They say the best way to learn is to teach, and local artist Shirley Whitesides taught visual art to more than 20,000 students during her 34-year career as an educator in the Asheville City Schools system. “I’ve taught so many students that I run into them everywhere I go, even out of town or out of state,” says Whitesides.
And although she retired in 2004, she continues to provide art classes to young people at Delta House, a facility she and some of her fellow Delta Sigma Theta sorority sisters founded in 1983 to offer education and enrichment opportunities to young people.
As a teacher, Whitesides always looked for mediums that could help students grasp concepts like shape, color, and texture. Now that she’s retired, she has more time to utilize those in her own multimedia artwork — which incorporates acrylic and watercolor painting, pictorial quilt-making, and the use of fabric and found objects such as artificial flowers and buttons.
“I like to create artwork that tells stories in a way that integrates the past with the present,” Whitesides says, “and right now I’m working on pieces for exhibits I’m doing that I’m calling ‘With These Hands: Mixed Blessings.’ Much of the new work shows the contributions African Americans have made to the local community and the world, and how African Americans have been blessed with life experiences to help us get to where we are today.”
Whitesides grew up in Rocky Mount, NC, and she and all of her sisters earned degrees in Art Education; Whitesides went on to graduate with a Master’s Degree from Western Carolina University and recalls, “My father could draw very well, and my mother, who taught me to sew, was an unbelievable seamstress. She would go downtown, see something in a store window, come home and cut open some paper bags to make a pattern, and make clothes that you’d think came from a department store. We grew up poor, but my parents did the best they could and we never went hungry.
“They taught us to use our talents, and that’s why I try to give back to the community and let students know that what they do is worthy, and they can achieve anything they want if they put forth the effort. Education is so important, and as I tell them, what you learn nobody can ever take away from you.”
Thelonious Monk was from Rocky Mount, and Whitesides’ school-band teacher played with Monk in a jazz group. “There used to be a big German dance in June that lasted all weekend, with musicians like Count Basie. Whites would get all dressed up and go on Saturday and Sunday. Then we’d get to do it on Monday nights, and that is how I got into jazz,” she recalls.
“That’s why at Delta House we have our own jazz band that provides students with instruments and teaches them music and life skills and about famous African American musicians and African American culture.”
Shirley Walker Whitesides, Asheville. With These Hands: Mixed Blessings shows at First Presbyterian Church (40 Church St.) during March and April. A gallery talk happens Sunday, April 16, 9:45-10:45pm, in the church gallery. For more information about the show, e-mail Carol Vruwink at email@example.com or call 828-650-0956.