Following the dreams, 4500 miles from Switzerland

Renwick with her husband and two sons at the Chicago bean.

Photo by Sasha Baumgartner

Renwick with her husband and two sons at the Chicago bean.

By Ida Soeholm Bertram, Reporter

Of all the staff at West Chicago Community High School, there is only one who was born and raised in a European, German-speaking country. This individual speaks fluent French,  German and English, and is a talented part-time artist – besides also working as a dean’s assistant and study hall teacher.

Everyday, over 650 students have the pleasure to spend at least one class period with this woman in her colorful and artful room, located near the LRC. 

Of course, the woman is Britta Renwick.

Renwick was willing to meet up for an interview during her first-hour study hall period one morning in March, explaining it was possible there would be interruptions from either students asking questions or seeking passes, or teachers looking to give her quizzes and tests for the students.

There was traffic in Renwick’s large classroom, 2148-2149, with people almost waiting in a line to talk with her by her desk. There sat Renwick, surrounded by her many different forms of Swiss cows, a family calendar, pride flag and a couple of idyllic posters on the wall behind her – all of beautiful nature, taken in her home country, Switzerland by Renwick herself.

The words “Welcome to study hall” are written in an artistic way on the wide whiteboard by the entrance door, making everybody feel welcome: small or big, staff or students, European or not. 

One of Renwick’s students, senior Laura Correa said, “She always has fun different art activities for us students to do, if we don’t have homework. She is clearly a nice person who likes having us students.”

Embracing students’ interests and activities is part of who she is. Renwick was wearing a black and green “We are ROAR mentors” sweatshirt from the WEGO’S ROAR club, matching the rest of her colorful green outfit with homemade earrings and a big smile hidden behind a greenish mask when I first sat down with her on March 10. 

Twenty-eight years ago, 26-year-old adventurous Renwick arrived in Midwestern America to  travel around with her brother’s family-owned travel agency for 6 months. Her brother’s company, luckily, helped Renwick in that she was able to travel to America with the hopes of learning English and enjoying a nice vacation experience. Little did Renwick know the significance of this Chicago-trip: it was an experience that would affect the rest of her life, contrary to her initial plans. It was in the U.S. Renwick met her now-husband, Englishman Ian Renwick, who wanted her to stay.

When asked to provide three adjectives to describe Renwick, the love of her life said, ”kind, intelligent, funny, thoughtful, beautiful. Did I mention I can’t count?”

Before the most meaningful journey of Renwick’s life in the United States, she lived in a little city called Lucerne, located in Switzerland, with her parents and siblings. Lucerne was where she spent her whole childhood.

Renwick describes her school time in Switzerland as “very different from here, where all the schools were much smaller, but I loved my time in both high school and college.”

Several decades later, she and Ian still live in West Chicago. Ian expresses their marriage as “lovely. After many years of marriage, I couldn’t imagine anything else.”

Together they have two sons, Alec and Sean, who graduated from WEGO years back. Both are part-time artists too, and remain close with their parents. 

Renwick’s parents and sons pose for a family photo in Switzerland.

Sean, the oldest of Renwick’s two sons, said, “I am in Switzerland right now studying, and whenever I need advice, help or a talk she is always the first person I call and we still text each other goodnight every night before bed.”

The Renwicks also have two cats.

When the Swiss study hall teacher does not spend time with family or friends, Renwick can often be found in Gallery 200, West Chicago, sitting behind the front desk, selling and making her own art pieces, organizing and producing art shows, and much more. 

Gallery 200 is a gallery that showcases a variety of art and mixed media pieces from local artists, in addition to displaying artwork from students attending nearby schools. The facility opens their door every year to the spring art show that promotes the work of WEGO’s art students taking classes in ceramics, drawing, painting and photography.

The director of the West Chicago museum, Sara Phalen, describes Renwick’s work in Gallery 200 as; “we are all so grateful for all Britta’s work and it makes a huge difference for West Chicago in general.” 

One of Renwick’s first 3D pieces made mostly out of toilet paper.

Specifically, taking photographs and making jewelry are the types of art Renwick focuses on the most. With enthusiasm in her voice, Renwick said, “I like to do anything, but jewelry is the fastest to make, and I can do it during the whole year.”

Renwick offers year-round jewelry-making classes at Gallery 200. Her earrings are often in one specific color and a spiral shape with a sense of personal touch..

The passion for creativity has always been in Renwick’s life, and she shares an enjoyment of the arts with many of her family members, including her father, sister and sons.

Renwick’s son, Sean, said, “Art has always been a very important part of our family and when we were really little, my mom would sit us out on the deck with paper and finger paints and just let us go crazy.”

Renwick’s biggest inspiration and favorite artist is her father, who always has been a part-time artist with a special talent for oil painting, a fact which makes Renwick especially proud. 

