By Derrick White
Recently, while I was sitting in a local emergency waiting room, officers from the sheriff’s department entered the hospital, as they occasionally do, with a patient. They were escorting their client across the crowded, anxiety-filled room, when suddenly one of the officers stopped, turned, and headed directly for me. Shaking my hand heartily, he turned to his partner, smiled, and said, “this is my art professor!” We visited briefly about how well he was doing and he mentioned how much he enjoyed my class. Wow! Here was a former student from years ago, a graduate working in his chosen career, and he remembers fondly the time spent in a community college art class.
These types of rewards are hard to measure and difficult to put a price on but as a teacher, I will tell you ‘satisfaction in the success of former students’ is one of the best benefits of the whole gig. This encounter reminded me of the author Maya Angelou’s quote, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” I teach to the best of my ability with the understanding that my students go on to become the people with whom my family and I share our community – nurses, police officers, artists, teachers, etc. When I get surprise visits from former students it always makes my day. When someone takes the time to stop by, say hello, introduce their new baby, or invite me to their latest art event after taking a class 10 years ago, I am soft-soaped and it affirms what I do for my day job.
I had a visit from one of my favorite former students just the other day. I first met artist, Joe French, from Longview, back in 2007 when he absent-mindedly wandered into the art department, asking to borrow some paper. He returned to show me the drawings he had made (instead of taking notes), and I encouraged him to continue to create. Before I knew it, Joe was an art major involved and immersed in every art class we offered and every process he could learn. Thoughtfully engaged and concerned, Joe became an officer in the art club, volunteered his time and talent to community service projects, and was selected as a performance grant scholarship student.
Joe carried his excitement and exploration to the University of North Texas in Denton, where he investigated the evolution of his creative process and even some destructive methods such as burning canvases with holes, painting with flames, and at times scorching work completely to ash. After finishing at UNT, Joe returned as a special guest speaker for our 2012 annual Thunderdome art competition, an outrageous and fun contest with only one winner. All the losing art pieces are lavishly destroyed by the annihilators, giving students an inspiring speech to follow their dreams. Joe challenged them to live unafraid. Anyone who knows Joe French will absolutely concur about his passion for life, people, community, art, friendship, and love. He is a big, bearded man who, once he sees you from across the room, approaches with a big unavoidable bear hug. Joe later moved to Central America to keep his charitable spirit fed by teaching English and Art in Honduras, fulfilling his dream to give back to the community of his family’s heritage. Everything was perfect…and then the roof caved in.
Catastrophically, in December of 2013, Joe French was savagely assaulted and robbed in Puerto Cortés, Honduras. While walking the two blocks home after his school’s Christmas party, he was shot five times, including once in the head, while being mugged by a gang of young thugs who stole his cell phone. Miraculously Joe survived the attack and was taken to the hospital. After some amazing and immediate online funding efforts by his family and friends, Joe was flown by specialized helicopter to Baylor Medical Center in Dallas where he has undergone multiple surgeries along with extensive physical and occupational therapy, and he continues to battle, fight, and persevere to this day.
Joe was an inspiring guy before, and he is an incredibly inspiring guy now. My heroes are real people, ones that do not give up and cannot be stopped. Joe French says, “I will get better, better, better.” When Joe paid me this visit, he was doing well and he continues to create and recover. Amazingly, Joe is walking, talking and once again making artwork and involving himself in the therapeutic progression of having a creative outlet. Satisfaction in former students is indeed one of the best benefits of my career.
Joe is a passionate and caring individual. He is a ‘people person’ who is friendly and immediately likable. Joe is community minded and has volunteered many times, including being involved with canned food drives and offering to do face painting at the annual MDA Walk at Broadway Square Mall. Joe French is a key member of the current regional art movement, a dedicated group of active artists involved in events and exhibitions. Joe has helped with local happenings as well as participated in exhibitions at area venues and alternative music and exhibition spaces. “I yearn for self-expression! I strive to provide an outlet for the common individual, a place of departure. I believe those who search long enough will find what they’re looking for. I believe this is my purpose, my addiction, my burden. I believe a search for visual and emotional expression is called for in everyone’s life. I hope to explore all visual boundaries and leave nothing behind,” Joe says.
Joe is one of those rare and special people with a passion for life. He works hard to inspire those around him. He shares what he loves and his creativity with others. I, like many others, hope for a local community supportive of its striving visual artists. East Texans should support one of our own and give encouragement to Joe and his family to assist with the unimaginable medical expenses. This is your opportunity to show you are willing to sponsor a vital asset to our area and purchase one of a kind, original art by a local, living Texas contemporary artist.
Buy local. Buy Joe. We desperately need supportive community art collectors. My heroes are real people.
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