Photo: Pictured above from left to right, Gadsden Museum of Art’s Exhibits Coordinator Mary Wright, Director Ray Wetzel and Outreach and Education Coordinator Jill Edwards smile for a photo on the museum’s third floor, dedicated to the history and origins of Etowah County. (Katie Bohannon/Messenger)
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Since opening its first exhibit in 1965, the Gadsden Museum of Art has offered local residents and tourists an environment to experience cultural, historical and artistic works right in the heart of downtown.
55 years later the museum still stands at 515 Broad Street, a beacon of inspiration and education that withstands the test of time.
Despite the shutdown due to COVID-19, the museum never cancelled any shows. While all shows were postponed three months, the museum will maintain its original schedule for upcoming exhibits. To better preserve the health and safety of its staff and visitors, the GMA implemented social distancing, hand-washing stations, altered its programs and encouraged mask-wearing.
GMA Director Ray Wetzel’s life is filled with a rich connection to the museum he oversees. From a volunteer performing odd jobs to a part-time staff member to the museum’s director, Wetzel worked his way up, attending trainings while achieving a Bachelor of Arts in painting from Jacksonville State University. An artist himself, Wetzel recognized the importance of creating a space to introduce he and his friends’ artwork to the public – something he did frequently throughout his teenage and college years. Wetzel considers himself better at finding and booking locations for art shows than producing the material for an exhibit, so when he accepted the position as GMA Director, his talent for hosting shows found an environment to flourish.
As director, Wetzel fulfills a number of responsibilities to ensure the museum operates smoothly – from housekeeping to curating to physically hanging shows. But aside from all the different hats he wears, Wetzel finds one aspect of his job particularly rewarding.
“I enjoy the physical labor the most,” said Wetzel. “You can sit at a desk for hours and write papers and send emails, but I don’t feel like I’ve accomplished anything because I can’t physically see it. But when we go out here and Mary [Wright] is hanging a show and I can see the turnaround [that is special]. We do massive amounts of work in such a short window, it’s kind of astonishing. My family doesn’t even understand that we don’t use the same nail hole [to hang artwork]; there is a mathematical formula we use to hang the pieces so they’re at a proper level. I’ve always wanted to put a GoPro in here [to show a behind-the-scenes look into the museum].”
However, running the museum is not a one-man job. Wetzel works closely with a pair of skilled individuals who transform ideas into reality on a daily basis, serving as the bridge between each artists’ vision and the public.
GMA Outreach and Education Coordinator Jill Edwards has always been creative. After earning a degree in Interior Design from the University of Alabama and pursuing that profession, Edwards introduced her knowledge of art to a specific demographic of museum attendants.
While Edwards taught art history classes at Eura Brown Elementary for the past 10 years, she collaborated with Wetzel to bring youth-focused programs to the museum, establishing a positive relationship between children and the arts from a young age.
“The museum has always gone into schools, but it’s always been very limited,” said Wetzel. “When I took over, I made a priority to go into every school to build a future patron base and grow the arts later. Jill [Edwards] goes in [to schools] and sees as many kids as she can, and we do these art camps. But hopefully when these kids are older, even if I’m gone, they’ll know this museum is here and want to come back and be a part of it.”
One primary event GMA sponsors each summer is its art camp, where Edwards leads several groups of first through fifth grade students in creative projects and art lessons. Edwards teaches her students historical background while showing them methods to create different types of art, including facts about certain artists they may study.
Though art camp is typically held in Edwards’ classroom, due to COVID-19 regulations, the GMA altered the camp’s structure to protect the health of its students without compromising their enriching experience.
“Projects-wise, we didn’t have to make any changes,” said Edwards. “The main change we made was social distancing, [since] we couldn’t all be in the classroom. I normally like to do a setup of U-shaped tables, but we just had to have a bigger area to spread everyone out. We had no shared supplies. Everyone had their own tray with their own supplies that they used all week, [which] made them responsible for their things. I actually kind of liked that everyone had their own designated set of supplies, so I’ll probably just continue on with that every year.”
This summer’s art camp focused on anatomy, with the students creating art projects with themes like hands, heart-shapes, faces and animals. From painting to sculpting to self-portraits, GMA’s annual art camp teaches children to explore their inner creativity in a fun, uplifting and encouraging environment.
“I think there’s a lot of kids who think they can’t draw, they can’t paint or they can’t do things,” said Edwards.
“Then when you teach them how to do things, they discover they can do them and they do like it. The child that thinks they’re not gifted in art, when they see a finished product, it creates that drive in them to do more. That’s what I want them to see. Everyone is capable of art, and everyone’s art is going to be different; it’s not cookie-cutter, and I don’t want it to be cookie-cutter. Even though we’re all doing the same lesson, it’s going to be individualized for [each] person. I think there’s just a lot of kids who don’t think they’re creative…so I’m trying to bring that out.”
