It was the final day of the 2016 Kentucky Governor’s School for the Arts, and my wife and I thought we were just going to go kill time looking at exhibits before our son’s performances with the instrumental music program started.
But we were quickly enthralled by the story that played out over several movements on a lawn at Centre College. It wasn’t entirely clear what was happening, but the commitment was obvious in the focused dancers, the sensitive wind musicians and the intriguing silvery partitions they danced among. It was our first glimpse into the spirit of the three previous weeks that students had spent creating in the 39th edition of the annual summer program, presented by Louisville’s Kentucky Center for the Arts.
It is a program I have observed over the years in my job covering arts for the Herald-Leader, visiting the school both at Transylvania University and after it moved to Centre in 2014.
It also has come up routinely in interviews with Kentucky-raised artists who have gone on to thriving careers — performers including trumpeter Caleb Hudson, now a member of the Canadian Brass, and Kevin Olusola, now a member of the hit-making vocal ensemble Pentatonix. They are just a few of the artists I have talked to over the years who brought up the Governor’s School, without prompting, in discussing their careers.
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Now, as a parent of a Governor’s School student, I have a clearer idea why.
Our walk across Centre continued to the multimedia exhibit, where we saw photos students had taken — a wide variety of perspectives on similar events — and then screenings of short films they had made. This is where we became credit watchers, thrilling to see that our son was involved in creating the music for one of the films, a funny science-fiction short called Robot.
It was again evidence of one of the things students love about the Governor’s School: the chance to collaborate across disciplines. The films included theater, music and visual art. At the art exhibit in the Jones Visual Arts Center — a breathtakingly sprawling assembly of work — we saw the results of a collaboration with dancers, who had dipped their feet in paint and then danced across paper to create swirling visions. Even within disciplines, students were stretched, more on style than technique.
When we finally made it to our son’s performances — Chris is a violinist — we were treated to a variety of pieces from super-serious repertoire to jazz for strings (including soloing) and even a delight called “Take Me Out to the Ballgame: A Bench-Clearing Brawl for Violin Quartet” that involved a little acting.
But far from competitive, it was as collegial an arts event as I have been to. When they didn’t have instruments in their hands, the students watched one another. Chris asked me to shoot video of performances of some of his friends, because he wanted to have them. He was the one who told my wife and me that we had to go look at other students’ work that morning. His excitement extended far beyond his own experience.
I saw in him the same enthusiasm I have heard from past participants when discussing the Governor’s School. What struck us — and what was affirmed when we chatted with Chris in the hours and days after leaving Danville — was that the Governor’s School was more about helping students discover what they could do with their art and what they could say with it than with getting all the notes right.
And they were making statements about issues, including the mass shooting in Orlando, Fla., last month to suicide, which was addressed in a film Chris’ roommate made that had a surprising twist.
Even if you didn’t have a child in the school, it was a day to be impressed by the artistry blossoming around the Bluegrass State — and with only 250 participants, there were many crazy talented students who didn’t get into this year’s class.
Certainly not all of the students in this year’s school will become full-time professional artists. But most will live lives of creativity, and that was certainly nurtured during three weeks at Governor’s School.