After teaching photography at the Upper School (US) for 30 years and serving as the arts department head for nine of those, Parrish Dobson will retire in June to pursue her own work as an artist and environmental advocate.
Among her many US contributions, Ms. Dobson deepened and expanded the school’s arts offerings and revitalized its arts facilities. She led the Petropoulos program, invented the afternoon arts elective, and spearheaded the Arts Bash (now the Eco-Bash), in the process working with three heads of school and mentoring many hundreds of aspiring student artists.
Ms. Dobson came to the school in 1986 as a part-time English teacher and began teaching photography as well in her second year, when then Arts Department Head Mark Lindberg encouraged her to apply to fill an opening, despite her not having experience teaching photography. In 1991, she dropped English to focus solely on photography. In 2001, Ms. Dobson became the arts department head herself and served for nine years in that capacity.
Current Arts Department Head Laura Tangusso called Ms. Dobson’s teaching unique because of how she blends her knowledge of language and art.
“Her dad was a poet, so she has this very wonderful background in language and expression, and she, more than any other arts teacher, has a sense of poetry that she brings to art,” Ms. Tangusso said. “I see it in the kind of work that comes out of her classes. She teaches how art is poetry.”
One of Ms. Dobson’s greatest achievements has been directing the Petropoulos Exhibition and the Petropoulos Art Scholars program, she said. Created by a group of alumni in honor of John Petropoulos—a beloved school ceramics teacher who died of cancer—the Petropoulos fund underwrites an annual arts exhibit featuring invited US students who, over several years, have produced a strong body of work in one medium.
When the same alums who created the Petropoulos fund approached the school seeking other ways to support arts initiatives in the community, Ms. Dobson and former colleague John Norton created the Petropoulos Art Scholars program. Its aim was to help students interested in art experience a variety of events in Boston’s art scene for free.
“We basically decided that BB&N had a great location, but we didn’t utilize it enough,” Ms. Dobson said, adding that they also hoped to give arts students the feeling of a team.
“There was a quiet intention to see if we couldn’t bring the kids engaged with the arts together through these trips or through gallery talks or workshops,” Ms. Dobson said.
Now students who attend over 75 percent of the program’s sponsored events—venturing out together to open studios, musical performances, theatrical productions, museums, and other exhibits and talks on and off campus—can graduate as Petropoulos Art Scholars.
“I have loved the aspect of the Petropoulos that has said, ‘I see you, art students out there, and I value you, and I’m going to give you some good experiences outside of class,’” Ms. Dobson said. “It really matters to me that the kids who are strongly interested in the arts here feel supported.”
Drawing and Painting teacher Nicole Stone will continue the Petropoulos Art Scholars program in Ms. Dobson’s stead.
Ms. Dobson instituted significant changes to the arts curricula during her tenure as well. Collaborating with several other colleagues in the 1990s, she created Ancient Medieval Studies, an interdisciplinary program for ninth-graders connecting study of The Odyssey in English class and of ancient Greece and Rome in history class to ancient Greek and Roman artwork at the Museum of Fine Arts.
“There was an emphasis on learning through looking—selection, viewpoint, composition—those things,” Ms. Dobson said.
English Teacher Althea Cranston, who taught the English side of Ancient Medieval Studies, said it was a wonderful course.
“The kids really blossomed in their understanding of the ancient world and in an interdisciplinary sense,” Ms. Cranston said.
Ms. Dobson dedicated herself to providing deeply immersive courses for students throughout her career. When she began teaching photography, only two courses were offered: a ninth grade introductory course and a year-long course. So Ms. Dobson developed Advanced Photography, a course for students who had completed the year-long course and wanted to pursue photography seriously.
This past year, Ms. Dobson launched an honors seminar for seniors interested in taking photography during all four years. Previously, any senior who wanted to continue in the class sought an independent study, which Ms. Dobson said caused major scheduling issues. Now students of the course meet during one block to collaborate and critique each other’s work. US Photography Teacher Andrew Warren will teach the seminar next year.
Ms. Dobson also helped grow the film and video course from a ninth grade introductory course to a year-long curriculum in 2003. The year before, she created Afternoon Arts—a program that allows students guided studio time and materials for two 90-minute sessions a week—now overseen by Ms. Stone.
Mr. Lindberg said that people can easily recognize Ms. Dobson’s commitment to the arts at the school.
“She’s been very aggressive about putting her kids’ work in the community, [her attitude being], ‘I want people to see what my students are doing.’ That generates a sense of pride,” Mr. Lindberg said.
“In her passion to commit to the arts, she could be a tiny bit long-winded at morning assembly,” he added, saying that a student once claimed he could solve a Rubik’s Cube in half the time Ms. Dobson took to make a Petropoulos Exhibit announcement—a claim the student later proved.
Mr. Lindberg applauded Ms. Dobson’s initiative and tenacity in creating lasting changes in the department. He recalled that when she was department head, Ms. Dobson helped plan the construction of Renaissance Hall, the wing of the US that hosts most of the art studios, when the photography studio was located on the first floor and many of the other studios were in trailers outside of the school.
But even before then, he said, Ms. Dobson had advocated for better facilities for the photo lab.
“During her early career here, Parrish was really good at pressuring the institution to be aware of health and safety. Ventilation for the studios was something that was somewhat casual when Parry started,” Mr. Lindberg said.
To properly champion the improvements, he said, Ms. Dobson did intense research and planning, neither of which was part of her job description.
Mr. Lindberg also praised Ms. Dobson for effectively handling what he called a “revolutionary transition” from wet photography to digital photography later in her career. She adapted to changing standards as technology moved the art form from the dark room to computer labs with color printers, he added.
Students have been lucky to have her expertise as a photographer, he said. “Kids sense early on that she is really good at the craft of photography, and that’s not to be overlooked.”
Despite having brought the arts department improvements in programming, infrastructure, and funding over her years at the school, Ms. Dobson said the most rewarding part of her job has been helping students discover a dimension of themselves through art.
“I know personally the gift of discovering something you didn’t know you had and what a great discovery that can be,” she said. “I was always someone who had a yearning for that creative outlet. I had a drive—I just didn’t know where to put it. Once I developed a passion and skill for photography, that changed my life.”
“I hope people will remember me for my passion for art and my care for my students,” she added.
Upper School Counselor Sarah Vollmann observed how students have relied on Ms. Dobson throughout their time at the US.
“She is a kind, steady, adult presence that is empathetic to students and listens well and helps them achieve interesting things with photography. She gets to know them and what their interest is without imposing her own vision,” Ms. Vollmann said.
Reflections of just a few of the hundreds of students whom Ms. Dobson has mentored and inspired during her career appear on this page.
In retirement, Ms. Dobson said she hopes to travel with her husband and do significant community volunteer work centered around climate change and the environment. She also said she plans to focus on her own artwork, which has been featured in numerous shows and has appeared in various venues and collections around New England.
“I’m not famous, but I’m respected,” Ms. Dobson said. “And that’s gratifying.”