I’m forever grateful that I ended up with an amazing second grade teacher, high school art teacher, and two Appalachian parents who all supported and enthusiastically encouraged my love of art throughout my schooling. That’s rare in these parts.
Now before you get madder’na wet hen, that’s no jab at mountain folk. I am mountain folk. It’s simply the truth. This is my story to tell, and the lack of interest/support of the arts is a very real part of my experience as a young artist growing up in small-town Georgia, Sand Mountain to be exact.
An insensitive and lost opportunity would be had if I couldn’t recognize WHY this is the case. But I do. The view of art, especially as a career is a generationally held viewpoint that birthed from the necessity of practicality. First, Trenton is flanked by not one, but two mountains which had to have made expansion a bit more difficult than comparable Appalachian regions, hence a perfect storm for familial beliefs and ways of living to brew, with not much need to adapt or progress. Second, mountain people are resilient, hardworking, and know the anguish of watching corporations wallow in the wealth of resources extracted by our people who only have calluses, black lung, and a modest paycheck to show for it. I reckon anyone forced to focus on mere survival would view art as a petty luxury that only people who could entertain “thriving” rather than “surviving” could afford. So I get it. I really do.
I do recognize that all of this didn’t stop us from creating some of the most beautiful folk art on the planet, but it did stump the prospects of art as anything more than a weekend hobby for many of us.
I think that’s where the challenge arose for me. Let me preface by saying that I speak from a place of privilege in that my parents did break the generational cycle of poverty that shrouded our family tree and therefore were more able and willing to entertain art as my career choice.I wanted art to be my livelihood; a radical notion to generations past. When someone asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I received hesitant “oh okays” rather than sincere accolades when I announced that I wanted to be an artist or designer. In a town so fond of supporting athletics, I found approval and fellowship on the ball fields or gymnasiums. When it came to art though, there wasn’t anyone else, or so I thought.
To my initial joy and frustration a few years back, I learned that our town had actually had an active arts council throughout my young years; Joy because I realized that despite the stigma, our little town actually had been interested in cultivating the arts, and frustration because I had no idea back then. Why had the school not worked with the council to connect young artists with council mentors? Were community artists even interested in investing time into teenagers? Were the schools even interested in investing time into fine art students? I’m sure there was an abundance of red tape that kept all these connections and investments from happening, or so I hope at least.
I’m happy to announce that the local arts council has since been reestablished, and I would be remiss not to mention other artistic endeavors that folks in the community have undertaken. Our local library offers monthly art experiences for the teenagers in our community, many of which are taught by local practicing artists and/or art council members. In addition, the county visitor center displays locally-made art and has an arts committee responsible for hosting a community art show which was hugely successful for the first show! I was ecstatic to see that three of my previous art students participated. The little mountain community that my mother grew up in hosts an area-famous arts and crafts festival and the best chicken stew for a chilly autumn day. Also, all four county schools now have art class offerings, and I offer private art lessons to students wanting one-on-one instruction.
Despite prominent progress, our Appalachian home still has room for growth in the arena of fine art. Young artists, often students, are recruited for community beautification projects, business logos, poster designs etc. for a discount price. Folks mean well offering them opportunities to practice their craft, but they should be compensated fairly. Many art-related businesses, galleries, and cafes lay boarded up in vacant gravel lots and plazas throughout the county. In addition, as a student liaison for the Public Arts Committee, I still find it challenging to engage the students at our public schools for artistic community opportunities. Art falls into the cracks between more “practical” jobs, soccer practice, homework, AP classes, homework, family, etc. And that makes sense for people not particularly interested in art. But for students who live and breathe art as I did, I hope that their calluses are validated in our Appalachian community also, even though hard labor or sporting equipment didn’t create them; A paint brush did.
What is it about a hot shower that invites internal conflict?
I know that I’m not the only one.
One minute I’m basking in peppermint infused steam and body scrub, then the next I’m replaying a sixth grade argument in my head and going over what I should’a, would’a, or could’a said.
