Quintessential people

Dan Gonka: Where the Art Is

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by David Rutter | Photograph by thomas balsamo

No one saw the spectacular soul in Dan Gonka 20 years ago, maybe not even he. That’s a shame, and it has haunted and puzzled him at the quiet edge of his thoughts ever since, not that he’s morose. His heart is where the art is. So there’s no room for glumness in him now.

But until he found one young teacher in his senior high school year who pointed to a bigger artistic universe that could be his if he chose, he never felt the power of inspiration—and has never forgotten it since.

If you’re waiting for the world to announce your specialness, it might be a long wait. Life’s parade grinds on, and you must find your place. But that one teacher might not have given Gonka what he needed had she only taught the techniques and sensibilities she knew about art. She taught him humanity.

“She was so kind,” he said. “She was the first one to show me how I could have a real life doing the art I loved.” Luckily for Barrington’s children, he has been that teacher ever since.

Back to the beginning. Normal kid growing up in a normal blue collar Hanover Park family. Only child. Walked to school every day with grade school chums. Dad had a job. Mom managed the home. He always drew well, but when he presented his work for grandma’s approval, she insisted he had faked his art by tracing images. No one took him aside and told him he was going to live a special life filled with special achievements, or even that he would become revered.

But that is who Dan Gonka became in the 20 years since he was trying to figure out who he was. He has taught thousands of children, all but a very few at the same Barbara Rose and Roslyn Road Elementary schools in Barrington where he started 16 years ago after graduating from Northern Illinois University.

Consider for a moment the grandeur of a well-chosen path. Every year the 650 children in those two schools—everyone one of them—become his children and he becomes their family partner in art and creative exploration. This seems only mild hyperbole.

“I have some famous quotes I live and teach by,” he said. “I see this Gandhi quote on my wall every morning going out the door. ‘Be the change that you wish to see in the world.’ I live by that.”

That meaning manifests itself in the precise ways he deals with every child. Each is different. Each is unique. “These children belong to someone,” he says. “They are someone’s life and love. Who am I to be mean or taint them? You must be kind and sensitive to them. You are taking care of them.”

He and his spouse hope to have their own someday. But his currently adopted family is immense, as it stands.

Though he was trained as a traditional art educator at Northern and earned his Fine Art Masters at St. Xavier, there seems little traditional in his style. First, he was—and is—an exceptional professional artist coinciding with his classroom career.

In that life, he goes by “Daniel Edward” and his deep, rich acrylic Impressionism canvases are not only sought by art buyers, but by galleries.

“When I stand before my classes (all kindergarten through fifth-graders), they all know that I am a professional artist, too; so I can show them exactly what they need to succeed as creative people,” he says.

He has seen the big time. But that life before 20 children-at-a-time is the most expressive, recurring window of his life. One of these days, the call of advanced high school students or collegiate classes might prove irresistible, right?

“Oh, no,” Gonka replies. “I’m never leaving elementaries. Never. The arc of teaching tells you to advance to high school because that’s where the ‘real art’ is. But that’s not true. I am at the foundation. This is where art starts. The children will be never more pure energy and open to everything as they are now. Nobody has told them not be an artist. Nobody has told them what they can’t do. They will never hear that in my class. These children are pure energy. They are willing to take risks, willing to experiment, willing to test rules and boundaries that haven’t been set yet.”

“You must always,” he says with eyes steadfastly focused, “treat them with love.” He teaches deliberately and mindfully with love. Imagine that. Barrington’s public school system is committed to art, music, science, and achievement, but he is one teacher who exemplifies what is startlingly rare in public education. Even his peers see that. No one else does it exactly as he does, and no one taught him how.

He loves the children. And they appear to love him right back. Of course, he knows everything about color, media, shape, texture, contours, and organic collisions with geometry. He teaches sublime technique.

But he employs a twist. “A vice principal once asked me about my ‘behavior plan,’” he said. That’s the organizational sets of disciplinary measures that specify how a teacher rectifies recalcitrant, inattentive, and unsuccessful students.

“I don’t have a behavior plan,” he said. Never has. “My students don’t act that way. When we’re in class, we’re all in it together.”

And now consider the larger issue of how little of life Dan Gonka has experienced. At 36, he’s been around for 13,000 or so days. If he were a Rembrandt, students are the palettes of his art. He has 40 more years at least; a thousand more brush strokes before the masterpiece self-portrait is done. He is unfinished business.

When the day of that finishing comes, one can only guess how many young lives he will have lifted up with art, inspiration and, most of all, love. Yes, most of all, love.

Here are some words that others shared about Dan Gonka

Sabrina Arshad, Student

Mr. Gonka is my art teacher at school. Mr Gonka has helped me improve in my artwork, as I did not like art in the beginning. He helped me get better at it and really love art. He teaches me tips and techniques to make my art better which is really helpful. Mr Gonka always gives us an environment where we can express our art. Whenever we call “Mr. Gonka” to help us with our art work, he always responds back with, “That’s me!”

Jolie Davis, Parent

I am thrilled to receive notice that “Quintessential People” is honoring Mr. Dan Gonka. My three sons have had the pleasure of creating artworks and learning the ability to appreciate all types of art by this outstanding art teacher at Barbara Rose Elementary. Dan Gonka teaches with an amazing patience and skill. His passion for art motivates all students to improve and flourish under his watchful eye. As a result, one of my sons is pursuing his own artistic talents directly from the motivation and positive influence of Dan. In my nine consecutive years at

Rose, I have had the pleasure of seeing Mr. Gonka hard at work, but also have gotten to know him on a friendly level. He is one amazing person, whose intelligence, talent, and attention to detail accentuate the creativity and enthusiasm he brings each and every day. We are very fortunate that Dan listened to his heart and followed his passion. As a result, Dan Gonka has established an art program at Rose which is second to none!

