The Art of the County
Some high schools have long traditions of championship football teams. Others are known for their emphasis on science and math.
Watauga High School is well known throughout the state for its superior visual arts program.
For more than four decades, WHS students have had the opportunity to learn to draw, paint and sculpt as a creative way to complement the standard high school curriculum.
The Watauga Arts Council will host a special art exhibit at the Jones House Community Center this month, featuring the work of WHS alumni artists. Some of the work is from their student days at WHS, while the majority of it represents their continuing love of art.
The WHS Alumni Art Show is on exhibit in both the Mazie Jones Gallery and the Open Door Gallery at the Jones House in downtown Boone.
A reception for the new exhibit will take place at the Jones House on Friday, Jan. 20, from 6 to 8 p.m. The reception is free and open to the public.
The principal organizer of the WHS alumni exhibit is Shelton Wilder, an art teacher who has worked at Watauga High since the mid-1970s.
“There are a lot of mighty fine works of art in this exhibit,” Wilder said. “I find the variety to be interesting to view. There are larger works of complex intentions and small works that are equally as captivating. I know, with the range of subject motif and design, there will be something for everyone to enjoy.”
Having worked at Watauga High School for nearly four decades, Wilder is a fountain of knowledge when it comes to the history of the art program in the school.
“I have been teaching at Watauga since 1975,” he said. “The visual art program began in 1970, and the first art teacher was Ms. Betty Wells. She was followed by Brenda Wey, who was (Appalachian State) chancellor (Herbert) Wey’s daughter. She taught there in cooperation with ASU for three years. In the first years of my teaching, ASU funded the position to the county. After two years, Watauga County picked up the position and has grown the program forward.”
Over the years, Wilder has seen the visual arts program at WHS grow into a full-fledged department.
“We now have four full-time visual art teachers at WHS: Susan Dunn, Lori Hill, and I teach studio art. Lori Hill, a former WHS Art alum, who is exhibiting in this show, began teaching studio art at WHS in 1987. She also started the photo and digital imaging classes. Whit Whitaker came on board as the Studio Crafts teacher in 1994. He has developed our Empty Bowls project for our community.”
With four full-time art teachers at WHS, students can develop their skills in a number of different areas, including photography, ceramics, printmaking and other visual arts.
“We offer a full course curriculum in art and many of our students take art all four years in high school,” Wilder said. “Some even take AP level studio art and prepare portfolios for college credit and scholarship. I have taught over 3,500 students in my years at WHS. Our program reaches a large percentage of the student body each year.”
Despite the fact that the art program at the high school level is flourishing, Wilder worries about elementary and middle school-aged kids not getting as much exposure to the subject as they used to.
“At one time, we had a great feeder program from the elementary schools,” he said. “Then we had six visual art teachers serving the eight county schools. The elementary art program has taken some budget cuts and been reduced to three teachers: Dacia Tretheway, Jill Huffman, and Chad Saferstone, serving all eight schools. These teachers do a great job, but are spread very thin and many students never get the chance to have art class.
“This is disappointing to witness, and we hope to see a way out of this decreased emphasis in the arts someday soon. The pendulum swings in education, and the humanities will surface again as important in the development of the whole child. Watauga County is an arts community and, hopefully, someday soon these positions will be restored.”
Last month, Wilder started spreading the news about the current WHS Alumni Art Show as a way of encouraging former students to submit their work. And boy did they ever. More than 40 artists are represented in the show, and the graduation timeline ranges from the WHS class of 1972 to the class of 2010.
“There are some former students who live in our community and make their careers in the arts,” Wilder said. “Quite a few brought works by over their home visits during the holidays. Some mailed in their work from distant locations. The works in the show represent artists who are living as far away as Portland, Ore.”
The WHS Alumni Art Show features former students who have kept up with making art as a hobby, as well as others who have gone on to become professional artists. Those professionals include Andrew Abbott, Toni Carlton, Wayne Miller, Josh Spiceland and Kyle Keeter.
“Many of these artists use their creativity in related jobs, such as teaching, photography or arts promotion,” Wilder said. “And others are finding their art as hobby and as a rewarding life-long learning experience. Art is one of those skills you develop that you never forget, like riding a bike. Just pick up your pencil and paint and go at it again. You usually find it’s an enjoyable ride.”
Many of these artists first discovered they had a knack for creating visual art in the classrooms at Watauga High School.
“My art experience in high school both made my time in high school memorable and set me on a path of a career in art,” said Heather Pilchard, WHS class of 1982, now a professional artist living in New England. “I remember the art classes I took in high school not as a particular ‘class,’ but more as an environment I would enter into. The environment was simply called ‘the art room.’ It was a place I felt the most comfortable to just be myself and to discover myself.”
Some of the exhibiting artists are even more passionate about what the WHS art classes meant to their educational experience.
“Art classes at Watauga High saved me in high school,” said Hannah Pertallion, WHS class of 2006, now earning a BFA in sculpture at Towson University. “Despite getting good grades academically, I would have probably dropped out or worse if not for Shelton Wilder, Mrs. Hill and Whit. I had known since I was little that I wanted to be an artist, and I am so thankful that Watauga has such a wonderful arts program.
“For a smaller school in the middle of nowhere, we are incredibly blessed. Watauga AP art classes prepared me for art classes in college. Art classes aren’t just some ‘fun extra’ that can be cut from education. Art teaches people to think creatively, which is important in all aspects of education and life once you get out of school.”
Added Wilder, “I hope everyone will realize this exhibit is a reflection of our community. These are our ‘homeys.’ They have gained their education in our schools and have applied their skills in our community and across the state. Their creative influence is felt in the arts world, in education, and in their families and how their children have been taught.
“While there are over 40 artists represented here, there are many more who are making a difference all across the nation in film, design, architecture, education and service. You never know where your art might take you, but you can always bring it back home.”
For more information on the WHS Alumni Art Show, or the January 20 artists’ reception, call the Watauga Arts Council at (828) 264-1789. The Jones House Community Center is locatd at 604 W. King St. in downtown Boone.