GDS Reflected In Laura’s Lens

GDS Reflected In Laura’s Lens
Danny Stock

Laura Buck Tolliver always admired the lively art scene in Washington, DC and worked to pass on that appreciation to her students before retiring earlier this year from GDS, where she helped shape the studio arts curriculum for 41 years. 

“One of the wonderful things about teaching at GDS is the number of available places for field trips and photo shoots,” Laura explained, as she sat surrounded by a mix of modern and classic art in her Maryland home. Her classes took frequent trips to the Hirshhorn Museum, the National Gallery of Art, and photography exhibitions at the (now-defunct) Corcoran Gallery. “In the early days,” she said, “we would go down into the tombs of the Freer Gallery and pass antiquities around the table.” 

Excursions weren’t just to view art but also a chance to be “out in the field and working,” Laura explained. Students captured scenes at famous locations throughout the DC metro area—including the National Mall, the National Zoo, the Glenstone Museum, and more—as well as practiced street photography throughout our vibrant city’s neighborhoods. 

Gazing out from Glenstone Museum with Laura

After trips, assignments, and critiques were completed, Laura worked to put up exhibitions at GDS as quickly as possible. Showcases were an important way to celebrate student work, regardless of students’ long-term commitment to the arts. “You don’t always expect your students to go on with careers in the arts, but the work they do nurtures a lifetime appreciation for art and design in their lives,” Laura said. Even still, many of Laura’s alumni do go on to pursue a career in art: Sean Fine ’92 won an Academy Award in 2013, Lindsey Max ’11 is a freelance documentary photographer, and Michelle Clair ’98 is currently the senior manager of visitor experience at the Glenstone Museum. 

Six years after graduating from GDS, a photograph from a series that Lindsey created for her Masters of Fine Arts thesis was displayed in a gallery at Alexandria’s Torpedo Factory Art Center. Laura showed up at the exhibition to support her. 

“Laura always had a strong bond with her students,” said Michelle Cobb, High School studio arts department chair. “She was able to develop their work because they really trusted her advice and knew that she cared deeply about their individual progress.” 

Laura Tolliver from an early 1980s GDS yearbook photo

Laura Tolliver from an early 1980s GDS yearbook photo

Teachers’ rapport with students was one of the things that first drew Laura to the School in 1979, when Debbie Haynes, former art department head, brought her on board to set up a ceramics program at the High School, then located at 4880 Macarthur Boulevard. In no time, it became clear that Laura was a master at connecting with students, and she continued to build relationships over the course of her four decades with GDS studio arts. “Although I had thought this would be a short-term gig, I discovered what a unique school GDS was in its commitment to the value of each student,” she said. 

Ella Farr, Class of 2021 president, said Laura clearly went out of her way to support her students by encouraging them in class or simply allowing them to vent about their personal lives. “She also was really good at giving constructive criticism that somehow felt like a compliment,” Farr said. “She’d look at a picture and talk about how cool it was while also suggesting another way we could have looked at a scene or edited differently to allow for a different tone in the image.” 

William Goldberg, one of the student speakers at Graduation 2019, said he still appreciates the fundamental lessons of light, color, and composition that Laura taught him. “More than technical photography skills, though, I remember Laura’s classes for the creative independence that she gave us and the fun we had,” William said. “There was always good banter in the photo lab, as people looked at each other’s work, and Laura walked around the room, offering constructive criticism and explaining how to use the software to turn an idea into a real design.” 

Through Laura's lens to students peering through their own. HS photography studio, 2019.

Throughout the years, Laura helped guide the evolution of the art department, setting up the ceramics and photography studios in the High School’s new building on Davenport Street in 1986, transitioning the photography dark rooms to digital processing, and creating the Mac Lab for digital design and filmmaking. She advised the students and editors on yearbook production for 20 years. And she taught in every discipline the High School Studio Arts Department offered during her time at GDS. 

“The School has always been supportive and always been there for me,” Laura said. “The caliber of students and the fast-growing technological advancements in creating art—that was supported by GDS—definitely kept me coming back.” 

These days, no longer tied to a school schedule, Laura is enjoying a bit more spontaneity, taking opportunities to spend time with her own children, GDS lifers Dylan ’08 and Danielle ’11, who currently live in Los Angeles and Boston, respectively. In the spring and summer months, when not connecting with her kids or visiting art museums, you’ll find her practicing shinrin-yoku (forest bathing) in her garden among the hostas, hydrangeas, and weeping cherries.

GDS Reflected In Laura’s Lens
  • Arts
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  • Studio Arts
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