By Michael Somerby EBS STAFF
BIG SKY – When DJ Soikkeli was a junior in high school, pamphlets advertising life at colleges and universities around the nation began to jam his family’s mailbox.
As a southern California native growing up in Covina, a Los Angeles County city backdropped by the chaparral mountains of the Angeles National Forest, Soikkeli was attune to a life in the mountains.
For Soikkeli, who is the Big Sky School District’s newest art program hire, where he teaches 6th through 12th grade classes, one pamphlet in particular, that of Montana State University, caught his eye.
“The nature aspect was huge for me,” Soikkeli said. “I saw the pamphlet from MSU, and was like, ‘Wow, that looks kinda sweet.’ I checked it out, applied, got in and came here and fell in love with Montana. I grew up dirt biking and mountain biking, being out in the mountains, so it was a perfect fit.”
Arriving at the Bozeman campus with a desire to be a graphic designer, Soikkeli soon found that another passion was calling his name: art education.
“I started out as a graphic designer … and then my freshman year I took a couple of sculpture and drawing classes, then took a bunch of other art classes and switched my major to art education,” he said.
In the winter of 2018, he graduated from MSU, already eyeballing a fulltime position at BSSD after a positive experience student teaching under his predecessor Megan Buecking.
While substitute teaching during the spring following his graduation, he learned that Buecking would be leaving her post and that an open position might be his for the taking.
As time proved, Soikkeli was the man for the job. He shares responsibilities with veteran educator Chandler Dayton, another new hire who serves as the lead art teacher for the 11th and 12th grades.
Only 25 years old, Soikkeli is already bringing a passion and wealth of knowledge usually reserved for teachers that have spent thousands of hours in a classroom environment, injecting a bit of youthful empathy into his curriculum.
Take a project he’s spearheading with his 8th graders, in which he asked the students to choose a social issue of importance and turn it into a piece of a pop art.
“Students created pieces highlighting a wide range of social issues, everything from white tigers being inbred, to pill addiction, to gun violence, police brutality, surveillance, pollution and LGBTQ rights. Anything they felt passionate about,” Soikkeli said, tapping into the natural connection youngsters have for outspoken advocacy. “It’s a good project to get them thinking and engaging with art media.”
Around his classroom, which he remodeled to be more accommodating to his curriculum and the creative flow it generates, are ripe examples of students testing their hands at a wide range of mediums, from ceramics to paintings, pencil-based works to those made with pen.
Soikkeli acknowledges that not all of his students will go on to careers of artistry, or even forge lifelong amateur relationships with craft—which is especially true of a school where sports culture dominates extracurricular focus—but the former football player, assuming the grueling nose tackle role, only hopes to help expose his students and give them a platform to troubleshoot.
“This really comes down to life skills, problem solving, overcoming adversity,” Soikkeli said. “You’re presented with a problem, whether it be a blank canvas you have to make something beautiful on, or a hunk of clay that has to be made into something that’s utilitarian.”
Still, despite this pragmatic perspective, Soikkeli is an advocate for growing the arts at BSSD as a whole, a fact backed not only by his chosen profession but also through his efforts in forming things like a student art club.
He emphasizes he’s there as a facilitator and guide, but left the challenges of advertising and garnering interest to his students. Therefore, they won’t take the club for granted.
Each school night, Soikkeli works until around 7 p.m. in his classroom, long after the hallways have emptied. One can find him there developing his technique for rather altruistic reasons.
“The more that I learn about my art media, the more I can teach my kids. Which is the goal here: to be able to teach them different techniques they may not have had the opportunity to experience otherwise.”