An island’s treasures

Alice Mendoza (left) and Kristin Tollefson are the latest in an illustrious line of Island Treasures. They’ll be feted on Feb. 23.  - Brad Camp/Staff Photo
Alice Mendoza (left) and Kristin Tollefson are the latest in an illustrious line of Island Treasures. They’ll be feted on Feb. 23.
— image credit: Brad Camp/Staff Photo

Alice Mendoza, Kristin Tollefson are honored for their service.

At a recent event, someone offered Alice Mendoza a congratulatory hug.

The next day, a bystander – the parent of one of Mendoza’s students – approached her to apologize for not joining in with more enthusiasm. He’d misunderstood what the kudos were for.

“I thought the person said, ‘Congratulations, you’re our island treasurer,’” the parent told her.

Artist Kristin Tollefson faced the same misunderstanding when she mentioned the award to a Seattle client, who offered muted congratulations before politely asking, “And what does that entail?”

As a prelude to their official dubbing on Feb. 23, the two women – Mendoza, a Wilkes Elementary teacher for 18 years, and Tollefson, a lifelong islander known for her public art installations around the Puget Sound – sat down in Mendoza’s classroom to discuss just that.

Each expressed a profound sense of honor at having been tapped for the award, presented annually to individuals who have made notable contributions to the arts or humanities on the island.

Modeled after the MacArthur Foundation’s Genius Fellowship Award, the selection process is community-based, one through which individuals anonymously submit nominations that are then reviewed by a panel of also-anonymous jurists.

“The Island Treasure award is a lovely recognition for us of living our passions,” Mendoza said.

But both she and Tollefson admitted a slight hesitation at assuming the mantle of treasure-hood. Mendoza pointed out just how many educators around the island are engaged in creative, innovative teaching. Her true moments of glory, she said, occur when former students return to pass along their accumulated knowledge to the current generation of students.

One recent example was the former student who, now a teacher, planned to model his social studies class on Mendoza’s hands-on, culturally immersive curriculum.

“That realization that something about you, something about us, when it comes back that way, really underscores the value of who we are, and what we’re able to do for people,” Mendoza said.

As if the cosmos stepped in to back Mendoza’s sentiment, Tollefson looked around and commented on a sense of déjà vu.

“I think this was my fifth grade classroom,” she said.

Tollefson said she’s had similar experiences to Mendoza, albeit in a different context. Recently, she got a phone call from the mother of a student who was admitted to Cornish College of the Arts and who’d spoken of the influence of Tollefson’s work.

“The treasure of doing work in isolation and then having any kind of response, for me, is where it’s at,” Tollefson said.

Yet, pursuing their work fully and without compromise comes with risk. Mendoza recognizes, for instance, that since her curriculum by no means marches in lock step to standard state and national curricula, fallout may sometimes result.

And as an artist who has created a niche in the public art space, Tollefson’s designs and installations are literally open to scrutiny from anyone, be they random passersby or members of a vocal island community.

“This is such an overwhelmingly positive thing, and both of the things we do aren’t necessarily positively received all the time,” Tollefson said.

They agreed, though, that a vital synergy comes from the connections they’ve formed on the island. Mendoza calls it magic.

“Not every community would support what you’re doing or what I’m doing,” Mendoza said. “That’s what’s so special about the award.”


Good as gold

Kristin Tollefson and Alice Mendoza will be honored with Island Treasure Awards Feb. 23 at IslandWood. Tickets are still available for the banquet celebration; call 842-7901.

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