School buildings are Knoxville artist's canvasPosted by Josh Flory on 8/20/2018
When Gale Hinton was a girl, her father would never buy her a coloring book.
The reason? “Because he said the worst thing you could do for a child or anybody with creativity is hand them a book and say, ‘Stay in the lines,’” Hinton recalled.
That advice that has paid off dozens of times for Knox County Schools over the last three decades. Hinton has become a go-to artist for school buildings across the district, painting everything from murals to portraits to lettering -- all without using a projector.
Hinton estimated that her work is in more than 120 schools in East Tennessee, and almost every school in Knox County. At West View Elementary, where she attended Grades 1-6, Hinton’s paintings include a large mural in the gym, where she used to sing on-stage when she was a student.
“I just remember wearing little white choir robes with black ties. I’ve got pictures of myself and I don’t look all that happy about it,” she said with a laugh. “But this was a good school, a good neighborhood school so (I have) fond memories of here.”
Born and raised in Knoxville, Hinton, who turned 76 this month, attended West View, Mooreland Heights and the former Young High School.
At the time, K-12 schools in Knox County didn’t have art education, but after a short stint at the University of Tennessee, Hinton attended the Ringling College of Art and Design, in Sarasota, Fla., where she took classes in everything from lettering to sculpting.
Hinton said her grandson once asked if she was a hippie, but she was able to correct him: “I said, ‘I’m way too old to be a hippie. I was a bohemian.’”
When she started as a painter, Hinton used acrylics or watercolors, but soon realized that on larger projects she needed a different kind of paint. Now she uses Valspar house paint for her murals, saying it has little odor and is safe for use in schools and even hospitals -- so safe that she once ingested a small sample, without any apparent side effects.
“That happens when you’re painting with two brushes,” she explained, “and you put one in your mouth to hold while you’re using the other one, and you put the wrong end in.”
At Vine Middle Magnet School, Hinton’s work ranges from inspirational quotes by Colin Powell and Serena Williams to portraits of historical figures, such as Booker T. Washington and Leonardo Da Vinci.
Clarence Swearengen, campus manager and athletic director at Vine, said Hinton’s work has helped students feel a sense of ownership in the building, and said the portraits of historical figures help make it feel alive.
“It’s about being able to connect our kids with people of the past, people who were influential in our world and our community and then having those kids realize or visualize that they can be whoever they want to be in life,” Swearengen said.
On a recent afternoon, Hinton was at Farragut Primary School, where she pointed out that many of her pieces include a small ant character. She said she first painted the character at a private business, after a young boy requested it.
“They can do anything,” she said. “I have ants that raft down a river or they swim in the ocean or they drive a John Deere tractor … And they don’t get in the way of the picture, because you have to look really close to see them. But they do add a lot to it.”
“I said, ‘That’s where my job is,’” Hinton recalled. “‘If your job was at the top of that scaffolding, you’d go up there too.’”
That sense of dedication, along with her years of experience, has helped Hinton earn the trust of school administrators after all these years.
At this point, the artist said, she’ll often approach a teacher or administrator to ask what they want on the wall.
“And they just say, ‘Make it look good.’”