Why I Teach: Steve Baris, Chair of Shipley's Art Department

Kathy Smith

Steve Baris, Chair of Shipley’s Art Department, had an extraordinary and unconventional upbringing. The experiences cultivated in him a spirit of independence and adventure that sent him fighting fires in the West, hitchhiking throughout Africa, and studying art in Rome before dropping him at the door of 814 Yarrow Street.

Six Reservations

“I was born on the Olympic peninsula in the rain forest in a place called Lake Quanault,” says Steve. “My father worked for the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and we were transferred around to various Indian reservations.” Six, all told. Some nicer than others. “We moved to the Colville reservation near Hoover Dam, then the Hoopa Reservation, way north in California, then to one of the Sioux Reservations in North Eastern Montana.” We are not talking the Montana of Glacier National Park. “It was the bleakest part of the earth,” he says. “It would get to 50 below zero. You’d go for 60 miles and not even see a house.”  

Gang Fights and Boxing

For Steve, the most challenging place to be a boy was the Crow reservation on the Little Big Horn River, close to Custer’s battlefield. “The Crow were a very insular people. You were either hanging out with them, or you were fighting them, gang to gang,” he recalls with respect. “There was a major fight every day, meaning out there on the playground, kids were beating the heck out of each other. And if they got caught, they’d be brought to the gymnasium and given boxing gloves and told to continue to fight.” It is hard to imagine Steve in a gang fight. He confides that, as one of the smaller boys, he managed to negotiate an ‘arrangement’ with a bodyguard of sorts. “At times,” he confesses, “it was a matter of survival.”

Settling Down

When the Baris family finally settled in the lush Yakima Valley of Washington State, Steve felt he had landed in paradise. “Toppenish was six times the size of anywhere I’d ever been. It had a movie theater,” Steve remembers. It was there that Steve branched out and eventually applied to college.

The Good Life

Steve’s life blew wide open from then on. One could argue his earlier experiences gave him a hearty, fearless approach to life. He took a few years off from college to make money and satisfy his thirst to see the world. “I worked on Mt. St. Helens as a fire fighter. I hitchhiked from Tunisia to Morocco, and through Algeria. I don’t know how I made it out alive, actually,” he admits. “I hung out in Greece. I went to Central America. It was a pretty good life.”


After graduating from Evergreen State College, an institution at the forefront of interdisciplinary studies, Steve worked here and there before winning a full ride to study art in Rome. His adventurous spirit took hold once again. “I couldn’t afford not to go,” he said. Upon his return, he completed his graduate degree at Tyler School of Art. And here is where we make the link between Steve Baris and Chris Wagner, a bond that would last the next 28 years—a bond that would grow a decades-old friendship and the most formidable independent school art program in the Philadelphia area.

Chris Wagner

“Wags,” as everyone affectionately calls Chris Wagner, Shipley’s iconic art teacher and architect of the current art program, hired Steve to help out while she was on maternity leave. “I had no idea how to teach high school students,” he says of the time. “They didn’t teach art on the Indian reservation. Still to this day, I have no idea why she hired me,” he chuckles. “So I came and taught.” Apparently he was pretty good. “When another job opened up, Chris offered it to me. That was 1987.”

In 2014, Chris Wagner retired, and Steve cannot help but take a moment to speak of her contribution. “Chris left an amazing legacy,” he says. “I operated on her shoulders. I like to think I am part author of this program, but it was well on its way before I got here. I have nothing but praise.” And when he says praise, you feel the inadequacy of the word.  

The Time is Now

“It’s an especially dynamic moment,” Baris says with electric excitement. “Whenever there’s a transition, things are going to shift.” At Shipley, Steve and Chris put into play some of those moving parts, such as the design of the Shipley Commons and Chris Wagner Arts Center. Some occur naturally. “We’ve brought in a new teacher with unique skills and strengths,” Steve says. But some of the changes will be intentional and directed. “I have been thinking about it for a long time,” he says of the future direction of the art curriculum.

Some Great Ideas

“We need to build up our 3-D/Sculpture program. I’d like to grow that,” he says. “I want to make sure that our 3-D program offers traditional mediums, such as clay, but also engages with current trends in art and art education where we see site-specific installations and video, for example. While we will still offer those traditional mediums, a plethora of new media are coming together in the contemporary art world today.”

What Else?

Decreasing costs for specialized equipment are allowing schools like Shipley to broaden their curriculum. “We have a 3-D printer now. We have a laser cutter. We are going to be pushing some of our projects to start using some of those tools. We’ve all heard about STEM, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. Schools like RISD (Rhode Island School of Design) [and Shipley] are bringing Art into the mix. They’re creating the A in STEAM.”  

Creating Virtuosity in an Improvisational World

Comparing a classical score to improvisational Jazz, Baris says the curriculum will be more improvisational. The students will master the skills but will be able to respond in the moment to new directions and possibilities. “Art is improvisational, but you have to set the stage for good things to happen. Once you do that, you can seize the opportunities when they come up.” With a tip of his hat to his formidable predecessor, and a nod to the vaulting Shipley standards, Steve assesses his department. “I’d like to think we have the right attitude for that, all the while maintaining the same level of excellence.”



The Shipley School is a private, coeducational day school for pre-kindergarten through 12th grade students, located in Bryn Mawr, PA. Through our commitment to educational excellence, we develop within each student a love of learning and a desire for compassionate participation in the world.