Small town schools are populated by teachers who are devoted to their students, who likely grew up with their students’ parents, and who do their very best to impart a love of learning and community to them. There are a few bad apples that we hear about in the news from time to time, certainly, but thankfully those are in the minority.
I was blessed with excellent teachers I still brag about when others ask me to share my experiences growing up in Gulf County schools. There were a good number of them, but the late Mrs. Virginia Harrison was, in my opinion, one of the very most impactful teachers. I still admire the way she exposed her small-town students to international art, music and poetry in her humanities classes. I find that her teaching back in the 1980s still impacts my life today.
Now, hers were no textbook-focused, fill-in-the-blanks-workbook types of classes. When you walked into Mrs. Harrison’s humanities classroom, you never knew what you were going to hear or see. There was always something new to look forward to.
I remember one day as we entered her classroom, she dropped the record player’s needle onto an album and out came exotic-sounding tribal music from Africa. It was so foreign to our ears (which were usually busy listening to the likes of Tears for Fears, Journey, and Van Halen) that it elicited giggles from most of us. She tolerated it, and said, “just listen.” So we did. We talked about the various instruments the music was being played on and how similar or different they were from the instruments in our school band and on the radio.
Most memorable for me was her teaching of art, from the Old Masters to more modern artists. She’d show slides of a stunning painting, and tell us about the artist and his or her techniques, what the techniques were called, and so forth. We took notes because, of course, we’d eventually have a test on all of these pieces of art and their creators. But we really did learn and I have been grateful a number of times in my life that she taught me so much.
For example, when my sister and I visited the Dallas Museum of Art, I was thrilled to see in person some of the impressionist paintings she’d taught us about years ago. As I stood in front of those amazing pieces, I felt as if Mrs. Harrison were standing there beside me, pointing out the thick brushstrokes of the artists. I heard her reciting with me the names Degas, Renoir, and Monet, and reminding me why each one was so unique and beautiful. She lives on in her students, as art lives on in our world.
There is a place in Port St. Joe now that, I am certain, Mrs. Harrison would adore and would have taken her classes to visit numerous times. It’s called The Joe Center for the Arts. It’s downtown at 201 Reid Avenue. My sister and I walked inside The Joe on a whim a few weeks ago, and we were so moved by what we saw.
The space itself was calm, quiet, and beautifully lit, with simple chairs arranged in various places for people to sit as they visited the gallery. We were greeted by a friendly volunteer who then stepped away and allowed us to take our time and look at everything, as there was truly so much to see.
Artists from around the area and beyond had been in town for the Plein Air show, which simply means they had painted outdoors, not inside a studio. The paintings they had created from around our area were on display when we visited. Looking at them was like looking into the heart of each one of us who so loves our coastal communities in Gulf, Bay and Franklin counties.
There were paintings of weathered fishermen on their hardworking boats, as well as of sea gulls and pelicans who were fishing, too. There were paintings of palm trees blowing in the wind, and old oyster shacks along the waterfront. There were paintings of familiar landmarks, and of families on the beach, and even lovely flowers gathered from some sandy patch of garden.
As wonderful as all of that was, there was one piece that particularly grabbed me by the heart, painted by artist Cheryl Ploegstra. It was of the Gulf Aire townhomes after Michael had assaulted them. The small painting brought tears to my eyes, as I remembered watching those townhomes come into existence when they were under construction in the 1980s, and I recall the hundreds of times I walked past them on the beach, wishing I could stay there, myself, someday. I remembered when I actually did stay there several years ago, when I was amazed by the beauty of the starry sky twinkling above our gorgeous Gulf of Mexico as I stood in the darkness on the balcony of the townhome.
Those simple gray-blue townhomes were, in a way, part of my own history in Gulf County, and there they were, hanging in their battle-scarred, bare condition on the wall of an art gallery, somehow still lovely.
I don’t know if the artist sold that piece, but I am certainly glad she painted it so beautifully and gave them one last moment of glory before they were demolished. My heart will always be sad that a piece of Gulf County architectural history is gone, but because art exists, they will always exist, too, on that canvas, as well as in the memories of all who grew up in our area or visited and enjoyed making memories in those townhomes.
Mrs. Harrison’s voice still speaks through art, to me. Artists like Cheryl Ploegstra speak through the art they create. And all of that is available to anyone who would walk through the doors of The Joe on Reid Avenue, free of charge. Take your children, and walk through with them frequently. Teach them to stop staring at electronic devices, and show them what people can create with their hearts and hands and a little paint, or a camera.
The exhibits change intermittently, so there will frequently be, as was the case in Mrs. Harrison’s classroom, something new to see inside those four walls. Keep in mind, too, that The Joe offers classes and programs for children and adults alike; what a great way to be creative and have fun! They have a Facebook page that offers details for all who are interested.
After you enjoy an afternoon of art in our town’s special gallery, head home for a snack. This simple-to-create peach cake is delicious on its own, but is even better when topped with a scoop of ice cream. I hope you will give this little bit of “kitchen artistry” a try.
Simple peach cake squares
(Adapted from Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking)
3 medium to large peaches, peeled and sliced thin (about 2 1/2 cups)
1 cup of brown sugar, divided
juice of one lemon
1 stick of butter, melted
1/4 cup sour cream
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract or 1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1 cup plain flour
1 teaspoon ground ginger (may substitute ground cinnamon, if desired)
Additional granulated sugar, for sprinkling over the top before baking
Preheat oven to 350. Lightly butter or spray a 9x13-inch baking dish.
Place peach slices in a bowl. Sprinkle over them the lemon juice, ginger, and 1/4 cup brown sugar. Toss to coat. Set aside.
In a second bowl, mix together the remaining brown sugar, melted butter, eggs, vanilla, and sour cream, and whisk together thoroughly.
Then, fold in the cup of plain flour. Stir to combine until a smooth batter forms.
Spread the peaches evenly across the bottom of the baking dish. Top with the thick batter, smoothing with a silicone spatula to cover the top of the peaches evenly.
Sprinkle with a tablespoon or two of granulated sugar to make a nice, crunchy top.
Bake for 30 minutes or until golden brown around the edges.
Cool for several minutes before cutting. I prefer to serve each slice with the peach side facing up, because it’s so pretty that way.
Top with ice cream or whipped cream.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three young adult sons who are significantly taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.