TJC Arts Fest feature: TJC art professor describes passion for teaching, continuing to grow | TJC

TJC Arts Fest feature: TJC art professor describes passion for teaching, continuing to grow

For Tyler Junior College art professor Derrick White, teaching at the community college level is a personal preference.

“I went to community college right out of high school, because that’s the only way I could afford to go to college,” said White, a DeSoto native.
In his freshman year at Cedar Valley College in Lancaster, White signed up for an art appreciation class with Prof. Randy Brodnax.
“Randy was the first adult I’d ever met who was having a good time, so that’s where I got inspired be an art teacher,” he said. “He was this crazy, Cajun potter, full of life and personality. He was having a great time and you could tell he loved what he did for a living. So, I thought, ‘This looks like a cool gig.’”
White then transferred to the University of North Texas in Denton, where he earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine art.
“When I started my job search, I only applied to community colleges,” he said. “I didn’t want to work at a university; I wanted to return what I had been given, which was the opportunity to teach and hopefully to inspire others.”
White joined TJC as a full-time art professor in 2001 and was named department chair in 2015, and he can’t imagine being anywhere else.
“I really believe that we’ve got something special here,” he said. “We’ve got lightning in a bottle, and I think the No. 1 thing this art department has going for it is its energy from the faculty and their interactions with students. It’s such a positive, energetic environment. You don’t find that in all art departments or even in all departments in any other school. There are schools that talk about retention and trying to keep students, but we have kids here who never want to leave.”
As with all of the TJC art professors, White remains active in the professional realm, contributing to exhibits that can result in recognition.
One of his works was recently selected for the Longview Museum of Art’s new exhibit, “Cultural Connect,” celebrating American artists from the 20th and 21st centuries. The show runs through Dec. 31.
“There’s a piece of mine that’s been in their permanent collection since 2011,” he said. “It was the first thing I did when I went back into the studio after my father passed away, and it’s called ‘Now What?’ That was a chaotic and confusing time, and creating that piece was very therapeutic.”
In the Longview show, White’s art is displayed alongside works by some of his artistic mentors and friends.
“I’m on the wall with Rufus Lovett, Jim Pace and John Hillier,” he said. “That’s the shocking part: being up there with those guys. Hillier taught at Kilgore for decades and is retired now, and Jim Pace kind of built the art program at UT Tyler and retired a few years ago. It’s quite an honor to be accepted into this East Texas arts community.”
“Community” is a major theme within the TJC Art Department.
“Creating art shouldn’t be a selfish endeavor; it should be about human connection, and that human connection is community. This job is so much more than just teaching the subject matter,” he said. “It’s one thing to come into the classroom, go over the techniques of the medium and guide students through their projects. We also do our best to teach them about supporting each other, so we encourage them to go to other people’s art shows and musical performances and such.”
There’s also a focus on making a difference in the community outside of TJC.
“Through the TJC Art Club, we do community service events where we have a food drive every fall semester in October and another one every spring semester in April during Arts Fest. The food is donated to the East Texas Cares Food Pantry. We’ve been doing that for 18 years, and the people from the food pantry have told me numerous times that they couldn’t have a food pantry unless we do this.
“It’s about supporting our community and doing something to help others.”
White said the department also conducts a community painting class at a low-income apartment complex in Tyler.
“We take some art club members and my painting students to Disciple Place Village and teach an art class. It’s very popular among the residents. They look forward to it and so do we,” he said.
This week, as TJC kicks of its 10th annual Arts Fest month, the art department is putting on its annual Silent Art Auction to raise funds for future art events, scholarships and community service projects.
TJC faculty, students and local artists create and donate art pieces that are displayed in the Jenkins Hall art hallway throughout the week, and anyone can sign a sheet to bid on their favorite pieces. Bidding closes at 2 p.m. Thursday, April 4, with winners announced afterward.
“This is the 21st year we’ve held the auction, and it’s gotten pretty competitive over the years,” he said. “People have gotten auction-savvy, so we’ve had some people show up at 1:30 on Thursday to keep an eye on the art piece they’ve been bidding on all week. We’ve even had some arguments and tense moments break out in recent years, so that’s been kind of exciting.”

Thunderdome 2024

During the Thunderdome competition, two pieces at a time are judged, and the losing piece in each round is destroyed on the spot by a pack of “annihilators” from the TJC art department.

Another popular Arts Fest event is Thunderdome, a winner-take-all competition.
The premise is simple but somewhat brutal: A crowd gathers in the center of campus where TJC students and faculty submit their artwork for judging. White randomly chooses three people from the crowd to serve as judges.
Two pieces at a time are held up for judgment, with the losing piece in each round destroyed on the spot by an unruly pack of “annihilators” from the TJC art department. Methods of destruction include blowtorch, knife, spray paint, sledgehammer, pickaxe, kicking, bare-handed smashing, or a combination thereof. 
This year’s Thunderdome competition takes place from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday, April 24, in the quad area between Vaughn Library and Jenkins Hall on the TJC central campus.
“Everyone gets really into it,” he said. “It is a fun way for students to release some stress toward the end of the semester.”
For all of its raucous, violent fun, Thunderdome also holds an important life lesson.
“It teaches them about creating art and investing in yourself but also being able to let it go, so that you can send your art out into the world,” he said. “You can sell it, you can donate it, or you can enter it in Thunderdome and watch it get destroyed.
“A nice trend that’s been going on over the past few years of Thunderdome is the students are taking the scraps from their destroyed works and repurposing and reimagining them into new pieces.”
Another life lesson: Repairing what’s broken to serve a new purpose.
“At the root of what we do here, we strive to foster an environment where the kids feel safe, where they can be vulnerable and feel free express themselves,” he said. “And all of that leads to being great artists who will go out and continue to make those meaningful connections wherever they go from here.”
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