That was the beginning of a career in art that has laid claim to her life, shared with time for travel. Kidwell was born and raised in Bradley County and went on to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Her love of travel goes back to the third grade. Her third-grade teacher, Kidwell said, really encouraged her to draw and paint. The teacher had poster paper up all around the classroom, giving her students the opportunity to draw using geography as inspiration.
“There was a world outside Cleveland,” Kidwell said, “and I wanted to see it.”
In the fifth and sixth grade, there was more encouragement. Every Christmas, it was Kidwell who got to paint the Santas, and at other times she drew the boyfriends of her girlfriends. Her career was launched.
In high school, Ross Apperson, her English and art teacher, would bring things to show from his travels. Kidwell said she couldn’t wait to get to his art class. George Cress was another wonderful teacher, she confided, “and was a big influence.”
Her first teaching position was at Bradley Central High School. Inez Clemmer contacted her right after college graduation to ask her to teach. The next year, Cleveland High School needed an art teacher and she was hired.
She first knew her husband, Jack Kidwell, as the assistant principal of the high school through their children. Her daughters went to Kiddie Kollege and his sons were her students. His wife, Eleanor, had died in an accident.
They bumped into each other at Kmart one day when Kidwell was dealing with a situation in her own life. His understanding helped her through the ordeal and his friendship later led to marriage. “I call him my “blue light special,” Kidwell said.
Kidwell has two daughters — both teachers — Tera Billings Witcher of Cookeville, who married a professor at Tennessee Tech, and Melissa Torbett of North Georgia, whose husband is also a teacher. Besides the two girls, she has a grandson, 6, who is interested in drawing, and a granddaughter, 3, and a grandson, 3. Between the Kidwells, they have 15 grandchildren.
“That keeps me busy,” she said. “It’s fun to watch them and wonder what they will wind up doing.”
Her travels began on a trip with a student tour to Italy in 1977, the first of 25 student tours. It was only the beginning of annual trips, except for two years. A student in that first trip, she said, is now an interpreter in Italy.
As travelers, too, students gained an appreciation of their own country. One exclaimed to his fellow students when returning, “You live in the greatest country in the world.”
An art teacher in college went to Europe by ship and she told Kidwell, “When you go to Europe, go by ship at least one way.” But the plane has remained her transportation. And now the tour groups consist of mostly adults — for the last three years, it was all adults.
She said it’s a thrill to look at a history book and see the places she has visited. “I’ve seen that,” she exclaims — “can you believe ...” She said it never gets old — “you want to go back and each trip is different.”
Kidwell has planned another trip for Australia, New Zealand and Fuji in June. It will also include Sidney, Melbourne and Cairnes. And her trips now attract people from out of state who want to travel with the group.
Kidwell said she wanted to stress how proud she is of students and their accomplishments. So many, she continued, are employed in careers relating to the arts such as interior designer, sculptor, graphics designer and art teacher. One former student took her place as art teacher at Cleveland High School for four years before moving to Texas, and others include a painter, art therapist, set director and designer for religious music in Nashville; one has a design company in New York City, one is a teacher at Savannah College of Art and Design and one is a teacher in Shanghai, China. Many, she said, “who have pursued careers in art have done extremely well.”
When she was getting her master’s degree, Kidwell taught most of the time, as she has during her adult life. When someone mentioned retirement, she asked, “Who would I be?”
But Kidwell thought retirement would give her more time. Then someone told her, “If you think you’re busy now ... wait until you retire.” She said it is indeed hard to get everything accomplished. Although she retired from her teaching position at Cleveland High School, she still teaches. She taught at Lee through May of last year. She said she had always loved teaching.
Kidwell wants people to recognize art is such an important part of education. Some students, she said, finish school because the art classes motivate them and give them encouragement. Parents have said, “My child made it through high school because of art classes.”
She recalled a meeting with the parents of a new student. Their child wanted to take art and they wanted to be sure he would be in the best class. As they talked, the mother said Kidwell looked familiar, then realized she had been her teacher. She said, “He’ll be fine.”
Once, when Kidwell attended an AP Studio Art workshop, she took slides of her students’ work to ask advice from the presenter, who was also a representative of the College Board. Students in Kidwell’s AP courses were to submit portfolios to be graded by the College Board. When the representative saw the portfolio of her students’ work, she said, “Martha, a lot of this is better than the slides I brought as examples.” The students who submitted their portfolios that year received College Board’s highest grade.
Her mother and husband both have health problems, and that means Jack no longer accompanies her on the trips. Retirement may not give her any more time, but in her new studio, she escapes to a world of art. Recently, she did the design for the new library — a circular motif with architectural details. In addition, she does commissions and has two paintings in progress.
Eight years ago, she did her first mural for Wesley United Methodist Church — Jesus in the Garden of Gathsemane (2003). She added the Good Shepherd in 2005 and has just finished the mural of Christ in time for the church’s anniversary.
And, she said, “I hope I never have to quit traveling. ... I hear they have wheelchair tours.”