Peach County High teacher encourages students to explore visual arts

alopez@macon.comMarch 17, 2014 

FORT VALLEY -- Recently, Drenay Everett ventured into an abandoned building chasing light and creepy backdrops for a photography project. Duc Phung Huu filled a frame with a detailed architectural sketch of a cathedral in his hometown of Hanoi, Vietnam.

Their schoolmates Austin Flournoy and Blaze Rozier created a model clay sculpture of a giant nose with legs growing out of its nostrils, clad in bright red sneakers. They had made smaller versions of their “runny nose” before, but their art teacher advised them to go bigger.

Joel Respess, Peach County High School’s art teacher, has helped develop all four high school seniors as part of his Advanced Placement art course. This year, he is teaching 185 students in all four grade levels the technical foundations for creating sculptures, drawings, paintings and graphic designs.

“It’s not an easy job,” he said. “A lot of our kids come in, and they don’t have any exposure to art.”

Near the front door of his classroom he put up a wall of framed photos of former students who have embarked on successful collegiate and professional careers in the visual arts. He tells his current students they can make it in that world too.

Every year, he takes as many of them as he can to visit the Savannah College of Art and Design, or SCAD, and the High Museum of Art in Atlanta.

Everett went on the trip a couple of years ago.

“I fell in love,” she said, referring to the art school.

She will be attending SCAD in the fall thanks in part to a $20,000 academic scholarship. If it weren’t for Respess taking her on the trip, she would have never considered applying, she said.

A rural community art program

Peach County is often described as a more rural place when compared to Bibb and Houston counties. It is also smaller than its neighbors, with the school system’s enrollment totaling fewer than 4,000 students. By comparison, Houston County schools enrolled more than 27,000 last year.

A larger percentage of people live below the poverty line in Peach County than they do in Bibb or Houston counties, according to U.S. Census data.

At Peach County High, the only high school in the county, more than 60 percent of students receive free or reduced lunch, Respess said.

Outside of his classroom and in the community there is not much importance placed on the visual arts, Respess said. That’s why he’d like to incorporate more art history into his curriculum, so his students are exposed to the masters and movements that came before them, he said.

Principal Bruce Mackey is a strong supporter of Respess and his art program, and while he agreed the school is located in a rural community, he said people who don’t expect great things from Peach County High are misinformed.

“Our kids are outstanding,” Mackey said.

Making a living

Kristen Pritchett will be taking AP art next fall in her senior year at Peach County High, but last week she sat in art II working on her latest composition, a clay sculpture of a cat wearing a dress. Her parents enjoy the work she brings home, but they have reservations.

“They’re not really into the whole art thing,” Pritchett said. “They don’t really think you can make a living off of it.”

Pritchett said she disagrees with her parents, and she’d like to show them a career in art is possible, maybe as a psychologist who uses art as therapy for her patients.

On Respess’ alumni wall, Ryan Payne’s yearbook portrait hangs in the top row of the first column. He was one of the first students Respess met when he began teaching at Peach County High in 2000.

Reached by phone, Payne said his interest in art was inherited from his father, a metal fabricator in Byron who creates metal sculptures like sasquatches made out of railroad spikes, and his mother, who gave him his first drawing lessons as a child.

Like most people he knew in Peach County, they considered art more of a hobby, Payne said, but Respess let him know it could be a viable career path for him.

Today, Payne manages a team of graphic designers as the art director for a company in Nashville, and he credits Respess and Peach County High with helping him get there.

“The market is a little saturated,” he said, referring to job prospects, “but hard work, dedication and doing your homework can go a long way.”

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