Dr. Betty Tisinger
This Legends and Legacies interview with Dr. Betty Tisinger, retired Professor of Art Education, Virginia Commonwealth University, was conducted by Dr. David Burton on June 3, 2017, at Dr. Tisinger’s home on Smith Mountain Lake.
Betty Tisinger (BT): Well, let me get started with some thoughts I had. I see myself as an art educator, like a circle in three sections. Those sections are not even and they are not straight. They might be curvy. First, I see myself as a person, how I grew up. I was born in Logan County, West Virginia. I was a coalminer’s daughter. I remember going back to see one of my teachers and she said I was the only student that she ever had who went on to college, except for one other man who went on, in all her years. That’s the kind of background I came from.
Even as growing up, I loved to read and I loved to draw. I like pictures so if I got books that had pretty pictures, I saved those.
Daisy was my mother. I called her “Daisy”, not Mom or Mother. Those were some tough times. My father was a coal miner. That was when the unions came in and he supported the unions. It was dangerous. I remember him hiding back in the mountains. We could never say anything about him to anyone. My father had black lung disease. My mother waited on him day and night for years.
I was excellent in math. I took all the math classes they had in high school. I was such a popular young woman when the school bus came in, there would be half a dozen boys waiting for me. That’s because I had done my math homework and they hadn’t. I was the only girl in a lot of those math classes. The guidance counselor said to me, “Betty, you’re going to go to college, and you’re going to major in art and paint pictures on airplanes.” (Years later, my daughter, Jesse, began college in aeronautical engineering, so she was the one that drew airplanes. She later switched to another area of engineering.)
David Burton (DB): Would you like to tell that story about meeting the angel?
BT: I really have met angels. I have seen such wrongdoing by people, and I see it now. Hard-core Christians that think they are right in whatever they decide is it. Well, it’s kinda hard to tell.
The first time there was an angel, my father had decided to find work in factories. (This was during World War II and there was work in factories.) He and his friends had driven all night and they were in an accident. That night, something banged on my window. The next morning, I told my mother, “There’s something wrong with Daddy.” They called to say he was dead, but he wasn’t. He was badly injured. He had lost one eye and one whole side of his face was disfigured.
One time I definitely saw an angel. Our house was very near the road. The doorstep practically touched the road. I sat down in the road. A big, enormous coal truck was speeding down the road toward me and an angel just picked me up and threw me. My mother saw me flung back. I knew it was an angel because it didn’t have any feet. It was suspended in the air.
I don’t believe in life after death or in a heaven or hell. I believe we are all part of a universe. Buddhism would come as close to it as anything I can think of because nirvana is not heaven. Nirvana is not heaven on earth. It is when you reach that point in life when you’re part of the universe. I just hope the world is a little bit better when I leave it than when I came. You asked about angels so you got some of my angel philosophy there.
I was going to college. I just knew it. I was determined. Of course, we had no money whatsoever. One thing I remember is that we had a suitcase. People used to borrow things from us all the time. If I got one new blouse, my neighbors wanted to borrow it before I even got a chance to wear it. It might be the only one I got in a year. My mother would lend anything to anybody. But they were always wanting to borrow that suitcase and my mother would say, “No, that’s Betty’s suitcase, and she will take that with her when she goes to college.” So, I didn’t know how I was going to do it but I knew I was going to college.
DB: The suitcase a symbol. Not just a symbol of college, but of leaving home and a journey. It’s a very significant metaphor.
BT: Fortunately, my high school guidance counselor knew about Berea College. (All students going to Berea College had jobs at the college that paid their tuition and other expenses. In this way, poor young people in Appalachia who could not afford to go to college could get a college education.) So, going to college was one of the miracles. The first year you were in the Foundation Program and worked as a custodian. I worked in the dining hall.
Then, on your own, you had to apply for a job. (There were lots of jobs.) I had taken a religion/philosophy class. Growing up, there were not a lot of things to think about. On Sundays, I would walk two or three miles up to a church and go to Sunday School. Then, I would catch a bus (it cost a dime) and go downtown to another church. I always went to Sunday School twice.
