This week, elementary art teacher Beth Young tells us her amazing story of arts advocacy in the little town of Decatur, Alabama. She just so happened to write a grant through the state department, and it snowballed into a year-long community celebration of the arts! She garnered the help of authors, artists, community volunteers, and even brought the famous Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend to Decatur. I was able to attend one of the many events with the quilt makers and it was one of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. (Here is a Facebook post by Noel King, featuring some of the ladies' beautiful voices raised in song!) I am very much looking forward to seeing the Quiltmakers of Gee's Bend again at the AAEA Fall Conference! Thank you, Beth, for sharing your story with all of us, and thank you for all your hard work last year. You are an inspiration! (All photo credits: Beth Young)

a town’s journey of coming together
through the arts, by Beth Young 

     It was a beautiful warm day for February despite the chilling rain from the days before. “Will they come?" I thought to myself as I drove the giant 15 passenger van up to the community center. Oh, how I hoped so. Then, a click-clack and a loud whistle alerted me that a passing train would soon approach. Stopped by a train! Of all days for this to happen! Then, a peace enveloped the van as I was privately serenaded by the most moving music that I’ve ever heard. It was like hearing a bit of Heaven itself as the perfect harmony of Mary Ann Pettway, China Pettway, Lucy Witherspoon, and Gloria Hoppins assured me that everything was going to be alright. My worries about the details of the day (what if people don’t show up, what if the mikes don’t work, what if I say the wrong thing to the crowd, what if.... what if.... what if....) evaporated as every note dripped like honey, sweetening my very soul. My concerns about “me” evolved into hope for “we.” We were going to make it to our own event- a culminating activity from a year of artistic endeavors designed to bring everyone together. Our community would be treated to a time of stitch and song, courtesy of these famous quilters from Gee’s Bend, Alabama. “We” would bask in the luxury of this special treat for everyone. 

     This mindset did not come easily for me. About a year before, I found myself at a crossroads in my career. After nearly twenty years of teaching art, I was feeling the pain of burn out. So often art teachers become little “islands” in our schools. We are a functional but entirely separate entity. Regular classroom teachers can be well meaning but they rarely know what our jobs entail. Many days we are asked to perform a plethora of activities in addition to what we are already doing. We become the “go to” people for bulletin boards, cute displays, and neat play backdrops. We are often respected, but are sometimes considered nothing more than a way for the regular teachers to get their much needed “breaks.” All the while we follow our plans as we manage multiple classrooms and often multiple schools. I’ve found that people in our field respond in one of two ways: 1. We become "high energy," multi-task people who do it all (and then some) with a smile. 2. We gripe and gripe and gripe and then gripe some more. (I found that I was feeling too old and too tired to do #1, so #2 became my way of life.) It’s no wonder that many art teachers feel the need to constantly promote the value of their programs. I was trying to do it all alone and was developing a chip on my shoulder the size of Mt. Kilimanjaro in the process. Then one day, after some quiet meditation, I had an epiphany. I realized that when we look at “we” instead of “me” change happens. (Also, I decided that worrying about everything was doing me no good. ) 

AAEI Grant:
an amazing opportunity
     In the spirit of this new revelation, a community based art project seemed to be a solution. By enlisting participation from a wide range of people, we could promote the value of art.
     The original plan was a low budget one that would involve the interaction of all three of my schools. However, when we decide not to worry and to allow great things to happen, opportunity came our way!

     One day when I happened to call Andy Meadows, Alabama’s state art specialist, about the guidelines of the state superintendent’s art show, he encouraged me to try for the AAEI (Alabama Art Education Initiative.) This state grant provides up to $25,000 to help schools that do not have art programs and offers up to $20,000 for a chance to expand existing programs. We decided to focus on a program that would incorporate the arts with other areas of study while it would teach children about the adaptive skills of our past. We also planned to offer a series of “power of art” workshops (with STIPD credit) for our faculties. 

     We received the grant! It enabled us to hire some great drawing cards for our community. We hired Nancy Raia to help us pilot a program for senior citizens and children, award winning muralist Markus Tracy to help us put together a community mural, author Irene Latham to give book talks, and four ladies from Gee’s Bend to sing and give workshops throughout the town. Although we were prepared to work together on a shoe string budget, the grant gave us great opportunities. All artists agreed to offer workshops for everyone.

 It became bigger than we thought.
Everyone wanted to get in on the act.
     We decided to expand our core planning group to include the Morgan County Archives, the Decatur Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Decatur Public Library, the Alabama Center for the Arts, the Carnegie Visual Arts Center, the Decatur Youth Enrichment Center, and local historians Peggy Towns, Judge David Breland, Dr. Wylheme Ragland, and Frances Tate. City Councilman Billy Jackson, Morgan County Commissioner Ray Long, Mayor Don Kyle, Riverside Senior Center, local quilters Bonnie Goodman and Betty Jeffreys, downtown redevelopment planner Rick Paler, the Decatur Daily, WYAM TV, Kappa teacher’s sorority, and local artists and businesses, along with the general public, were also very involved.
No one “took over.” Instead, each venue concentrated on what it did well. The result was a series of well planned events that attracted a variety of people. Teamwork was the key. The following pages highlight our very special year:

A Final Thought:
Sometimes it just takes a call. A sizable grant helped us tremendously, but many people are willing to do a lot for free. All it really takes is to go out of your box to make some new connections. We found that many of the city venues and businesses are in the same boat as us in that they need exposure, so they are more than willing to work together. Good luck!

 For more great photos, videos, and details about our events, go to decaturdaily.com, Irene Latham's website and Irene Latham's blog


Gee's Bend Quilters Talk With Students About Respect, Hard Workdecaturdaily.com

This Youtube video features the quiltmakers of Gee's Bend, Alabama, a remote community of African Americans directly descended from slaves. The quilts they create are a statement of their culture, beautiful designs that have been featured in the Smithsonean and in international exhibits. These ladies are artistic geniuses, using found fabric scraps to create highly original pieces, unique in their representation of designs passed down through the generations. 



Gee's Bend Quiltmakers, soulsgrowndeep.org
Fabric of Their Lives, Smithsonean Museum
About the Quilts of Gee's Bend in Context, Auburn University

Editor's note: Beth Young was the graphic artist for this article - she put the whole thing together for me. All I had to do was copy, paste, and take a few screen shots of her beautiful work. With much appreciation,

Mrs. Anna Nichols

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