Next fall, the ORHS art department will have big shoes to fill after the retirement of Tracy Bilynsky: a compassionate and dedicated art teacher who is a phenomenal artist and role model for her students.
Her contributions over the past 26 years at ORHS have made big impacts on her students and colleagues. Bilysky has consistently demonstrated how much she truly cares about others through her actions. She is always willing to take the time to talk to a struggling student, lend a helping hand on an art piece, and will drop anything for her colleagues. While she will miss the community focused art department and enthusiastic students, she looks forward to being able to travel, craft, and spend time in nature next year.
Bilynsky grew up in Webster, New York, where her love for art developed. Her sister was creative, and her dad loved woodworking and was a craftsman, but she was introduced to art by her aunt and cousin, who were artists.
“I was kind of shy and always enjoyed drawing. It was very relaxing for me. I liked to copy cartoons when I was little, and I would sit with my aunt and my cousin and when they’d draw something, I’d try to draw it. It was a fun activity for me.”
Although she was an active kid, spending lots of her days outside in nature, she also enjoyed quiet and relaxing things, such as art. After developing a passion for art as a young child, “I took art in high school, like people do. I went to school for art education, not for fine art. I knew right away that I wanted to be a teacher when I was in high school and worked for the town in the summer camps. I always enjoyed that and had fun playing games with the kids, doing arts and crafts with the kids, organizing special events, and I just always had fun. So, when I thought about teaching I couldn’t imagine teaching math or science or anything, but I was drawn toward art,” she said.
After attending Buffalo State, which had the largest art education department in the country at the time, Bilynsky was prepared to teach many classes. “In art education, you don’t get to specialize because you never know, when a job comes up, what it’s going to be. You have to have drawing, painting, pottery, sculpture, jewelry experience, and more.”
Bilynsky got lots of practice being adaptable, working in various school districts after college, which was needed for her field. She started out teaching 7th and 8th grade in Rochester, New York, and then taught at a high school and had to teach jewelry making and video production, which she had never done previously. At another high school, she started teaching photography, and also started a jewelry making program there.
Her versatile experiences set her up for a successful long-term career at Oyster River. For a few years she jumped around to various schools due to many 1-year positions being available, but after her husband got a job in the Seacoast area in 1990, she moved here permanently and started a family. When her kids were two and four, in the fall of 1995, she figured it was a good time to start working again. She took a part-time position at ORHS, starting out teaching one or two class periods a semester, and gradually increased to working full time.
Since taking the job here, she’s taught many classes including Introduction to Art, Introduction to Sculpture, Photography, and she said Pottery sticks out as a favorite. “There’s something interesting about all of the classes. I think pottery for me is fun, because we’re all working together. Maybe it’s because of the room it’s in; everyone sits around a long table, and there’s a lot of communication in the class, and a lot of discussions about anything in school, or in somebody’s life, so it gets to be a really close-knit group.”
Dora Bowden (‘21) shared her pottery experience with Bilynsky. “I had Ms. Bilynsky for pottery and went into the class interested in art, but mainly took it for a credit for the semester. I left the class knowing how to actually make something interesting and was impressed with the skills I had learned,”
Whether it’s sitting around the pottery table, or advising a student on a painting, Bilynsky has had an impact on so many students. Kaila Lambiasi (‘20) took Introduction to Art and Photography with Bilynsky her sophomore year, and was a familiar face in the art department since. “I definitely haven’t ever had as much respect for another teacher. Not only did she urge me to go above and beyond in her classes with ease, she helped motivate me to keep up all my grades. I knew if I wasn’t doing well in a different class, I wouldn’t be able to spend lunch or a free period doing what I wanted to in the Art Department,” said Lambiasi. Additionally, Bilynsky helped Lambiasi realize she wanted to do more with photography, and potentially become an art teacher later in life.
Tim Lawrence, fellow art teacher who started at ORHS the same year she did and is also retiring this year, added on to the impact she’s made on students. “Just being around her makes you a better person. I’ve seen the way kids adore her over the years […] She’s everyone’s mother in the art department. When people are having a bad day, whether you have her in class or not, she’ll sit and chat with you about whatever you need to chat about. Anybody who comes into contact with her she has an impact on. We’ve got students from 25 years ago who miss her like it was yesterday.”
