Where the “magic” happens: Jocelyn Salaz stands in front of her PdS Elementary classroom. Gary Herron photo.

“Friday afternoons were for art,” Jocelyn Salaz happily remembered of her elementary-school days when she was growing up in Cuba, where she graduated Cuba High School in 2000.

That said, “I never imagined I would be an elementary art teacher,” Salaz said, remembering initially her thoughts of working in the medical field. “I wanted to combine science with service.”

Yet the Puesta del Sol Elementary art teacher and Rio Rancho Public Schools elementary art content leader was recently selected to receive the prestigious National Edwin Ziegfeld Award.

This award from the U.S. Society for Education Through Art honors distinguished leaders who have made significant contributions to the national and international fields of art education. Only two Ziegfeld Awards are presented annually: one national award to honor an art educator within the U.S. and one international award to honor a colleague from outside the U.S.

Salaz said she was nominated for the award by an arts colleague, Angela LaPorte of the University of Arkansas, who through her nomination asserted that Salaz “brought distinction to international aspects of art education through an exceptional and continuous record of achievement in scholarly writing, research, professional leadership, teaching, professional service or community service bearing on international education in the visual arts.”

“This is big, definitely something I didn’t see coming,” Salaz said of the award, happy to be able to fly to New York City to receive her it.

Her decision to change her major to art – “It just felt right,” she says now – while she was attending the University of New Mexico worked well for Rio Rancho Public Schools.

She has a bachelor’s degree in fine arts and a master’s in art education from UNM.

Now, she’s in her ninth year as Puesta del Sol Elementary’s art teacher, seeing every student in her classroom every six school days.

For the weekends, Salaz can be creative when she wants in her own studio. More than “just” a teacher, as an accomplished artist, she has two works of art hanging in the National Hispanic Cultural Center in Albuquerque.

On her website, Salaz explained she has a passion for “the meaning and place of retablos in the 21st century, with a focus on spirituality, community (interconnections between the lives and stories of people) and place. I explore the conceptual underpinnings of how and why certain materials and techniques are chosen for art production and the physical properties and possible ideological and symbolic usages of such materials, based on study of pre-Columbian and baroque art.”

“I’m so fortunate to be working as an art teacher. I’m proud of the work that I do,” she said.

She’s also happy with her opportunity to oversee and coordinate the efforts of the district’s other elementary art teachers, “amazing teachers working together.

“We create a lot of our own curriculum,” Salaz said, which can be technical and conceptual. “We have a lot of freedom, but we have to follow the standards – and they’re vague.”

Bottom line: When students advance from elementary to middle school, she said, she hopes they “understand that art-making is a process that includes mistakes and discoveries (much like life itself) and experience the joy of creating, to understand how things work, no matter what they do in life.

“What they see around them and (knowing) what it means,” is also what she hopes the kids pick up, and – perhaps more importantly – “know how to treat each other and manage their feelings, things not in the curriculum.”

Be it known, says Salaz, what she and the other art teachers do in the district is mainly because “We just have a lot of respect (from RRPS) for the arts.”