Above is a video about Becky Guinn by Keith (Vimeo)
Recently I had the privilege of interviewing one of Alabama's most remarkable art teachers, Mrs. Becky Guinn. Mrs. Guinn is an amazing person; the epitome of strength, resilience, and courage. In 2002, an adverse reaction to medication led to a crisis; her arms and legs had to be amputated in order to save her life. Nothing has stopped Mrs. Guinn from remaining an artist and teacher, however! She stayed in the art classroom for six years after the amputations! After retiring, she started a program called "Hooked On Art" where she drove around the state to teach art in schools, especially those with no art programs. I showed this video; Artist Loses Hands and Feet But Not Talent, CBS Evening News, to my students on Friday as part of a lesson about how visual art can make the world a better place and you could have heard a pin drop in that classroom! The students were mesmerized! The more I learn about Mrs. Guinn, the more I am astounded at her response to very trying circumstances. She has been and continues to be an inspiration to many.
Interview With Mrs. Guinn; Part I
How long have you been an artist? Did you know you would become an artist/art teacher when you were a little girl?
"I've been interested in art for as long as I remember. I had rheumatic fever at 3 years and spent a full year in bed, having to learn to walk again at 4. Had it not been for art projects, I would have been lost. I credit my mother's creativity and her willingness to allow my exploration and messes with my bent toward the arts. Also, my 4th grade teacher was an art educator. She taught every subject through the eyes of an artist...science, math, geography, history. What a blessing! Therefore, I have wanted to be an artist or art teacher since 4th grade. I was an 'undecided' major when I began college, but my roommate was an art major. That could've had something to do with my declaration of art education as my major. I have never regretted it.I was an art teacher to pre-school - 6th grade for 3 years at a private academy in Texas before moving back to Alabama. I say 'back' because I was born in Chambers County (where I now live) and lived there for 6 years. My family moved to Montgomery for 2 years where I attended Minnie Bear Elementary (I think that was the name), before moving to northwest Georgia (Cedartown) where my parents lived the next 26 years. Moving back from Texas to Chambers County, I took a job with Chambers County Schools in maintenance, painting classrooms over the summer.
In the fall, I became a computer lab administrator at a middle school where I stayed for 3 years (also working maintenance in the summer). When Chambers County Schools re-instituted an art program (after no art classes for 10 years), I was in a good place for them to hire from within the system. I had already received my Alabama certification to teach K-12 in art. That is when I began teaching art at Lafayette High School half a day and then Valley High the last part of the day. With over 300 students wanting to be in art class and they were having to turn them away...the 2nd year, another teacher was hired to travel between schools and I was assigned to Valley High where I stayed for the next 12 years.
So, I taught pre-k, K, 1-6 in private school...4-8th as a computer lab administrator and an after-school tutor program...9-12 in high school art."
What was your favorite subject/project to teach? What is your favorite thing to paint?
"My favorite thing to teach were multi-cultural units...pick a country...pick a culture...teach it through the arts! It broadens the borders of so many students' worlds. It increases understanding of differences and produces some level of tolerance of those differences. It's almost a humanities course...taught through the arts. I had the benefit of my husband's travels for resources. He would always come home with items for my classroom from Korea, Japan, Norway, Spain, Australia, Italy, etc. There were only a few lessons I repeated each semester; it was so much more fun to change it up, add a new twist and it kept the teacher (me) from getting bored! Did they all work? - No! Then you go back to what you used last year!
My favorite thing to paint is nature: florals, landscapes, trees, water, clouds, etc. I really like taking photos when I travel and paint something of where I have been. I feel like those are pure originals.
When I was teaching, my favorite thing was drawing portraits...I loved drawing my students. There is something telling about studying someone's face. It can be disconcerting, it was uncomfortable at first, and they were often hesitant. We had the time because we were on the block schedule. I drew the students who wanted me to while the class was working on their portrait unit of 3-6 portraits. This was obviously a long-term project!"
What was the best and the hardest thing about teaching art?
"The best thing about teaching art was witnessing the progression from the students 'I can't do this,' to their expressions once they have created a credible work of art. Included in this is the student who never spoke in class that lets you know, years later, they became an architect or an industrial engineer because of something said or done in your art class.
The hardest thing - that haunts me today - about teaching art was the student who had no one to share his accomplishments; the homes that did not accept art as education or even a valuable activity. One such student told me his family would laugh if he brought his work home (and he was truly gifted). Another student won an award at the Mini Works competition at Montgomery Academy; when I shared the award with the principal; she cried! This child had, as far as we knew, never experienced a positive moment in his educational career! Our principal even checked the name to make sure I had the right student for the ribbon. Since art has virtually always been a part of my life; these were the hard moments...realizing the lack of appreciation for the arts; realizing how many students that are gifted simply cannot 'go there' except in their dreams...realizing how many parents do not accept art as a viable way to make a living...and realizing how many educators do not yet appreciate the value of art education as we have it in the state of Alabama. The most competent, knowledgeable, all-encompassing educators I know are Alabama art educators!"
|Mrs. Guinn with a few of her high school students, beckyguinn.org|
What was the worst mistake you made as an art teacher?
"The worst mistake I made as an art teacher was trying to allow my students to be part of a community restoration project. One never knows what will be revealed during restoration of any kind. In our case, it was a nativity scene, treasured by the community for generations. We were responsible for three wise men and an angel. Yep, you guessed it...the wise men were on top of camels! Camels that were untreated lumber encased in concrete whose legs had been broken off up inside the statue. They had been made in the 1940's. Of course, there was a time limit; high school students do not do well with deadlines imposed by the school...much less an additional one!
I realized my mistake when the maintenance worker, driving a front-loader with a wise man mounted on a camel with a broken leg, approached the back of my classroom and knocked the wise man's head off as he passed the a/c unit. However, the clincher to the whole fiasco was when we finished our lovely angel, purchased a light brown wig and handed her off to the city. She was suspended in the air over the nativity and the lighting caused her light hair to appear almost black. The switchboard at city hall lit up like a Christmas tree with calls about "the witch" over the nativity..."Everybody knows angels have blonde hair!"
What has been your greatest achievement?
"I don't think in terms of 'great achievements,' but I suppose for me personally it was simply returning to teach after losing my hands and feet. I did not intend to miss the spring semester of 2003; but, when I did, I did not know if I would ever walk again, much less be able to teach again. Understand that my family, friends and co-workers absolutely made it possible. I still can't get ready for my day without a "committee!" And it has been 13 years of daily assistance that they have provided for me. A better word may be, sacrificed. You can see why I do not think in terms of personal great achievements...anything credited to me must include my support team."
|Mrs. Guinn with her husband, beckyguinn.org|
Is it true that you went back into the classroom six days after being fitted for the prosthetics?
"Yes, I did go back to teach after only 6 days of rehab. There were issues on every hand...My 1st rehab was a fiasco; so much so, that the insurance company reimbursed me for a full week of in-house rehab should I need it in the future! I think that's pretty unheard of...Then, the first time I went to Warm Springs for in-house rehab, one of my legs had not yet healed, so after 2 weeks they sent me home because they could not help me walk and my prosthetic arms were not yet ready yet. I went home from June till the end of July...my leg finally healed and I received my prosthetic arms and legs. Teachers had to be at school August 4th that year. No rehab is done on the weekends, so I went back to Warm Springs July 25th. I said I have 6 days; show me all you can. They did, I checked out on Friday and went back to school on Monday...quite unsure of what the days ahead would hold...."
Editor's note: all the paintings in this article were done by Becky Guinn after the amputations.
video: Becky Guinn on Vimeo, by Keith
article by Mrs. Anna Nichols