As a third grader, a substitute teacher who frequented the school but had not covered any class of mine yet, called us to attention and began reading us the book left on the weekly agenda. As the paragraph presented us an idea that our young minds couldn’t quite grasp, we began asking questions. Perhaps frustrated that she didn’t have an answer or maybe she was fighting an invisible personal battle that none of us little ones could understand, she frustratingly yelled at us, calling to attention our apparent incompetence and demanding that we listen, and thus, understand the content.
I got up out of my seat, asked her to be excused (I was/am a rule-follower, so at least I asked) and marched straight to the office to tell them what had just happened. “It’s just not right” I remember telling them.
The principal respectfully listened to my concerns, and suggested that myself and classmates write the substitute a letter asking if she could be more kind. We did just that, and to our astonishment, she apologized to us.
This situation taught me several things at such a young age: First, being assertive (not aggressive) and taking up for what is right is important. Second, an adult had taken the time to listen to my concerns, and that gave me courage and faith in humanity that I have carried throughout my life since. I hope that I extended this courtesy to my own students who I taught for several years of my life. Lastly and arguably most importantly, most solutions to conflict can offer the benefit-of-the-doubt; a chance for people to reflect and redeem. We all deserve that.
I still think about this moment in the shower. It stands out because it’s finished business, resolved conflict, forgiven and forgotten.
But this fleeting instance of elusive resolve is heavily outweighed by those cringe moments I unfortunately replay every time I step into my claw foot.
Like when a once-upon-a-time friend and coworker, with her chin up-turned and her head gyrating slightly with sass as she explained how a mother at her church admitted that she sometimes forgot to play with her children. I assume (and I could be wrong) that what this mother meant is that sometimes the day gets away from her in the midst of work, dishes, hour-long phone calls with insurance companies, etc. “Like how do you forget to play with your kids?!” she snarked, as she walked around my art classroom tidying things up to her own standards. I cowardly agreed with her self-righteous comments instead of taking up for this most likely fatigued and overwhelmed mother.
Or like the time that sealed my decision (which I’d already been contemplating for three years) to leave the teaching field.
I met my husband in his classroom to have a much anticipated lunch together. I wasn’t two bites into my grilled chicken sandwich when he told me that he had been told to “shut up” by one of the administrators. As he continued telling me about the verbal lashing he had received from the little red man (because his face was often flushed in an angry scarlet that completely engulfed his already red hairline), third grade Heidi was awakened. This situation, along with countless more, wasn’t right. So many times, I had watched this man come bellowing down the hallway like a steam roller to observe some poor, unsuspecting teacher. He would walk with such haste at times, that his upper half seemed to turn corners far before the lower, trying to catch up to his ego that was 100 yards ahead of him I imagine. He reminded me of Gossamer (which both ironically and fittingly means thin or fragile) from Looney Tunes; a big, red, destructive monster who could hide behind a heart-shaped body and facade of decency. Unlike my third grade experience, people listened to concerns too little and definitely too late in this situation, and any chances of reflection or apology left town in moving boxes, red-handed.
I think shower arguments can be a time for reflection. Maybe even helpful to our future selves when conflict inevitably arises. However, what if we purposefully incorporate shower APOLOGIES as well?
I’d love to turn back time and apologize for judging a dear friend for partying and drinking too much alcohol. I’d also like to thank her for promptly reminding me of my own (and many) inequities. I still cringe at my gross hypocrisy and am so grateful to her for snapping me back to reality.
Or the apology that I denied a kind young woman who approached Nick and I in a Gatlinburg Wendy’s with two free Dollywood tickets. Earlier, she and her mother had struck up friendly conversation with Nick as they were all in line waiting to order. But me, in my pregnancy-induced irritability, couldn’t separate what seemed to be a sales-pitchy imposition on my long-awaited dinner, or an act of genuine kindness. Instantly, I could tell that I ruined her blessing as she walked back to the table, head hung, and told her mother that I had turned down her gift.
May our shower thoughts be mostly apologies instead of arguments. What could we have said to someone deserving? How can this reflection help us be more kind in the future? I think as long as that conviction is there, we won’t have to live like Gossamer: ugly, red, and menacing.
Art business owner journaling about my artistic adventures.