When I took this religion/philosophy class at Berea, we had to take an exam the first week. I remember there was only one out of 50 questions that I could not answer. I can tell you what that question was. It was, who saw a wheel in the sky? (Ezekial.) When I got my test back, I had missed only one question, and the professor had written on it—2 EZ 4 U. I decided to make it one of my goals to work so hard that it might not be easy for me, but it will appear that it’s easy for me.
DB: That explains a lot about you, Betty. Now I understand you.
BT: So, I applied to the head of the Religion/Philosophy Department to work for him (as my job at Berea). He was an incredible man. His name was Gordon Ross. He had written several books. He was sort of the idol of everyone there. He married me and Richard (her husband). Richard was the custodian in the church.
They didn’t have art education (as a major at Berea) but I loved art. I volunteered to work with students. We went out into the mountains around Berea, especially to black schools, and taught art. The woman who was heading that up was the wife of one of the faculty members. She was just that kind of person. I started teaching then, and also being an art major.
At that time, the only things a woman could be was a teacher or a nurse. So, I said, “OK, I was going to be an elementary teacher.” I majored in that for just one year but, thank goodness, I took an art course, and that was it. I became an art major. That was very important to me. It wasn’t an art education course.
After we graduated from Berea, we went to Harrisonburg. Richard had the G.I. Bill, and he was getting his masters degree at JMU. So, I said to myself, “I’m going to trot over there too.” (That was a time when there were no courses or majors in art education.) I have a masters degree from James Madison University in guidance and anthropology. Guidance was taking me as close to teaching as I could get. You see how these pieces begin to fit together. It is like your fate or karma.
After I graduated from JMU, the first job offer I had was teaching English and French in Harrisonburg. I had taken some French in high school and at Berea. I told the principal, “I can’t teach French. I’ll teach the English, but I will come to your school only if I can teach an art class instead of French.” It was my first art class in Harrisonburg High School.
When Richard graduated, we moved to Roanoke. I was at home at that time with my young children. This woman came and knocked on my door. She was the art supervisor in Roanoke City Schools. Her name was Kitty Baldock. A mutual friend from Berea had told her about me. She was looking for an art teacher, and she offered me the job. I taught there part-time for a while, and later, fulltime.
The Roanoke schools were trying to get into educational television. Kitty interviewed me and asked if I would do a 30-minute show. I said, “Yes,” and ended up doing a whole series of shows for several years. I was always involved in everything. You just have to take responsibility.
When Kitty retired, they said, “How about being the art supervisor?” I was the art supervisor in Roanoke for eleven years.
The third part of my life is the community. What do I mean by the community? When I taught in Roanoke City Schools, I had to think about Roanoke. You need to be a part of the school, but you need to be a part of the larger community as well.
Just like I knew I was going to college, I knew I was going to get a doctorate. The University of Georgia and Penn State accepted me. Penn State is what I wanted because they were on the quarter system and I could keep my job.
Penn State had a federal grant to evaluate some school programs. The dean said to me, “We need someone who knows something about art education. I mean teaching in the schools.” They offered me a salary and tuition and the opportunity to do some research. I worked for Penn State full time one semester. We are our educational experiences. We owe it to them. We become our education. And that’s the second big part of my life.
I wrote my dissertation on art education and educational television. When my committee was discussing my final defense for my dissertation, Harlan Hoffa, who was chair of the Art Education Department at that time, said, “Well, we all know Betty is marvelous and we don’t need to read her dissertation.” Mary Godfrey told me later that Bill Stewart, who was my dissertation advisor, said, “All the more reason we should be reading this.”
I just thought Mary Godfrey was precious. I expect the reason I had several conversations with her was I was on that federal research grant to evaluate art education in the schools. She would ask me what schools I had gone to. She seemed to be the only one of the faculty who had any sensitivity about what I was seeing and doing.
When I graduated from Penn State, I came to Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU). Al Landis was the chairman of Art Education, but it was the Dean (of the School of the Arts), Herb Burgart, who wanted me to come there. I was at VCU for 21 years.
DB: You’ve seen so much and done so much in your career in art education and particularly for the VAEA (Virginia Art Education Association).
