University News

An art education degree brought healing, connection and joy

June 27, 2023

Written by Craig Schreiner | Photos by Craig Schreiner

As Hollyn Peterson stepped away from the podium after addressing the Class of 2023 as student speaker during commencement at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, she felt relief. Her speech had gone well, but she was ready to be out of the limelight.

She reached her chair on stage and turned again to face the crowd. They were still applauding. And they were standing. For a moment, Peterson thought another part of the program had begun. It had not — the ovation was for her.

Peterson’s speech was like a love letter of gratitude to the university, art faculty, her cooperating teachers in student teaching, her parents and everyone who helped the three-time cancer survivor graduate with honors and two degrees, in art and art education.



At UW-Whitewater’s commencement ceremony, Hollyn Peterson spoke to her classmates about how she found a community on campus that wanted her to succeed, not just pass. (UW-Whitewater video/Craig Schreiner)


Peterson’s first bout with cancer was at age five. Over the years she missed hundreds of days of school. By the end of high school, she was getting good grades but felt academically and socially behind her peers. Peterson had gravitated to art and the art rooms at school. But even in high school, she resisted her instructor’s encouragement to study art and to teach. She had lived with uncertainty for so long that she could scarcely allow herself to dream of a future.

“I did not know if I would be smart enough or strong enough to even dream of going to college,” she said. “What pushed me into saying yes and becoming a Warhawk was the Center for Students with Disabilities. I finally had a group of people behind me who wanted me to succeed and not just pass.”

The center helped Peterson with her transition to college, most significantly helping her arrange flexible attendance for days when her health prevented her from going to class. Assistance with housing, transportation and signing up for classes also was available as needed.

In her sophomore year at UW-Whitewater, Peterson took a class in sculpture from Jared Janovec, associate professor of art and design. Janovec encourages his students to draw creative energy and material from the depths of their own vulnerability. At first, Peterson resisted portraying her feelings about her cancer. But by the end of the semester, she had produced three pieces about her experience. And she had a feeling of fulfillment she couldn’t ignore.

“People around me were being so vulnerable that I slowly felt like I could open up,” she remembered in an interview.


Peterson sits with a faculty member.

Greg Pocaro, left, associate professor of art and design, and Hollyn Peterson review her portfolio as she applies to graduate schools in December. Peterson will attend graduate school at Syracuse University where, she said, anticipates receiving the same kind of support from faculty as her experience at UW-Whitewater.


Peterson soon was double-majoring in art and art education, meaning she would create a solo exhibit of her art for the fall semester of her senior year and then student teach in the spring semester. She began in earnest to express her cancer experience in art. Slowly, haltingly, visual statements emerged in a series of stunning self-portraits and sculptures exhibited in December 2022 at Crossman Gallery.

“During COVID-19, I was working at home, where I was isolated but still in contact with my teachers, professors and students. I had a support system but I was still in a place where I could think about my life and what I had gone through and meditate on that,” she said.

In one of her paintings, two women tend a lush garden. Both of them are Peterson. A closer look reveals abundant flowers and weeds sprouting from surgical incisions in their bodies. One of the women uses a scissors to cut at weeds coming from her abdomen, leaving the flowers intact. Both women regard their pruning work passively and serenely, as if this is all they have ever known.


Hollyn hangs one of her paintings on a wall.

In December, Hollyn Peterson achieved a milestone with her Senior Bachelor of Fine Arts Exhibit, a series of stunning paintings and sculpture evoking her experience living with cancer. Above, Peterson takes down the exhibit on its last day.


“Cancer has taken so much from me, from organs to hair to birthday parties,” said Peterson. “(Art) is a way that I can reclaim my life and not let it (cancer) take anything else away from me than it already has.”

“It’s been 17 years,” she added. “I can try to describe it but I feel like pictures really do speak louder than words, at least for me.”

On a December day with rain falling outside Greenhill Center of the Arts on campus, Peterson packed up the exhibit. As she slid a large self-portrait into its storage slot in the art department, she appeared to be putting away a part of herself. Then she went home to Waukesha for winter break and to begin student teaching in January.

Peterson would work in two different Waukesha elementary schools in the first half of the spring semester before finishing at Waukesha West High School, an intimidating prospect she shared in her commencement speech.


Hollyn stands in front of colorufl paintings on a wall.

Hollyn Peterson reviews art she helped students create at Meadowbrook Elementary School in Waukesha.


“It wasn’t just any elementary school,” she said of her first assignment. “It was my elementary school. The school I used to quietly cry at my desk. The school where I would spend hours hiding in the bathroom to avoid going to class.”

At first, such scenes as children holding hands and skipping in the hallways evoked moments lost from her own childhood. But then, she told the audience, something unexpected happened.

“I started to heal in the very place I felt most broken,” she said. “My cooperating teacher and students poured so much love on top of me that I couldn’t help being filled with joy. Giving students hugs, receiving pictures, making memories and, most importantly, making students laugh and feel like they belong.”


Hollyn hugs some of her students.

Hollyn Peterson is embraced by students on her final day as a student teacher at Meadowbrook Elementary School in Waukesha.


There is no mistaking the art department at Waukesha West High School. Fluffy cotton clouds hover above large tables next to a studio area where natural light from high windows pours onto three students who brush paint onto a mural. On the ceiling tiles are parting works done by past students. Among them is one Hollyn Peterson.

In mid-May, students huddled around a table to watch Peterson’s technique as she brushed tone into a painting. The students were attentive, even though it was the last period of the day and the semester was winding down. In August, Peterson will head for Syracuse University in New York to start graduate school.


Students sit around Hollyn in an art room as she paints.

Hollyn Peterson, near right with back to camera, a student teacher from UW-Whitewater, does a painting demonstration for students in an art class at Waukesha West High School in May.


Syracuse was eager to attract Peterson, even offering her an associate instructor position. But Peterson chose Syracuse because it was the most like UW-Whitewater among the schools she considered.

“The faculty there want me to do well not just as an artist but as a person,” said Peterson. “That’s what Whitewater gave to me.”

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