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Couple spends 20 years traveling, working with children in Las Vegas

Masks at Twitchell ES

Leila Navidi

First-graders Romio Zamora-Carmona, from left, Jack Vita and Tyson Barron show off their masks at Twitchell Elementary School in Henderson on Friday, Jan. 20, 2012.

Masks at Twitchell ES

Students at Twitchell Elementary School display the bear masks they made after a workshop with Ron and Marsha Feller at their school in Henderson Friday, Ja. 20, 2012. Launch slideshow »

Ron Feller took a pair of scissors to a piece of bright purple construction paper Friday morning and began to cut, a skill he had practiced as a 4-year-old under the gaze of Shriners Hospital nurses.

This time, instead of cutting paper on a hospital bed, Ron — joined by his wife, Marsha — entertained an audience of first- and second-graders at Neil C. Twitchell Elementary.

“I’m going to teach you some wonderful things with scissors, paper and glue,” Ron told the students.

For 20 years, the Fellers have been traveling from their home in Spokane, Wash., to elementary schools in the Las Vegas Valley to share the folk art of mask making, and song and story writing.

Las Vegas; Tucson, Ariz.; and Los Angeles are among the warmer places the couple travel to each year to escape their northern home’s icy weather.

“We’re working snowbirds,” said Marsha, 67, who could also call herself a songbird.

“We even stay in those snowbird suites,” added Ron, a retired music teacher who’s almost 70.

Ron’s passion for creating things out of paper grew from the days he spent playing with the scissors and paper nurses gave him at the Shriners Hospital in Portland.

“I had no hip socket,” Ron said. “It was a birth defect, but it hasn’t slowed us down.”

From ages 4 to 6, he spent time in and out of the hospital. He had several surgeries on his hip, and in those days, they put him in a body cast to keep his body still, Marsha said.

The Fellers have no children, but they see about 25,000 to 30,000 elementary students annually. Early Friday, they met with a few hundred of those children at Twitchell.

Ron played an ice cream truck jingle on his keyboard as 6-, 7- and 8-year-olds brimming with energy walked single file into Twitchell’s cafeteria. As the children waited for the assembly to start, they ogled a display of giant paper masks. One of Ron’s favorites, a majestic lion with a multicolored mane, hung as the centerpiece.

“I like the masks in the background,” said 7-year-old Camdyn Carpenter.

The age group will influence which masks they’ll make that day.

“Kids are so fresh and excited,” Ron said. “It means more to the kids than we think.”

Marsha, who welcomed the students, began singing a grade-school song and encouraged the students to sing along.

The Fellers soon explained that each student would be able to create his or her own mask. As Ron’s scissors met the construction paper, Marsha called on students to guess what face he was cutting out.

Students knew it was an animal, but the pieces of paper Ron held in his hands looked more like half of a Rorschach pattern.

It didn’t take long for one youngster to shout, “Bear!”

While Ron decorated his bear mask with eyes, a nose and a bow, Marsha asked a girl to stand up and show the crowd the animal — a white panda bear — sewn on the front of her pink shirt.

The girl proudly modeled her outfit, giving her peers an idea of what kind of bear they could create.

Once students were unleashed from the cafeteria they hurried back to their classrooms to get started tracing a template to cut out their bear masks.

Ron and Marsha wandered around the school that morning, popping in and out of classrooms to give pointers and compliments to hundreds of students busy cutting out paper bears that more closely shared characteristics with gummy bears then actual bears.

It’ll be the 38th year the Fellers are taking their act on the road. For the first few years they toured the United States with a school assembly circuit. Las Vegas music teachers attending a conference in Denver 20 years ago met the couple and urged their schools’ administrations to bring them out west.

Bozarth Elementary in northwest Las Vegas, Fay Galloway Elementary in Henderson and Twitchell Elementary in Green Valley are among the first of 15 schools the Fellers will be visiting this year. They’ll spend an average of three days at each school.

“Some schools invite us every single year as a tradition,” Marsha said.

Principals, like Susan Smith, who started out as teachers now invite the couple to their schools.

“You can tell they love what they do,” said the Twitchell Elementary principal, adding that she had to book the Fellers two years in advance.

Even though school budgets for programs are slashed, Smith said principals, teachers and parents are adamant about having the mask makers on their campus.

“Art is so underrated with the economy,” said Meghan Benedix, a mom and substitute teacher.

Her 7-year-old son Truman Prater made a red bear Friday.

“It’s a devil bear,” Benedix said with a laugh. “He made a pitchfork for it.”

Benedix volunteered that morning at her son’s school and observed the Feller effect.

The Fellers bring all the facets of tactile learning and pair it with sound and movement, said Scott Ober, principal at Solomon Schechter Day School, a private Jewish school.

Ober — once an assistant principal at C C Ronnow Elementary and Mountain View Elementary, and later a principal at both Wengert Elementary and Ober Elementary — has often invited the Fellers to his schools over the decades.

“They’re just so creative,” Ober said, “and they make it so simple.”

Ober heard of the Fellers when they first started traveling to Las Vegas.

“They don’t advertise, but every principal knows about them,” Smith said.

“We’ve never advertised,” Marsha said. “Self-promotion is not our strength.”

Teaching and the arts seem to be their strengths. Ron and Marsha first met while attending Central Washington University.

“We were in college singing together,” Marsha said. “We met singing.”

The couple went on to become teachers — Ron a music teacher, and Marsha taught grade school.

Inspiration for theFeller's Arts Factory came for the two educators at the 1974 World’s Fair in Spokane when they attended different American folk music and poetry performances.

“We love teaching; we love the arts,” Marsha said. “This is a perfect way for us to blend teaching and the arts.”

The Fellers started in a Volkswagen Beetle, before buying a Volkswagen Bus.

“We’re hippies with bowties,” Ron said.

Eventually, the couple started traveling in a vehicle about the size of an ice cream truck — minus the jingle.

“You can’t miss the Feller's Arts Factory truck,” Ron said.

It wasn’t until about three years ago they bought a house in Spokane.

"It’s nice to get home in June, and we’re homebodies for six months and we start up again," Marsha said.

In the fall they’ll start in Montana, but before that the couple plan to take their act overseas to a summer arts camp in London.

“It’s not just entertainment,” Ron said. “We try to leave something that can be duplicated after we leave.”

It’s an art that is passed along like a folk song, Ron added.

The Fellers are authors of two books: “Paper Masks and Puppets for Stories, Songs and Plays,” and “Fanciful Faces and Handbound Books: Fairy Tales.”

Schools like Twitchell have purchased at least one of their books and templates for the masks so their teachers can use them in craft projects, book reports and other activities.

“What’s not to love about the Fellers?” Ober asked. “The kids just adore it. They eat it up.”

Joanna Chi, a 7-year-old Twitchell student, certainly adored her paper bear Friday as she determined how she would decorate it.

“A bow like mine,” she said pointing to her pink T-shirt.

When each student had added the last-minute paper rose or paper mustache to their colorful bear, they reassembled in the cafeteria.

“I see bears with crowns, hats and bows,” Ron said.

Using lines the students had composed, Ron led the group in singing their newly written song, “Wonderful Bears.”

It’s one of hundreds more songs the Fellers intend to help students write by 2015, when they plan to retire.

By then the pair would have been teaching for a combined 100 years and they’ll have been married 50 years.

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