BT: When I went to high school and that was taught by the music teacher. There was certainly not art education in elementary school. But I loved to draw and sketch. In my high school annual, I did the drawings for that. Even when I was going to JMU, there was no art education, so I have seen art education itself become a profession. And the reason I see it as a profession is exactly the three things I talked about. We are a group of people who in ourselves understand or feel that the arts belong to everyone, and we never stop being advocates. Advocacy is what we do without saying, “Well, now I’m out here advocating for art.” So, I’ve seen that growth in interest in the arts and in art education. All of us should understand that. Art expresses what we are in so many ways.
When I first became art supervisor in the city schools in Roanoke, we had no such thing as elementary art teachers. But I have found that if you really believe something, you can do it. Ray Alcorn was superintendent of schools, and he was so wonderful. I said we have to have art teachers in the elementary schools, but there was a long way to go, and that in his heart he agreed. But if he went to the school board and said, “Betty says we have to have elementary art teachers,” it would be a struggle. So, I started out with a limited amount of money. I started calling all my art buddies in Roanoke that I knew. I started hiring part-time teachers two days a week. I was sneaky enough to know that once those art people got into the schools, and the school board members saw the interest, I could build the program. I used to speak at any meeting, any PTA, where people wanted to hear about art. By the time I left Roanoke, I had eight elementary art teachers, one for each elementary school. Now they have more. I was art supervisor in Roanoke Public Schools for eleven years.
It’s state law now that if you have so many pupils, you have to have so many art teachers. That’s one of things that VAEA worked so hard to achieve.
Years later after my children were grown, the VCU School of the Arts dean, Murray DePillars, and our former chairman, and at that time, the Assistant Dean, Dan Reeves, asked me if I would be chairman. I said, “Yes, but it was summertime then (short notice) and I said, ‘It would be a tough way to proceed’.” And it was. The faculty didn’t like the idea of me being chair, so they decided they were going to show me that I couldn’t run the department. One of the things the faculty did was, that summer, they all refused to teach summer classes. I thought, “Kiddos, I am going to run this place, and I’m going to figure out how.” I found out how much money I could get for summer school. I remembered how I had done it on a slim budget in Roanoke and I said, “OK, we’re going to get some part-time people.” I was able to get some of the best speakers and workshops for just two or three days in there. Instead of having a series of classes, I had one big, continuous class, and people could sign up for so many hours but they didn’t have to take the entire class. I also scheduled the class at the Virginia Museum because an off-campus course is a lot cheaper than an on-campus course, and the teachers really like that. I got great evaluations. The teachers (who were taking the classes) said it was some of the best classes they had ever had. I’ll tell you, I had a line waiting to take summer school the next summer. I was chair for two years.
One of the teachers in that summer course was from the VCU Art History Department, Babatunde Lawal, from Nigeria. We became great buddies. Talk about coincidences, I said to him, “I have a friend who lives in Nigeria. She was a classmate of mine at Berea College.” (The year I went to Berea was the first year that they took black students. Before that, it was state law that they couldn’t have black students. They were a group of African students and, of course, they were some of the best students we have.) Babatunde asked, “Who?” Her name was Obuchuku Obi; I told him, “Dottie Obi.” “Dottie Obi!!!,” he said, “She is absolutely worshiped in Nigeria.” She traveled all over Nigeria, setting up schools and libraries. Her husband was in the government. She brought their children back to America after he died.
I was president of VAEA before I came to VCU, but we were only a chapter of the VEA, the Virginia Education Association. There was no VAEA as such. I was the first one that pulled away from VEA. I started a newsletter and mimeographed it. I drove to Richmond from Roanoke to the VEA because they mailed it out to all the art teachers.
At one time, the area in northern Virginia wanted to secede from VAEA and become its own art education association. I was teaching at VCU at the time. Al Schantz was president of VAEA. Schantz was really shaken up. He, Dan Reeves and I sat down together. Dan was pretty savvy about things and I had been president of VAEA. Out of that meeting, we decided to go with a proposal to have five regions within VAEA, and that’s how that happened. So that has worked out well. We move the annual conventions around to the different regions each year. We did it to maintain ourselves as a state organization.