Every course at HPU has a greater purpose than the material at hand, and photography is no different. Benita VanWinkle, art education coordinator/art instructor, has a passion for photography and teaching her students how to use it for a greater good. When something comes from deep inside, like a love of art does for VanWinkle, students benefit from it far beyond learning how to take a picture. She strives to show her students how to put meaning into their work and how to use it to serve others.
How did you discover that photography can have a greater meaning?
I work with my church, Brookstown United Methodist Church in Pfafftown, N.C. on various projects, but I also teach photography to the residents at the Children’s Home in Winston-Salem, volunteer at the Sawtooth School for Visual Art in Winston Salem, and I photograph yearly at the Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center in Tobaccoville, N.C, a riding center that works with special needs children and adults. Actions speak louder than words, so by continuing to do what I feel convicted to do, my hope is that I am inspiring my students to follow their convictions as well. I talk about my volunteer work in the classroom a bit, so the students will know how many awesome opportunities there are to help others and that they can make a positive difference in the world. A couple of weeks ago one of my students came with me to Riverwood. I couldn’t have been more thrilled! She had a fun time, made great photos, and now she wants to work with them or other organizations like them in the future. That is what it is all about.
How do you teach that service aspect to your students?
I will be teaching a service learning class, “Documenting the community through photography,” next fall. We will be going out into the community to photograph the people who worked or still work in the furniture industry. We want to celebrate what they have done for our community and our nation in being true craftsmen and workers in an area most people might not know much about. We will be doing their portraits, conducting interviews and compiling oral histories to include with the photos and then wrapping up the class with an exhibition of photos at the High Point Museum. I think this is an important project because these are the people, along with their relatives and neighbors, who made furniture for the world; they are the true workers in an industry that is changing and it is important to celebrate their contribution. It will change the way students look at life, at themselves and those around them. It is not a small thing to share your story, and I want the students to appreciate and celebrate that which is shared with them.
How do you stay active as an artist?
It is important to show my students that I am actually “doing” what I say I am doing, which is exhibiting and showing work. Over the past four years, I have been exhibited in 16 shows and won eight awards. Right now, I am working on three different portfolios. One is the continuation of the project that I have been working on for 33 years, photographing vintage movie theaters across the U.S. I have been traveling across the U.S. for 30 years photographing every movie theater, drive-in theater; you name it theater I can get to, from Montana to California, from Florida to Illinois, Texas to Wisconsin, and of course, N.C. I have hopes of publishing this work in the near future. The next portfolio is called “recent additions” and includes work that is layered (literally collage style) and has family photographs imbedded in it. The third is a portfolio of places that are associated with the railroad or near railroad tracks.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
Everywhere and my backyard! Seriously, sometimes it comes as a very quiet voice about what is important and sometimes it comes when I am driving down the road and see something that I think needs preserving. I started photographing the Boonville Mill in Boonville, N.C. about four years ago because I thought (mistakenly, thank goodness) that they were tearing part of it down. I slammed on the brakes, pulled into the parking lot and became friends with the owners who just wave to me now when I start climbing the stairs and crawling around the 120 year old building that is being run by four generations of the same family. Most of my work is generated around preserving or saving something that I think others need to see.
Where do your passions for art come from and how do you incorporate them into the classroom?
My passion for art comes from a deep search and exploration of how I am connected to the world, both physically and spiritually. I believe the reason I am here is to help other people, and teaching and using my photography skills is how I accomplish that. I am very passionate about creating art that can serve a larger purpose, one that can be empowering for everyone involved.