Newton set to retire after years of inspiring artists

Patti Carpenter

Berta Newton knew she was meant to be an artist at age 2, and she had a lot of inspiration. She was born to parents who made their artistic gifts into lifelong careers.

Newton’s father had a degree from the prestigious Parsons School of Design in New York City and was an accomplished painter. Her mother a musician with a keen interest in singing opera. She also taught public speaking and interpersonal communications at Northwest College.

That’s a lot of inspiration for a young child living on a small ranch in the sparsely populated community of Wapiti, Wyoming.

“I think there were like 12 people in Wapiti when I was born,” Newton said.

Her family later moved to a ranch on Crooked Creek in the Lovell area. She graduated from Lovell High School in 1978.

This is Newton’s 23rd year with School District Number One. She started off teaching at the Rocky Mountain High School in Bryon and then middle school in Deaver. She survived the consolidation of several schools (Byron, Deaver/Frannie and Cowley) as they became one under the Rocky Mountain Middle/High School banner that we know today in Cowley.

After focusing on her own art for many years, she decided to become an art teacher. She earned her art and teaching degrees from Northwest College and Rocky Mountain College.  

“Children know from a very early age if they’re an artist or a dancer or whatever,” she said. “The fine art area is so close to who we are. You’re not going to know you are going to be a lawyer, doctor or nurse at that age. With fine arts, you are an artist and you know it right away. It’s such a part of who we are.”

In 1982, with degree in hand, Newton managed an art gallery in Minot, North Dakota, and worked as museum intern at the Minneapolis Museum of Art for a short time.

“I felt too shy to become a teacher at first,” she said. “That was about 34 years ago, when I started this journey.”

Newton got over that shyness and accepted her first teaching position in eastern Montana.

“After I got out into the world, I wasn’t quite so shy anymore,” she explained. “I really wanted to do something that would contribute to our culture and society. That’s one of the reasons I became an art teacher. I felt I needed to make a bigger contribution than what I was doing.

“I think kids absolutely have a need for self-expression. At the end of my career, I can sum it up by saying I want all of my kids to know they are artists, and I want them to make art their story.”

Newton has taught more than 1,000 art students in her teaching career. Her first teaching assignment after earning her credentials was in the small Montana towns of Richey and Lambert, where she taught kindergarten through 12th grade in both schools simultaneously. She said she would teach in one small school in the morning and travel 25 miles during her lunch hour to the other nearby school to teach in the afternoon.

“I’m so inspired by the kids,” she said. “They are the nicest people. I have been so lucky in my career to work with the most wonderful people ever.”

Always wanting to improve her skills and knowledge, Newton earned her master’s degree from the Art of Education University at age 61. She said it was something she wanted to do to improve on what she was already doing. She was inspired by her great-grandfather, a graduate of Columbia University, who learned to use the computer well into his 90s through correspondence courses.

“Just because you’re retiring, life is not over,” she said. “People keep asking me what I’m going to do. I know what I can do, so I’m just going with that. I’m going to live my new chapter of infinite possibilities.”

Newton plans to continue creating art. She is currently working on a painting of a mother grizzly bear and her cub for Rocky Mountain Elementary School principal Eric Honeyman’s office. Rather than making the bear look fierce, she gave it a kind expression, to not frighten the young students.

 Newton said she is also looking forward to hiking with her dog and spending time in her garden, which she has already fashioned into a sanctuary. She looks for the freedom to travel, mostly exploring the Pryor Mountains, exploring rock formations and the ancient rock art in the area.

“Getting outdoors and doing stuff outdoors is so healthy,” she said. “I really look forward to doing more of that.”

For her own artwork, Newton enjoys working in different art mediums. She enjoys working with cloth and leather goods and is inspired by Native American styles. She is also an accomplished painter and has created murals for public spaces, including a mural of a nature scene for Rocky Mountain Elementary School library.  

“Lovell is amazing because of the murals,” she said. “Art is part of our human core. It’s part of our spirit. A community needs art, as a form of expression and of history. A lot of towns around the country have added sculptures and murals.”

Newton said, like most retiring teachers, the first summer of her retirement will feel normal, but she expects to miss her students, especially when fall begins. She noted that she’s been teaching in the district for so long that she’s now teaching the children of students she’s taught in the past.

“I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to teach all these wonderful students over the years,” she said. “It has made my life go round.”

Erica Griffin will be replacing Newton as Rocky Mountain High School’s new art teacher in the coming school year.