Renwick’s father and mother said, “If you want something, you can make it yourself. We don’t have to buy it for you, just make it,” and that is how Renwick remembers she got into homemade art at a young age.

One of Renwick’s fabulous jewelry pieces.

Her father is also the one who inspired Renwick to follow her dreams, even if they took her across the Atlantic Ocean and approximately 4,500 miles away from the home country. 

With a big smile, Renwick mentioned a meaningful French proverb her father always says:

 “C’est le ton qui fait la musique,” or in English, “It’s the tone that makes the music.”

For Renwick, the quote means, “All depends on how you say something, not only what you say.”

The close-knit Renwick clan, many years back, also worked together to host a whole-family art show called “Generations of Art”, which Renwick thinks of as her most memorable art show to date. The three generations, including Renwick’s father, Renwick and her sister,  and Renwick’s sons, combined their art for the show, which allowed them to spend quality time together as a family.  The exhibit was November 4th, 2016 at the Gallery 200.

“ It was actually very easy and organizing with mom came very naturally” said Sean about how the teamwork with his mom had been for making the show ready.

“Art is what gives me the energy back, and makes me feel much better. My sons used to tell me to go make a necklace or something, when they were little and I felt stressed,” said Renwick, who, after so many years, still keeps art as a high priority.

Every summer, usually, Renwick returns to Switzerland both to see and catch-up with family, and to take lots of pictures of the Swiss mountains and nature. She uses her photographs to create posters, bookmarks and more.

The hardest part for Renwick being away from Switzerland, even after so many years, is how much she misses her family and the different way of life offered in Europe. 

The Swiss study hall teacher said, “In Europe, it takes a lot longer to get to know somebody, but you get really good and close friendships. When you get to know people, here in America, it is [harder] to find close relationships, sometimes, at first. So I had to learn how people are here in order to feel comfortable. And I am still not like Americans.”

Switzerland’s beautiful nature is also something Renwick looks forward to seeing when she visits. However, it is not just Switzerland’s nature that inspires Renwick’s artwork, but also WEGO’s students, who give her many ideas. Sometimes, she gets an idea for an art piece from statements the students express, or their feelings and/or appearance.

Renwick’s most recently sold art piece is called Crossed, and she made the artwork in 2020, a period in which Renwick shared artistic expressions of sadness during the lockdown.

“I think it was probably the strongest piece I made, ever, and there was so much that had to come out of expressions and feelings,” said Renwick.

Phalen said, “Her newest sold piece, from 2020, is my all-time favorite because of the thoughts behind it and, of course, the look.”

In the ongoing show this month at Gallery 200, Renwick’s art will be on display, as well as art pieces from some of West Chicago Community High School’s art students, through April 29. 

COVID or not, the study hall position has, for around four years, been Renwick’s. She was asked by the previous study hall teacher, Edie Freund, a friend of Renwick’s, to take over the job when Freund retired. At the time, Renwick was working in the LRC as a front desk receptionist, a job she also held for four years.

Dr. Will Dwyer, principal at West Chicago Community High School, explainedRenwick’s work is essential. He said, “She oversees one of the most important programs in our building and provides students the flexibility they need to have a quiet study period or just a moment to catch their breath. And, she is one of the most giving and kind employees we have. She is hardworking, genuine and truly loves her job and our WEGO students.”

While a lot of her time as a dean’s assistant/study hall teacher at West Chicago High Community School has been affected by COVID, Renwick still said, “I love the contact with all my students and getting to know them better than only saying ‘hi’ and ‘goodbye’ and see[ing] how they really are doing, even though there is a lot of quiet time too.”

Despite all the communication with students and staff, and the responsibility to stay on top of her many students’ grades, there seems to be nothing that stresses Renwick. In fact, during our interview, she outlined how much she appreciates having the possibility of a nice relationship both with the students and other coworkers. 

 Renwick said, “Since I was little, I always knew that I wanted to be a teacher and I loved working with students.”

Renwick’s two adorable cats.

She has tried working with various age groups of students, but quickly found that small children are not as interesting to teach. Before her career at WEGO, she worked at different elementary schools as a teacher in Switzerland, and as a librarian for several years in the U.S. Now, Renwick gets her inspiration from high schoolers. 

Laughing, Renwick said, “In the very beginning, I started with first and second graders and thought they were way too little, and then fifth and sixth graders, and now high schoolers. So the older, the better.”

In the future, Renwick hopes to find more time to be creative. She thinks she will probably stay in the U.S., although she has thoughts about going back as much as possible to one of her two homes: Switzerland and the mountains.

In general, Renwick hopes people find more peace in the world and learn to be nice to each other.

“I think everybody has a big part in it, but you can’t change the world ever, but you can do your best to help out instead of being negative and aggressive. Again, it is very easy for me  to say that because I don’t really have a really hard life. So for me, it is much easier. If somebody has a hard life, it is harder to stay positive and not be aggressive. It is important that everybody tries their best,” said Renwick.