Stick-to-itiveness: Central grad is finalist in duct tape prom outfits competition

pramati@macon.comJune 21, 2014 

Ronnita Whipple keeps inspirational quotations handy.

Whenever doubt creeps in or she feels the urge to quit what she’s doing, she need only look at her bedroom wall at some of the quotes she’s read and heard over the years.

“Anything worth doing is worth doing well,” reads one, written in black paint on her pink bedroom door. “When you want to succeed as bad as you want to sleep, then you’ll see success. ... Doubt kills more dreams than failure ever will!”

It’s that spirit of perseverance that drove Whipple to spend more than 400 hours to create a prom dress and tuxedo out of 90 rolls of duct tape as part of the 2014 Duck brand Stuck at Prom Scholarship Contest.

The hard work paid off: Whipple is one of 10 finalists for a $10,000 grand prize. In addition, Central High School -- from which she graduated last month -- would receive $5,000 if she wins. People can vote for their favorite outfits once per day through July 8 at the contest’s website.

“I’m excited,” Whipple said. “I can’t say I’m shocked because I really worked hard to be in the top 10.”

Whipple, 19, started the painstaking work back in December, coming up with the original sketches for the mermaid-style dress. Every piece on the dress, including the sequins, is made from layer upon layer of duct tape.

“I always liked the mermaid style since I was a little girl,” she said. “My favorite princess is the Little Mermaid. It inspired what I had to do with the dress.”

Whipple did all of the work herself. She tried to recruit friends to help, but either they couldn’t make parts of the dress the way Whipple wanted, or they found the work too difficult -- and quit.

‘Very driven’

But there’s no quit in Whipple. She has lived most of her life with her maternal great-grandmother, Lelia Wiley. But Wiley suffered a stroke in 2003, leaving her unable to provide much care for Whipple or her siblings.

Whipple, who has loved art since she was 5, said her house burned down when she was in the first grade.

“I learned to do a lot of stuff on my own,” she said. “I didn’t have anyone to help me with my homework. Me, my brother and my sister all failed kindergarten because there was no one to help us.”

Katherine Hutto, the wife of former Macon City Councilman Rick Hutto, has served as a mentor to Whipple for years. When the Huttos first moved to Macon, Wiles helped raise their daughter. In turn, Katherine Hutto has helped Whipple and her siblings.

“(Ronnita) did people’s hair when she was 12 years old to pay for her school uniform and clothes,” Hutto said. “She’s very self-sufficient.”

Hutto said Whipple got into fashion a couple of years ago when Whipple raised the money to send herself to a summer arts program run by the Savannah College of Art & Design. There, Whipple created her first fashion sketches.

“Her talent is obvious,” Hutto said. “I’m saying this without bias. Hers were, by far, the best ones, at least the top three.”

Sherrie Jamison, who taught Whipple’s Advanced Placement art class at Central, said she has been impressed with her student’s work ethic.

“She’s a really focused young artist,” Jamison said. “She’s very quiet, very shy. She didn’t tell me she had a desire to do the contest, but it’s such a perfect example of the way she works. She would work on something in class, then come back in a couple of days and have another piece that she did at home. She’s very driven.”

Besides Whipple’s painting and design skills, Jamison said Whipple also is a talented photographer. As part of her class portfolio, she created a series of a dozen photographs under the theme of “self-help.”

“Her idea was that before you can change the world, you have to change yourself,” Jamison said. “I’m inspired by how hard she works.”

Making her mark

Whipple has fared well in art-related contests already, including a second place in the Congressional Art Contest, for which she received a certificate from U.S. Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga. She also earned a spot at the prestigious Marie Walsh Sharpe Summer Seminar Program in Colorado as a junior.

But she said she gets frustrated when she falls short in other competitions.

“I was pretty discouraged that I was not winning,” she said. “I entered a lot of scholarship competitions and I didn’t win, but someone else who I’d know would win. It made me feel like stopping.”

It was another of Whipple’s long list of collected quotations, however, that kept her going and inspired her to enter the prom competition.

“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up,” it reads.

Because the contest requires a male and female model, Whipple designed a tuxedo for rising Central senior Joe Kovac III, who would also win $10,000 if Whipple’s creations receive the most votes. Whipple said she wore her duct-tape dress to the prom -- for about five minutes. Duct tape isn’t the most breathable material to wear, she said, and merely walking in the dress was difficult -- let alone dancing.

And it wasn’t just the dress that was made out of duct tape. Her tiara, wrist corsage and even her fingernails all were duct-tape creations.

“The dress is indicative of her high fashion quality,” Jamison said. “Look at the attention to detail. The idea that it was done with duct tape -- I’m just in awe. It blows me away.”

Whipple said she would like to get into high-end fashion, such as Michael Kors or Louis Vuitton, once she graduates from college, perhaps working as a creative director for a company. Meanwhile, she’s preparing to go to college.

Whipple was accepted by SCAD-Atlanta, but the tuition was too high for her to attend. Instead, she’ll attend Georgia Southwestern University on an art scholarship for the next couple of years, then aim to transfer to SCAD or another art school.

As she plans to continue her art studies, she knows what words to live by -- this time her own.

“When you really want to do something, just do it,” she said. “Don’t doubt yourself.”

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.

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