by Sophie McNeil Wolf

“The only thing you take with you when you’re gone is what you leave behind.” With her last day of teaching today, Lisa Joy Musselman knows this quote all too well. Brought to Mississippi from Minnesota by the Teach for America program, Musselman’s service to the program is ending, bringing about new opportunities, including a new job at Fondren design firm Creative Distillery.

Originally from Rochester, Minn., the 26 year-old has spent the last year in Utica Public Schools as an art teacher to K-8th graders.

An artist in her high school years, Musselman received her undergraduate degree at The Art Institutes International Minnesota. From there, she worked in graphic design, where a project with youth peaked her interest in collaborating with children and the idea of creativity.

“I decided at that point that I wanted to be more hands on. I wanted to get involved more than just sitting behind a desk and just designing.”

Even though she was freelancing for a firm that had many clients that were working for the community, Musselman says she still felt too removed from what was happening.

A project that inspired Musselman to take the plunge into teaching was entitled “Create, Don’t Hate.” With high schoolers, Musselman helped create billboards around the idea of tolerance. While it didn’t seem like the project would even happen, three billboards were published around Minneapolis.

“Before we took the kids on a tour to see it, I drove around to see the billboards and I got pretty emotional. These are young people creating positive messages to their community,” she said.

When they took the students to tour the billboards, one of the students came up to Musselman and told her they wanted to be a graphic designer. That, she said, turned the switch. “This project made a significant impact on me. Being a part of a child making a life decision is pretty special.”

From there, Musselman signed up for Teach for America and ranked her choices. Mississippi was second on her list.

“I was at a point in my life where I was thinking that I could live my whole life in Minnesota and play it safe. I wanted to grow and go somewhere without a lot of security blankets,” she said.

Musselman was placed in Hazelhurst, where she worked for a year before she moved to Utica.

“People wanted to know why I was moving to Mississippi. For me, I think that was part of the adventure,” she said with a grin.

Moving to the Jackson area, Musselman was surprised to find an area so proud of their community and doing great things because of it.

“If you come to Jackson and you’re a thinker and a do-er, this is the place for you. It’s like a small town, but it’s a city,” she said. “When I first met people in Fondren, they would say, ‘I want to do it for Jackson.’ I never understood that because in Minneapolis you can find anything you want. It’s already been done. Here, you can create something. Just do it. It’s possible.”

With her teaching commitment wrapping up, friends helped her get in touch with Darren Schwindaman and Melia Dicker at Creative Distillery. Their work with non-profits and community organizations, such as the Mississippi Arts Commission, Mississippi Center for Non-profits and Mississippi Museum of Art, she says, was a huge draw for her. After contacting them, they hired her on as a graphic designer.

Has she found plenty of reasons to stay in Jackson? Millions, she says.

“There are a lot of things I have found here that I am so glad are a part of my life now. If you had told me a few years ago that all of this was going to happen, I would have said, ‘Absolutely not. You’re talking about somebody else.’”

But before she turns the page in Utica, what does she think she’s left behind with her students?

“Bottom line, I hope they’ve seen me as somebody who has been listening and responsive to them. That someone cared about them. I hope I have instilled some curiosity about what art is and what it could be in their future.”

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