When Gina Harrison speaks about the value of arts in education, her eyes light up. She has a glow about her that is unmistakable. You see, Gina is an artist. She’s a graphic designer, a painter, and a musician, among other talents. But all of her experiences have led her to become a long-time arts education advocate and she is so passionate about the value of arts in education, it’s contagious.
When we sat down with Gina to talk about her support of the arts, and specifically, the Chatham Arts Council, she had so many incredible vignettes to share. We hope to shed light on some of them here today.
What does art mean to you? I was an art major at UNC. I think art for me is a reflection of all the things that are important in my life. It’s taking experiences, impressions, the environment that I live in, past activities, discipline, and the people that are important in my life and translating all of that into visual art, or hopefully, channeling that into a musical performance.
How does art motivate you on a daily basis? In so many ways. I channel it when I’m doing a musical performance.
I spent 30 years as a graphic designer at UNC and in graphic design, there’s always a problem to solve, a challenge to fulfill. Now that I’m retired, I’m trying to become more of a full-time artist – but that comes with a blank canvass, no problem to solve.
In being a graphic designer for such a long time, you don’t develop a single style. You have to develop several styles to fit the needs of the assignment. In my own art, I do landscapes, floral studies, and abstracts and you can see the similarities, but they’re different genres that I pursue. I am not someone that pursues social justice in visual art. I do that more in advocacy work for education in the arts. Visual art is a reflection of who I am, my personal history, and how I’ve gotten to this place – that’s what my art reflects. While it doesn’t have the gravitas as something like “Guernica,” I hope that in the future when my children look back on it, they see a visual journal of their mother’s life and activities.
Did you have a strong involvement with art as a child? I was one of those kids who played at the piano as a small child. I was interested and intrigued by it. And by art. My mother saw that, so she made art a priority.
My parents were medical professionals and I really think they would both have preferred careers in the arts. They were excellent at what they did, but they weren’t very gratified. (My siblings and I all pursued careers as far from medicine as possible!)
My parents went to Japan after the war, during the occupation, and it was a transformative experience for them. Even in those challenging times, they were presented with so much beauty and culture – they took that with them the rest of their lives. So my mom gave me art lessons and signed me up for piano lessons, starting in the second grade and continuing for 11 years. In school, I had no specialty arts classes. Visual arts was taught by our regular classroom teachers. In high school, there were no arts classes at all. There were extracurricular opportunities: a marching band after school, chorus, a senior play – but nothing during school. That’s a missed opportunity.
What would you say to young people who want to be involved with the arts? Be brave. It’s incredibly challenging to be brave enough to try but the community and the types of opportunities that the arts provide are life-long benefits. I have sung in the Duke Chapel Choir for 35 years. Even though I am not a professional singer, I am proud to call myself a musician and because of this, I’ve had opportunities to perform in Carnegie Hall and sing in China and Spain. These are not prospects that would have come to me had I not been an artist.
Is there a specific element or program from the CAC that most excites you and why? I’ve been volunteering at Northwood to help with their spring musical for more than 12 years and it’s exciting to watch incredible teachers work with talented, motivated, dedicated students for three or four months while they prepare for the production. This is the thing about arts education. Students work for months on the production, then they give a few performances – which is what parents see – but for the curriculum and the teachers, it’s not the destination point. All of the value happens in the period that precedes the production that people actually see. The value is in the mechanics of overcoming fears, the process to become a performer, the technical work to solve the problems of the production, etc. You find students who uncover their voice, whatever that voice may be.
It’s the same way for the Chatham Arts Council’s Artists-in-Schools Initiative. This is the type of program that allows you to see students who have a spark for the arts. You find that a laser focus is uncovered from the time they’re given the opportunity to be involved with the arts. I have watched students who had no interest in singing win the National Association of Teachers of Singing competitions, then move on to apply and attend the NC School of the Arts – all because they uncovered a talent for the arts once they were exposed to it.
Another student, who intended to go to college to study genetics, was in the band. He was exposed to theater and decided to try it out. So he sang in the high school musical as a senior and uncovered a love of music. He decided to continue pursuing music and sang a cappella in college. Now, he’s now an amazing opera singer.
These are the types of events that compel me to advocate for arts in education and that’s why I’m so passionate about the CAC’s Artists-in-Schools Initiative.
Why did you decide to give to the CAC? I have been a long-time arts education advocate and have volunteered in the arts in schools since my kids were in school. When my children were in Perry Harrison, I helped with the Middle School musical. I’ve been an accompanist at Northwood High School for nearly 12 years. I’ve loved being a part of all of that. I realized by supporting the Chatham Arts Council, I could help expand those efforts.
What I’ve seen in working with kids is that exposing them to art could uncover future Mozarts, who wouldn’t know they were Mozarts if they’d never been exposed to art in school. This isn’t the case with future scientists or mathematicians because kids are exposed to these areas for a really long time, but with the arts, it’s very possible for kids to NOT come in contact with those disciplines unless we’re adamant about maintaining the arts in curriculum.
Having a chance to see talented teaching artists perform for students is incredible. You see the lights go on for these students. For the first time, they’re understanding that adults do this for a living and that they can do this for a living if they want to. The Chatham Arts Council’s Artists-in-Schools Initiative is that type of program. Students have a chance to have personal interactions with professional artists, offering real, meaningful conversations about how they got to that point. It can be life-changing for these students.
If you are inspired by Gina’s story and feel compelled to support arts in education, click here.