However, students are not the only ones Bilynsky has had an impact on. Along the way, she’s taught her colleagues many valuable lessons. Lawrence said, “I’ve learned every lesson from her. She came into this job already having taught for quite a few years. She just had so many skills already, and I went in as a pretty new teacher. So, thank God I had Mrs. B to ask every question.”
Maria Rosi, fellow art teacher who has been working with Bilynsky for the past 16 years, explained that as a first year teacher, she felt as though she couldn’t spend enough time with her students. Between having to clean up from one activity, potentially move work spaces, and set up for her next class, she was upset at her lack of time to build relationships. Bilynsky saw this and said, “Maria, there’s plenty of time to clean later, but you’ll never get time back with your students.” Reflecting on that piece of advice, Rosi said, “It was such a simple statement, but it reminded me that although I had to live with the mess, the relationships I’d build with my students were much more important than the physical mess of our teaching space.”
This story itself shows how valuable developing student connections is for Bilynsky, and Rosi reiterated that. “Over the years I’ve seen the relationships she’s built with her students, and many students have said to me over the years that they think of Mrs. B as a mom. She cares about them like a mother would, and that says it all.”
Many know that Bilynsky is a caring individual, however some may not know just how artistically talented she is. She may be too humble to say this herself, but, “she’s a phenomenal painter, but she doesn’t give herself enough credit. I would show people drawings she did, and they somehow would look at her differently when they saw these drawings. She doesn’t do a lot of drawing in class in front of people, but they don’t know the skills this woman has,” said Lawrence. Bilynsky may not do much art outside of the classroom, but she has recently gotten into quilting, and enjoys crafting.
Bilynsky described that she develops her own art as she develops assignments, and works alongside the students, with much of her art beginning as demonstrations. Being able to see her complete her work in real-time is very beneficial to students and their success. “She works really hard, and she completes all of her work to a high level of quality and craftsmanship, and I respect the fact that she models that for everyone around her. So, when her students are producing work of a high caliber, it’s because they’re watching Mrs. B do it,” shared Rosi.
While she’s left her mark on others and their talents, ORHS has also had an impact on her life. After looking back on her time here, Bilynsky will miss many things. “I’ll definitely miss my colleagues and seeing them every day […] They’ll drop everything if you need help and lots of times you don’t even need to ask them, they just can see you need help. They’re really supportive, creative, and excellent at what they do. I’ve learned a lot from them.”
And as much as she’ll miss her colleagues, they will miss her equally as much. “I’ll miss everything about her. We haven’t had an argument in 26 years. Our relationship is like brother and sister, but I argue with my brothers and sisters,” said Lawrence.
However, she got into this career largely due to her love for working with kids, and she’ll miss her students greatly. She said, “The kids are great. I’m not talking about just talented students, but the students in general. They really try their hardest. I love when kids are like ‘I just wanna get this class over with, I’m bad at art,’[…] and they end up taking two or three more art classes in high school. It’s fun to turn kids on to their talents and potential in art.”
A big thing that sticks out to people when asked about Bilynsky is her kindness for all. “She’s just the kindest woman on the planet, and she’ll never change,” said Lawrence.
She will leave big shoes to be filled next year, and Lambiasi summarized that. “She is the best role model to have as a high school student, and creates the most comfortable environment for her classes […] Future ORHS students will surely be missing out when she retires.”
As far as Bilynsky’s plans in the coming years, she said, “my husband’s already retired, so I plan just kind of doing things around the house. We like hiking, and we hope to travel. My daughter’s in Chicago, and my son’s in France, so hopefully when things open up we can travel. Our favorite thing is before dinner having a bonfire, where we sit and relax by the fire.”
It’s clear that Bilynsky has left an impact on so many people in and out of the art room throughout the years, and she’s enjoyed herself while doing it. She said, “it’s just gone really fast. It wouldn’t have gone so fast if I didn’t enjoy it so much.”
Photos by Kaila Lambiasi