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Starving artists no more: Hall County teachers talk about growing community to support budding artists
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A West Hall High student paints Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, in front of a glass brick wall. Hall County Schools is emphasizing its visual art program by creating a district-wide art show and sending art students to state exhibitions. - photo by Scott Rogers

Visual art isn’t confined to classrooms at West Hall High School, it permeates the hallways. 

As students move between classes, they stop and look at artwork of all different media displayed throughout the school and weave around students actively working on their pieces in the halls. 

“Art rounds out these kids,” Ley Hathcock, principal at West Hall High, said. “It gives students an outlet that you don’t get from writing a paper. It gives them an outlet that you don’t get by playing a sport. Why would a parent not want their child to have the gift of being able to do that?”

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West Hall freshman Ashlyn Seeley loads her brush with paint Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, during art class. - photo by Scott Rogers

Hathcock said the high school’s most recent pep rally in December 2019 involved not only the cheerleaders and sports teams but the drama department and visual arts students. 

While theater performers danced and the school’s jazz band played, art students and teachers got up and started painting on giant panels. 

“We had students switching out and constantly working in front of the entire school,” Jennifer Griner, art teacher at West Hall High, said. “They were just creating art on the fly. I’ve been to tons of schools, and this is the first time where I’ve felt like we're a very important part of the school community.”

Growing a school art community 

Instead of only bolstering visual art at West Hall High, Griner has teamed up with Veronica Martin, art teacher at Chestatee High School, to build a stronger visual arts program in Hall County Schools. 

“When I came to the Hall County school system eight years ago, there was absolutely no school community to represent the arts,” Martin said. “At my school there was no funding for art classes. I found out that it was up to each individual principal.”

From that point on, Martin worked with her principal and other visual art teachers in the district to make sure they received the funding they needed to grow visual arts in their schools. 

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West Hall freshman Ashlyn Seeley works on a painting Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, during art class. Seeley and other students are painting ceiling tiles for the classroom and integrating a West Hall theme into famous paintings. - photo by Scott Rogers
Her next step was establishing a countywide art show for students. 

“Out of Gainesville city and everything else in Hall County, our student population makes a huge part of it,” Martin said. “A lot of those kids are in art classes, and they don’t have time to shine. We want art to be as much a presence as the rest of the fine arts.”

Last school year, Martin and other visual art teachers hosted the first district wide Hall County Expressions art show. Art students from different schools and grade levels showed their work.

The show recently reopened for its second year at the Hall County Government Center. The pieces will be on display until 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 27. 

“A goal for us is to definitely grow the exposure of our Hall County students,” Martin said. “We have a community of students that can supply that demand of community artwork. We don’t need to go outside and get people from Forsyth and Gwinnett. We have a huge community of artists here.”

Griner and Christina Starlin, who also teaches art at West Hall High, have introduced their students to another art show. Four of their students will display their work at the 2020 Capitol Art Exhibit, which is the largest student art exhibition in the state. 

Griner said the purpose of the show is to share the creative ability of Georgia’s students with state legislators and representatives. 

The exhibition takes place Wednesday, March 4. Griner and Starlin plan to take around 20 art students in addition to the four who will showcase their work. 

“We’re growing visual art in Hall County by going to these shows and competitions,” Griner said. “The best way for us to show and build that awareness in our community is to put it out in front of them — let them see what these kids are doing and let them talk to the kids about what it means to them.”

Art is for every skill level

Hathcock said he didn’t hesitate to give his approval when Griner approached him about entering West Hall High students in the Capitol Art Exhibit for the first time.

“We’ve got kids that go to every other competition in the world,” Hathcock said. “Why aren’t we doing more with this?”

Amy Ramirez, senior at West Hall High, will display one of her sculptures there. The piece is a vibrantly patterned otter with a fox tail and ram horns. Ramirez describes the sculpted creature as a playful reflection of herself. 

“This is my first time showing in an exhibition, and I feel really accomplished,” Ramirez said. “I worked hard on that and it shows. I’m pretty proud of myself.”

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West Hall junior Patrick Mixon adds color to a painting Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, to a ceiling tile that will hang inside the school's visual arts classroom. Hall County Schools is emphasizing its visual art program by creating a district-wide art show and sending art students to state exhibitions. - photo by Scott Rogers
Azucena Bautista, who will also show her work in the March exhibit, submitted a mixed media social commentary about depression and mental health issues. 

Blue watercolors surround a black and white figure drawn in charcoal and pen. Bautista said the blue color represents the sadness and stress of depression.

“I’m really excited,” Bautista said when asked about the upcoming art show. “I want to pursue art after high school. I love documenting the process and changing as an artist.” 

As a part of their push for visual art in Hall, Martin and Griner aim to spread the message that art is a feasible career and skill set to possess. 

According to the Georgia Council for the Arts, the creative industries in Georgia, including film and TV, represent a combined $37 billion in revenue, drawing in millions of tourists each year. 

“The whole idea of the starving artist doesn’t exist, especially in the state of Georgia,” Griner said. “Art is a viable career. But, if you’re not thinking about going into art, it’s still important to learn artistic behaviors.”

Out of the 300 students Starlin and Griner see each week, they said only 10% will become professional artists, if they’re lucky. However, the two don’t spend their time only focusing on the students who they think will make it as an artist. Instead, they work on teaching transferable skills like thinking outside of the box.

“It’s more important how you’re teaching them, not just the skills and techniques,” Griner said. “It’s teaching them to think more like artists. We’re trying to get them to think creatively, whether they’re going to pursue a career or not.”

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West Hall visual arts student paint Wednesday, Feb. 19, 2020, during art class. Hall County Schools is emphasizing its visual art program by creating a district-wide art show and sending art students to state exhibitions. - photo by Scott Rogers
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