school if I’m not going to be here with my kids next year. I’m going to have to call Mrs. Bylinsky and we’re going to have to go for a long walk because it’s going to be a really crappy day,” said Lawrence. “But now I have to go practice what I preach.”