Chloe Ebert, Student

I am a fifth-grader at Barbara B. Rose Elementary School. Mr. Gonka has been my art teacher for the last five years, since I was in first grade. I think what makes Mr. Gonka special is the fact that he is always pushing his students to be more independent. An example is that when we finish a piece of art, we each have an individual conference with him where we discuss the art and he asks us what our grade should be and why. Rather than tell us what our grade is, he trusts us to think about our work, say what we like, and how we could have done something different and maybe even better.

Also, when we start a new project, he tells us all about it and then sends us off on our own to create our own individual masterpieces, as opposed to sitting with us and having us copy him word-for-word and do the exact same thing. He appreciates us as individuals and what we can do! He never sits behind his desk either—he is always walking around, answering our questions and giving us a little inspiration if we need it!

Mr. Gonka is fair in that he is not too strict, but not too easy on us either, he wants us to do our best. He is hardworking because he is always working so hard coming up with great projects, displaying our work, and setting up shows.

I know that Mr. Gonka will always be in my mind whenever I create a piece of art, with his words in my head, reminding me to think about what I’m creating and making it the best it can be!

Maureen Hawkinson, Parent

I met Mr. Gonka seven years ago when my eldest son, Ryan, attended Barbara B. Rose and Mr. Gonka was his art teacher. Happily, Mr. Gonka is currently the art teacher to my second son, Cayden. In addition, I am lucky enough to work along aside Mr. Gonka as one of Rose’s PTO co-presidents.

Mr. Gonka is very special and I always walk away from a conversation or interaction with him feeling happy and smiling. My parent perspective... in our school’s annual silent auction he offers a ceramic-making session with a friend. My son won the auction. When schedules couldn’t align during the school year, Mr. Gonka accommodated his summer hours so the kids can have their session and he even invited my other son to join. They had such a great time and Mr. Gonka went above and beyond so the boys can learn and be creative with their own design.

From a PTO perspective, I was recently amazed by Mr. Gonka’s creativity and innovation. He acquired a new 3D printer all on his own without PTO or school resources, but through a grant that he was awarded through a grant request he pursued. He did this without acknowledgment and recognition so his kids can have more to experience in his classroom. He is just so kind, generous, and outstanding as a person and educator.

Over two years, Mr. Gonka initiated a Student Art Show that began in the school gym and just recently he presented this year’s showcase at Barrington’s White House, which he coordinated by himself. Also, the PTO presented the idea regarding the school’s staff taking control over the school yearbook and Mr. Gonka rose to the occasion with instant ideas to incorporate his students in such a project.

Lorraine E. Schoen, Colleague

Dan has a quiet calmness about him that makes anyone interacting with him feel immediately at ease. He listens with intent and thoughtfully carries out ideas we have shared or discussed. I teach students with special needs and Dan always makes sure he sets aside time to talk with me about my students’ unique talents. He will discuss how he can modify his instruction so that my students can not only be included, but also be successful with the projects in his art class. He has even altered his student self-reflection rubric so that my students can independently complete the form and provide feedback directly to Dan about their work. Dan’s overall approach to instructing students is to let them know that they are capable of expressing themselves through an artistic lens and that their final work products are valuable and significant. Rose students, staff, parents, and guests are always remarking about the student artwork that he has carefully displayed throughout the building.

Deven Shah, Student

Hi, my name is Deven Shah. I’m a third-grader at Barbara B. Rose School. Mr. Gonka is a great art teacher at my school. We are studying forms in art; forms are three-dimensional objects which are drawn.

Mr. Gonka has helped me be more creative. He is a great artist who has taught me how to draw one of his great cartoon characters. He is one of the most fun and most joyful teachers I have ever met. Mr. Gonka always has cool slides on his Smart Board to introduce the unit and he gives out great stickers.

Derek Straight, Colleague

I am the principal at Barbara B. Rose Elementary School where Mr. Gonka is an Art Educator.

Dan is an amazing educator. He is the kind of teacher you want your own child to have year after year. While his content of choice is art both by schooling and by interest, he is a professional artist outside of school, and he teaches children to be wise, thoughtful thinkers. He does this through the craft of art. Dan can often be seen reading stories to his students that relate to the art or artist being studied. He motivates his students to do their best by showing them his own work.

Judy Yount, Colleague

I am a first grade teacher at B. Rose Elementary School, and have taught with Dan Gonka since he joined us at Rose.

Dan shares his passion for art with his students and nurtures the talent in these budding artists. He provides an access to art concepts for each learner from the youngest child to children with special needs to gifted students. Over the years, Dan has found a variety of venues in which to display the artwork created by Rose students in the community. His most recent student art display was on April 13, when he facilitated a Rose School Art Show at Barrington’s White House. Every child, first-grade through fifth-grade, had a piece of artwork on display. It was an elegant backdrop for this labor of love.

Dan Gonka is a most thoughtful and caring person. He takes the time for adults and children alike. He gives students opportunities during his lunch for them to complete their creations.

I am honored to work side by side with Dan Gonka. I have learned from his gentle manner as a teacher and his natural generosity toward others, and am so proud to say that I am his colleague.

David Rutter is a regular contributor to Quintessential Barrington.

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Publisher’s Note: Quintessential People™ is a heartfelt collaboration between our publication and portrait artist Thomas Balsamo. Our goal is to share exceptional images and words that ring true about some of the finest, most inspiring people in our community. For more information, contact QB at publisher@qbarrington.com, or Thomas Balsamo (Portraits By Thomas) at 847-381-7710, or visit www.portraitsbythomas.com.