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Fox Gradin has spent 25 years directing summer art camp in Gainesville. This is what keeps her going
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Gainesville artist Fox Gradin recently wrapped up her 25th year of directing art camp at Quinlan Visual Arts Center. For eight weeks every summer, she puts her life on hold to teach almost 500 children of all ages. - photo by Scott Rogers

Ask Fox Gradin about art camp and she’ll tell you what it means to bloom where you’re planted and open doors for those who think they’re bolted shut.

Gradin recently wrapped up her 25th year of directing summer art camp at Quinlan Visual Arts Center — a milestone she’s been building toward the entirety of her adulthood. 

And as long as she’s able, she aims to make it 25 more.

“I can’t see ever not having that in my life,” she said. “It’s almost part of my circadian rhythm; summer comes and this is what I do for eight weeks, and then I send them back to school.”

A Gainesville native, muralist, photographer, drummer, professional belly dancer, wife and mother of three, each time camp rolls around, Gradin puts the rest of her life on hold to turn her time and attention to the 500 or so kids who show up to make art.

“There’s a group of kids that needs someone to encourage them in art,” she said. “When I think about myself at that age, I could have used me.”

At 46, Gradin doesn’t recall how she got roped into art camp initially, just that the Quinlan’s former executive director Maureen Files was involved and that, at its inception, the camp was a one-room operation as the studio rooms hadn’t yet been added to the building. The rest, Gradin said, is lost in the mist. 

What isn’t lost, though, is the undeniable passion she has for nurturing Gainesville’s youngest artists.

“For me, it’s just being someone that they can trust,” Gradin said. “I take them how they show up at the door. Sometimes it’s very touching, because I can see the kids developing and I can see them — like when we go through a drawing lesson or an art lesson and they create something and they say, ‘I didn’t know I could do that.’ Man, that’s the stuff right there. And then I go, ‘Well, I knew you could do that. You just needed to trust me.’ Those are the moments that really get to me and keep me coming back.”

But Gradin isn’t the only one who’s returned year after year. She’s spotted some familiar, albeit grown-up, faces at art camp in recent years: former students who, now parents themselves, have started bringing their children to experience “the chaos and the freedom” that is art camp.

“That’s really a cool thing for me to experience. I’ve been in it long enough now to now I get to see another generation. And it’s the coolest thing when the adults come back and they say, ‘This is what art camp did for me’ and they can pinpoint what art camp did in their lives. I love to be part of people’s redevelopment and reinvention, just a tiny little part.”

For Gradin, one such event stands out among the rest.

“I remember a kid that was really animated and she was always being told not to be animated, to calm down and behave herself. I thought she was really funny, and I told her that. I told her, ‘You need to go into acting. You belong on the stage. That’s where your personality is and I can see you in the future being an actor.’”

Years later, Gradin’s words came full-circle; the student came back to say that because of Gradin’s encouragement, “she felt that she did have a gift. It was that someone had given her support where there was no other. Now she’s acting — she’s on Broadway. She made it. … I hate to say it’s because of me; I just opened a door that she thought was shut.”

As the owner of Celestial Studios in midtown Gainesville, Gradin teaches an even mixture of kids and adults about artistic expression, fostering the confidence that, despite their doubts and insecurities, there’s a few ounces of magic to be found in the process.

“I target the people who are not artistic,” Gradin said. “I hear that all the time: ‘I can’t draw a stick figure.’ But when they walk into this studio, it doesn’t matter. I’m really interested in people connecting with the journey of creativity instead of the outcome. I want people to come in here and let the process transform them. … Of course, the end result is awesome, but seeing it happen is the real magic.”

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Gainesville artist Fox Gradin recently wrapped up her 25th year of directing art camp at Quinlan Visual Arts Center. For eight weeks every summer, she puts her life on hold to teach almost 500 children of all ages. - photo by Scott Rogers

Gradin has also been instrumental in opening doors in Gainesville’s public art scene — a process in and of itself.

“I’m really passionate about public art. I’ve done muraling all up and down the east coast, (but) it’s just now that the Gainesville community has started to open its arms to that, so I’m really excited — because for a long time, I did murals in all other communities except my own,” she said. “I am proud of my community for trusting me and trusting the artists in this community to give back and beautify our community through art.”

Gradin credits the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce-sponsored Vision 2030 Public Art Committee, on which she sits with other local artists, dedicated listeners and leadership figures, with “pushing the gas” on public art, along with seeing it crop up in neighboring communities.

“I think that seeing other communities embrace public art that are close to us has opened that conversation up for this community; I think seeing it happen was what this community needed in order to push forward into these opportunities,” she said. “I'm thankful to the community for their support of me and I'll continue working for the community until I can't anymore. I'm grateful every day that I'm able to use my talents to help.”

Among Gradin’s favorite public art projects are the dumpster at Tap It in downtown Gainesville, and the Gainesville Department of Water Resources’ annual hydrant contest, in which elementary students across Hall County are tasked with designing a bright, vivid fire hydrant. The three winning designs are given to Gradin, who translates them onto real hydrants on the students’ behalf.

“When it comes down to it, there’s a certain magic (in) watching that happen — and that’s the gold of public art, walking up on something that you didn’t know was going to be there,” Gradin said. “There’s something about the process, and there’s something about the discovery of it that’s as important as what it looks like in the end. And that goes back to art camp, too. It’s being there and challenging yourself to make something happen. And if you fail at it, look what you learned along the way.”

Gradin has always been immersed in art, she said, commandeering her father’s Canon early on to shoot photos of anyone who would let her. But the thought of it becoming a viable career option didn’t occur until she got to the University of North Georgia, where she earned her degree in fine art and photography.

“I actually didn’t believe that I could do anything like that. It seemed like — and I think it seems like this to a lot of people — something that happens for other people that you see in movies or you read about in books,” Gradin said. “But art happens all the time. Everything we see, everything is art. I woke up one morning and I just thought, ‘Somebody’s got to do that, and that could be me. There’s no reason why it can’t be me.’ On the flip side of that, you gotta hustle. It doesn’t just come to you. It’s been a development over 46 years, for sure.”

If she could go back, Gradin would deliver one message to her younger self: “I would tell myself that there is nothing wrong with seeing the world differently than everybody else,” she said. “I would tell myself that my weirdness is going to pay off, that people will listen to me eventually and to not try to be like everyone else — it’s a waste of time. You’ve got to be yourself.”

In lieu of time travel, she’s found other ways to get her point across to recipients who need to hear it in real-time.

“I want everyone to feel the fire of creativity like I do, and if I can introduce that even just a little bit to people, I feel like I’ve shared myself,” she said. “Maybe that’s my drive — to open the door for people just a little bit, so that they can see themselves differently than they see themselves in the mirror.”

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Gainesville artist Fox Gradin recently wrapped up her 25th year of directing art camp at Quinlan Visual Arts Center. For eight weeks every summer, she puts her life on hold to teach almost 500 children of all ages. - photo by Scott Rogers