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Growing up in the Mission District of San Francisco, raised by a father who taught high school English and Spanish, and a mother who graded papers for college history teachers, Nick Mancillas learned to love education.

"I didn't know what I was going to do, but I eventually ended up in my father's profession," he said.

For the past 20 years, Mancillas, 51, has taught art at Piner High School, but for him, it's not enough to just teach art. He has charted his own way as an artist, as well.

"Art was something that I just naturally gravitated to," he said.

"I grew up around the museums in the city."

He believes that it is vital, both for himself and his students, to be both a teacher and artist.

"To me, it feels like I'm providing a healthy model for the students," he said.

"I'm actually out there as an artist, getting some rejections and having some successes."

Belen Chavez, 17, of Rohnert Park, a senior at Piner, has taken art classes from Mancillas for the past four years.

"He motivates you, because you see him every day and see his passion for art," she said. "That is reflected in the way that he lives and the way that he teaches."

While Mancillas sometimes shares his own work with his students, he doesn't suggest they imitate him, Chavez said.

"He respects his students as artists," she said.

"He has a very different style from my own. If you have a vision, he'll respect it, and as long as you accomplish your vision, he's satisfied."

Mancillas' current show, "Cardboard Currency," is on display at the Capital One 360 Cafe Gallery in San Francisco through April 22.

He also has a piece showing in a group exhibit at the Blue Line Gallery in Roseville, near Sacramento, through April 15. (For more information, see nickmancillas.com.)

"I take cardboard that I find and I paint on it," Mancillas explained.

"For anyone noticing our economy, and the devaluation of our money, I thought it would be interesting to paint pictures of the one-, 10-, 20- and hundred-dollar bills."

There's a bit of social commentary implied in these pictures, which provide "a contrast between this disposable commodity, cardboard, and these valuable images of money," he said.

Mancillas finds it amusing that his cardboard paintings of money are on exhibit in what he calls "a paperless bank," at Capital One's cafe in San Francisco.

"People come in with their laptops and do their banking," he said.

"Money is a concept. My work is conceptual. It really fits this space."

Remodeled homes

Mancillas took a roundabout route to his careers as both teacher and artist. After receiving a bachelor of fine arts in painting at the San Francisco Art Institute in 1985, he got his general contractor's license and spent the next eight years remodeling old Victorian houses.

After he married his wife, Leslie, in 1989, "I decided that I should transition to a career that was more steady than construction," Mancillas said.

He received his teaching credential from San Francisco State University in 1993 and started teaching at Piner the same year. But his quest wasn't over.

"I've always worked on my art to one degree or another, but as our two daughters grew older, I started to get the itch to go back to school and pursue art," Mancillas said.

Mancillas' daughters are both college students now. Tiffany, 21, studies at Southern Oregon University in Ashland, Ore. Marisa, 17, attends Santa Rosa Junior College.

When they were younger, "I would often give them platitudes about how it's important to believe in your dreams," he said.

"I felt I needed to show that."

Visual arts degree

During the breaks in his teaching schedule, Mancillas spent two years earning his master of fine arts degree in visual arts from the Art Institute of Boston, finishing the program in 2009.

At the same time, Mancillas resolved to show his work in public.

"I made art in my garage studio, but I decided to get serious about being an artist that shows and shares his work," he said.

"The Arts Institute of Boston, at Leslie University, had a show where I combined my work with some student art from Piner High School and some high schools on the East Coast, in the Boston area," he said.

Mancillas' walk-the-talk approach to both art and education, combined with an informal style, make him effective in the classroom, said Michael Doucette, who teaches ceramics at Piner High School.

"It opens his students up, and allows them to feel that being a kid is OK," Doucette said.

"He definitely encourages them to find their own voice. He allows them to step up as individuals."

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at 521-5243 or dan.taylor@pressdemocrat.com. See his ARTS blog at http://arts.blogs.pressdemocrat.com.

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