While Edwards dedicates herself to instilling a healthy sense of self-esteem and discovering in her art students, Wetzel hopes that the memories created through art camp and Edwards’ classes will expose children interested in art to the possibilities available in their future.
“People don’t really think that art is a giant industrial business, but it controls everything you see – from apps on your phone to things in a museum,” said Wetzel. “At least 2 out of 10 kids go into an art career. It’s important to let these kids know that there is something out there for them if they don’t fit into a retail or industrial model.”
GMA Exhibits Coordinator Mary Wright began working at the museum a little over a year ago, but her artistic eye and steady hand has preserved artists’ intentions and created powerful exhibits since her first day of the job. With degrees in Art History and Studio Art from the University of South Alabama and a graduate degree from the University of Florida, Wright teaches art appreciation classes online for multiple colleges while fulfilling her duties at the GMA.
“I started teaching straight out of college,” said Wright. “I thoroughly enjoy teaching, but what I love about teaching is sharing art with people and my love of art with people – specifically art history. But when I was looking for a full-time job, I came to the realization that museum work was what I wanted to do, and that’s just another way of sharing my love of art with the public.”
Wright shares her love of art with the public through the shows she brings to life each month. When she is not communicating with artists and discussing the details of their shows, she is fine-tuning the graphics that connect each aspect of an exhibit together to create a complete masterpiece. From designing signs for doors on the museums or vinyl wall decals displaying an artist’s name, to editing artists’ statements, Wright’s intricate touches reveal the meticulous process museum workers follow to manifest exhibits.
“If we have a show to hang, [we have to] figure out where we want the pieces to lay [or] where we’re going to hang that vinyl,” said Wright. “That can take anywhere from a couple hours to a couple days depending on how massive the show is. Otherwise, we’re taking a show down.”
Wright noted that the beginning and ending of the month is always busy at the GMA, because that is when they change the artwork. Though Wright appreciates the slower days when she can prepare for the future, the busy days always hold something exciting in store.
“I love the busy times,” said Wright. “It makes the day go by faster, and you get the satisfaction of seeing that show go up. Especially when you can get it up in a day, it’s so satisfying. Even though we love all the art that comes in, at the end of the two or three months, we’re ready to see something new and exciting. It’s always fun.”
The constant rotation of exhibits throughout the museum provides visitors with a different experience each time they visit. While the first and second floor introduce frequently changing exhibits, for those who might prefer exploring something other than art, the museum’s third floor is dedicated to the history of Etowah County. Full of rich details about Etowah County’s origins and interesting local facts, guests can travel through time as they discover each era of Etowah County.
“I just hope visitors gain a better appreciation of what they’re looking at,” said Wright. “Being in Gadsden, it’s not considered as far as I know an arts center like you might think of Birmingham or Atlanta, but this museum is bringing some amazing art to Gadsden. I really wish people would come in more and be able to appreciate it. Come in on your lunch break and see it; take a look around. Ray [Wetzel] always says, ‘if you don’t like what we have now, we’ll have something new next month!’”
While visitors wander through museums in admiration, there is an underlying sense of artistry that that coincides with the individuals whose works are on display. That sense of artistry ensures masterpieces are cared for, protected and preserved – a talent museum workers refine to create environments that educate and inspire. Together, Wetzel, Wright and Edwards create an unshakable foundation where the arts thrive, establishing the Gadsden Museum of Art as an unforgettable piece in the cultural, historical and artistic mosaic so many people call home.
“It’s easy to walk into somewhere and start tearing everything apart,” said Wetzel. “I just kind of want people to come in, take a minute, look around and take a breather. Art isn’t something that’s hoity-toity or just for a richer population…art is for everybody. The thing I want people to know is that it’s down to earth. These artists have a full-time job working somewhere else, or they’re a full-time artist, and [visitors] can come in [the museum] and make their own judgements about art but not tear it apart. We put artists statements up just so that people can read them and understand [the artist’s perspective]. We can’t really force people to change their opinion about art, but we can at least show them something that might connect with them.”
The Gadsden Museum of Art will be offering private lessons, online art projects and small group classes for the community during COVID-19, and is currently seeking volunteers to work flexible, individualized hours at the museum. The Gadsden Museum of Art is open Tuesday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. For more information on upcoming exhibits, art classes, volunteering or events, call 256-546-7365, visit gadsdenmuseum.com or facebook.com/gadsdenmuseum.