By Jesse Wood
Dec. 17, 2014. When Mike Hill, owner of Art Purveyors based in Foscoe, found that art was being cut from his kids’ elementary school in Roan Mountain, he decided to take action. He just didn’t realize it would lead him to be elected to the Carter County Board of Commissioners a few months ago.
Hill has been advocate for art education for nearly three decades. As an art student at Appalachian State University in the ‘80s, Hill founded Art Purveyors on King Street in downtown Boone at the age of 22. Having difficulty finding art supplies in Boone, he decided to fill a niche by opening the shop instead of having to travel off the mountain to get certain art products. Eventually, Hill was priced out of the downtown market as the landscape changed and moved to Foscoe, where he provides fine artists’ materials, custom picture framing and fine art publishing.
Being an entrepreneur, Hill also invested properties, selling them after renovations. One property, he purchased years ago was a farm in Roan Mountain. It was supposed to be vacation rental, but Hill liked the property so much that he decided to live there with his family, which is one reason his two kids attend second grade at Cloudland Elementary in Carter County.
Just like he has done for years in schools in Watauga County and Avery County, Hill wanted to support the arts in Carter County, Tenn. Hill noted that “education is key to progress,” and art in elementary school, which called for fairly standard, is part of a well-rounded curriculum.
So, when he found out that his two children wouldn’t be taking art in school, he approached Cloudland Principal Dawn Winters about teaching an art class at the elementary school. Hill said she seemed reluctant at first but after a second prodding a week later, she agreed.
So, Hill closed Art Purveyors on Monday, so he could teach elementary school art. He dusted off some old lesson plans, and says that first day was a blast for the children. Not only did they get to learn about art, they learned about mixing primary colors with cake icing. Obviously, that was a hit with the kids. The next week and the week after, the children engaged in line-drawing techniques and the classic shadow study with an egg.
“Every week, I said, ‘This is the week I revert back to doing hand turkeys. They are not going to get this or that,’” Hill said.
But that wasn’t the case.
“Every week, I left shaking my head for the wonderfulness of the work from these children,” Hill said, adding that he showed the K-6 students’ work to college art professors who said they “don’t get work like this” from college freshman.
Knowing he was on to something and needing funds for art supplies, Hill started a fundraising campaign – something he’s always been rather good at over the years.
Last year, the Elizabethton Elks Lodge, through the Elks National Foundation Beacon Grants, donated $4,000 for supplies. (The Beacon Grant was renewed this year.) Then, Hill matched that money with $4,000 of his own. Utilizing his contacts with wholesale art supply distributors, he called up Crescent Cardboard Distributors, which he has dealt with for 26 years. The company shipped a tractor-trailer down to the school and dropped off $40,000 worth of paper for the students to create art on. (He has also raised money go toward uniforms for the Cloudland Marching Highlanders. I donated his first few paychecks for serving as commissioner for uniforms and stood out in the street in front of the fire department one day, holding out buckets for commuters to donate. He raised $1,300 for the marching band that day.)
In all, Hill has raised more than $55,000 for Cloudland Elementary and taught art classes for free on Mondays since September 2013.
This all happened before he even thought about running for commissioner. He went to speak to some governmental officials, he preferred not to name, about the work he was doing and to request support for the arts in Carter County. Hill said he expected to receive a pat on the back and a “that a boy” at the least. The response he got? Let’s just say he didn’t like it. So he decided to run for office, knowing full well it was a long shot.
Carter County has eight districts with three commissioners per district. He received more than 700 votes – much more than he thought he would get in what he described as a “popularity contest,” – and was elected to represent Hampton, Roan Mountain and Tiger Valley communities in Carter County. Reflecting on the time he was campaigning for office, Hill said, “You will learn all kinds of things if you run for election.” (He also praised the many folks behind the scenes in county government and education that are eager to help. “They are willing bend over backwards, frankly, to get the job done. It’s the mountain way,” Hill said.)
Hill mentioned that opportunities are limited in Carter County and he’s tried to encourage development that is positive and productive, something that would provide jobs and stability to the economy. He also said he was flabbergasted that a citizen group campaigns against money towards schools and education, noting that he wouldn’t have believed it if he wasn’t sitting in on a board meeting listening to this group.
While he started out advocating for arts in the elementary schools, since he’s become commissioner he’s branched out a little bit. As a commissioner, he was placed on the education and landfill committee for the county. During the first we on the board, the committee discussed replacing a 1995 Volvo truck used that picks up and empties the dumpsters around the county. But with the new roll-on, roll-off truck, the county would have to purchase new dumpsters or haul all of the old dumpsters to a company in Morganton that would retrofit the dumpsters with adapter kits to fit with the new truck.
So Hill and fellow landfill committee member, Commissioner Danny Ward, got to thinking about Sam Potter’s renown welding class at Cloudland High School, where students are learning a trade and come out of school with college credit towards a vocational degree. This class keeps the students engaged in education, and they leave school with an opportunity to make a decent living.
Potter said his class to retrofitting the old dumpsters was a great idea and would be a excellent hands-on project for his students. In the end, Potters class saved the county a few thousand dollars and did the job weeks quicker than commercial bidders offered.
He said their were “golf claps” at a commissioner meeting for the success of this project, and now hoping to save the county money by having the vocational mechanics program at Hampton High School perform the tire and oil service to the motor fleet of the Carter County Sheriff’s Office. That’s just another idea, and he thinks the county could receive grants to help with such a program. As for other grants, Hill mentioned if Carter County had an arts council, it could apply for grassroots grants to possibly fund an arts teacher at his children’s school.
While Hill’s pleased with some of the work mentioned above, he talked about one incident that he described as the “coolest day of my life.”
Hill received a phone call from a former candidate he ran against that thought Hill advocating for art was a bunch of BS. He braced himself to just hear the guy out. This fellow starts off by telling Hill about his son, who this man loves dearly and is diagnosed with ADHD. The man talked about how even when his son sleeps, the little kid can’t even stop moving his arms and legs and that he doesn’t want to medicate his son. Hill, by now, is still wondering where this conversation is going.
But then the man said that his kid sat down one day at home with a piece of paper and pencil and started drawing out of nowhere.
“I watched him sit stone still for 45 minutes and draw,” the man told Hill. “There’s something to that art thing.”
See some of Hill’s cartoons he drew for the campaign below: