GHS art program still flourishes after three decades

Published 12:00 am Thursday, March 3, 2005

When visitors walk through the &uot;new&uot; YMCA located in the former Greenville Academy building, one of the first things vying for their attention is the colorful artwork found throughout the building.

One eye-catching room, the one &uot;adopted&uot; by Y supporter Susan Murphy, features a detailed mural of historic downtown Greenville. Another, adopted by Whitney Bank, features a painting of the bank’s signature clock. &uot;They did a fantastic job, didn’t they?&uot; says Murphy with a smile. &uot;We slapped paint on the walls, but we could never do what they did,&uot; says Peytie Cureton of the Whitney Bank.

&uot;They&uot; are the Greenville High School Art Department, led by instructor and GHS alumnus Stacey Edwards, head of the program since the fall of 2001. The YMCA art projects are just the latest in a long list of school and community projects that have given the talented teens at GHS their chance to shine.

Making an excellent impact

Whether it’s creating backdrops for school plays and musicals like &uot;Mame&uot;, &uot;Annie Get Your Gun&uot; and &uot;The Sound of Music&uot;, painting murals of a Parisian street scene for the senior prom, creating whimsical ads on the front windows of a Greenville supermarket, braving high scaffolding to paint a roaring tiger head for the (former) high school gym, or creating a colorful holiday sign for a local bank, GHS’s art students have been making an artistic impact on Greenville for quite a while now.

While both Murphy and Whitney Bank made generous donations to the art department for the students’ recent work at the YMCA, Edwards knows the valuable experience the students are rewarded with each time they pick up a pencil or paintbrush. Art has become a tradition of excellence at the school.

&uot;We do have a flourishing art program here at GHS, and I have to give credit to Priscilla [Davis] for that. She was the one that started it all and hung in there all those years fighting for the program,&uot; says Edwards, herself a former star pupil of the long-time GHS art instructor.

&uot;Do you realize how few full-scale art programs there are in small-town high schools around here? And we are so fortunate to have had someone with Priscilla’s strong fine arts training come here and do this. And she managed to accomplish a lot with a little, too. It’s amazing.&uot;

In the beginning

This &uot;amazing&uot; story began in the early ’70s, when Greenville native Priscilla Solomons Davis returned to her hometown from New York following a divorce. She got a job teaching at the elementary school under a new grant called Career Education – and discovered a new love. &uot;I absolutely fell in love with teaching and with the children.&uot;

When the grant was not renewed, Shelby Searcy, at the time superintendent of the Butler County School System, called Davis into his office one day.

&uot;He asked me what I wanted to teach the next year. I was going to say science, but I thought I would mention my first love, art. It was my major, and I had a master’s in painting from Rochester Institute of Technology in New York,&uot; explains Davis.

Davis wasn’t expecting a favorable response from the superintendent. After all, very few small school systems in the state had art programs at the time.

However, she was in for a &uot;wonderful&uot; surprise.

&uot;Not long after that, Mr. Searcy called me back into his office and asked me if I would consider starting an art program at Greenville High School – would I? I was absolutely thrilled at the chance!&uot;

And so, on a spring day in 1975, a group of Greenville High School students met in the school cafeteria at School Highlands Road. They didn’t assemble for fish sticks and fries, but a chance to express their artistic and imaginative spirit.

The students took an unusual test with questions such as, &uot;Name at least five things you can do with a brick&uot; and &uot;Draw a human figure in 30 seconds.&uot;

Each hoped to be chosen as one of the first students in the new GHS art program.

The first crop of students was chosen by Davis, and in the fall of 1975, GHS's new art teacher transformed a spare classroom into an art room. A three-decade tradition at GHS began on a dream and a shoestring.

A blessing in disguise

If you ask Davis about those lean early years, she will tell you the small budget ($125, the same as a regular classroom teacher) turned out to be the fledgling art department’s &uot;blessing in disguise.&uot;

Inexpensive drawing paper was bought in bulk; drawing pencils were the basic #2 type, just like the ones students used to take their history tests. Instead of some pricey art fixative, drawings were &uot;set&uot; with plain old 99 cents-a-can Aqua-Net hairspray.

Acrylic paint, much cheaper than oil and faster drying, was pumped out from caulking guns into aluminum pie plates. If a student didn’t use it all, it was put aside until the next day. Once the top layer was peeled off, there just might be some wet paint underneath that was still usable.

It was a true &uot;waste not, want not&uot; mentality, Davis says, and it taught her and her pupils a great deal.

&uot;I am really glad we didn’t have much because it showed us what we could do with so little. I am convinced in desperate straits one could run an art department with nothing but a # 2 pencil and paper,&uot; Davis says.

Small school, big talent

In spite – and perhaps, because of – the limited budget, Davis’s students would got on to win a number of awards on the local, state, and once, on the national level. Edwards has a scrapbook with clippings of articles and photos featuring just a few of the GHS students taking home awards and art scholarships for their efforts.

&uot;Priscilla really focused on teaching us the basics, the fundamentals of design and drawing, and she did it so well. When I first went to Troy after leaving LBW, I was worried at first about my art classes and whether I could keep up, I guess,&uot; the art instructor says as she leafs through the pages of the album.

Edwards soon learned she would do &uot;just fine&uot; against students from larger, more lavishly budgeted programs.

&uot;When I took drawing at Troy, and saw other people’s work – I realized I had nothing to worry about,&uot; Edwards says, adding, &uot;I’m just trying to carry forth what Priscilla accomplished with my own students.&uot;

As for Davis, she is &uot;so, so proud&uot; of her young prot\u00E9g\u00E9e’s own record at GHS.

&uot;To be honest, I probably would have taught a few more years, but I had Stacey who was so ready and excited to come into the classroom and teach art – and I wanted that opportunity for her, too. She is doing a great job.&uot;

Davis is also quick to credit her former superintendent for supporting the arts in the county. &uot;I will always be grateful to Shelby Searcy for his progressive approach to education. It was unheard of for a school in a rural area to, not only have an art program, but also music and drama. The arts really thrived at the high school under Mr. Searcy’s leadership.&uot;

As for Edwards, these days she is encouraging her advanced students to work on perfecting their painting techniques (&uot;To compete with those Birmingham kids for awards and scholarships, you have to do it&uot;). However, she is also still &uot;building on the basics&uot; she learned in Davis’s classroom.

&uot;Some of our other arts programs haven’t fared as well along the way here at the high school – but I am really proud of how well the art program continues to do. Priscilla laid a great foundation," Edwards says.

&uot;It’s great to have someone like Stacey to 'carry on the torch,'&uot; says Davis with a smile.