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Southwest Philly art teacher develops recipe for success

THE SKINNED, headless rabbit hung upside down above a wood table, its feet bound and its arms outstretched as if it were racing toward the ground.

THE SKINNED, headless rabbit hung upside down above a wood table, its feet bound and its arms outstretched as if it were racing toward the ground.

The table was adorned with lavender baby's breath flowers, a glass of white wine and the ingredients used in Osteria's signature dish, casalinga, or rabbit with polenta: kosher salt, butter, rosemary, sage and pancetta .

For fine diners at the Spring Garden restaurant, this is dinner. For visiting art teacher Deva Watson and her four students from Southwest Leadership Academy Charter School, in the Paschall section of Southwest Philly, this is art.

Food linked with art is one of Watson's out-of-the-box ideas that excite her bosses, nonprofit officials and, most significantly, her students. The Northeast Phillly native has exposed her previous students to graffiti artists by setting up online chats with the taggers and taking field trips to Brooklyn to meet political figures such as IRA member Danny Morrison.

Watson, 27, has spent almost half her life in Philly's food industry - the tips and paycheck helped pay for her undergraduate degree at Temple University and her masters in art education from the University of the Arts. When she became an art teacher, she started running her classes as if they were kitchens.

She's not "Ms. Watson" to her students - they call her "chef."

She has a mantra in class: "We have to work hard, work clean and with efficiency. We only have 45 minutes, let's go," said Watson, who fills in occasionally as a waitress at Center City eatery Pub & Kitchen and works twice a week running food at Zahav, an Israeli restaurant in Society Hill.

"We don't cook in our kitchen, but I always say, 'Let's get cooking on art,' " said Watson, a graduate of the Philadelphia High School for Creative and Performing Arts.

Her latest venture is called "Fresh Palates to Palettes," a collaboration with creative-arts nonprofit Fresh Artists that aims to not only to teach art, but also expose its participating students to various career paths.

Fresh Artists' founder and president, Barbara Chandler Allen, heard the idea and was immediately drawn to it. The nonprofit helped Watson design and implement the program.

"We were just very honored to work with her," Allen said. "She's brilliant. She's inventive. She's brave. Serious-minded, tough on the kids. And that's why the children are so devoted to her and eager to be in her presence."

They started off the program earlier this month, when Watson began teaching the class about still lifes, and students visited the Barnes Foundation to study the works of Cezanne, Soutine and Van Gogh.

At Osteria, the four students drew the casalinga as a still-life portrait using pencil on paper. They met Osteria's chef and co-owner, Jeff Michaud, who took them on a tour of the kitchen and answered their questions.

And they ate the rabbit dish after some trepidation. All four of the budding artists liked it, including Lynus Aubee.

"Coming here is better than hearing about it," he said.