It’s two weeks into summer camp, and you’ve already mastered the J-stroke on the lake and hiked up High Windy, and you’ve just begun to identify the mystery meals in the mess hall.
And now that it’s raining, counselors are trying their best to hype the day’s scheduled arts-and-crafts project.
Camp veterans over 30 will likely envision the homogeneous busywork of their youth — cigar-box jewelry kits, shapeless ceramic ashtrays and those endless plastic lanyards. Well, fast-forward to the 21st century, campers.
These days, creative challenges are a main draw at some of Western North Carolina’s 50-plus summer camps. As you read this, kids are likely firing raku pots, smithing at the onsite forge, studying videography and sculpting high-fashion metal art.
Education beneath a veneer of recreation
Whether today’s camp directors and counselors are leading a mountain-bike trek or a workshop in journal making or one of the performing arts, they are compelled to broaden kids’ experiences.
This includes offering adventure-based activities like rock climbing, paddling and high-rope courses. But more and more, camps are not only integrating art into the mix of things — they’re actually emphasizing it in their recruitment and marketing strategies.
Potter David Voorhees, artist-in-residence at Flat Rock’s historic Camp Greystone, finds the informal setting at the all-girls’ summer program ideal for teaching new skills.
“Today’s children are generally exposed to a wider range of things, but in some ways, they’re still limited,” he muses. “Camps allow children to try on different hats and select new activities.”
Simply stated, residential summer camps offer what schools sometimes cannot: time, tools, space and — perhaps most importantly — a supportive environment.
And Voorhees notes that campers can draw on their summer adventures year-round. “Catching them at a young age,” he says, encourages them to learn the techniques and management skills that “move them beyond the clay experience.
“Besides the fun they’re having working the clay,” he continues, “the girls are expressing themselves through their art.”
For Joy Harmon, who directs Math ‘N Art Regional Center for Family Learning in Asheville, this approach is hardly new — she’s been weaving art into a multidisciplinary curriculum for nearly four decades.
“Artistic expressions provide the opportunity for youth to get in touch with who they are,” declares Harmon enthusiastically. “Knowing this, all other learning is possible.”
Voorhees threw his first pot while working as a counselor at Cedar Mountain Camp in Transylvania County. When he returned to college that fall, he enrolled in pottery classes. The professional potter has clung to his passion — and, 25 years later, he’s the object of some parents’ envy.
Recently, moms and dads of Greystone campers got a chance to see their kids’ ceramic art.
“I had parents comment, ‘Can I come to camp, too?'” Voorhees reveals.
Lifetime incubators and economic indicators
While the kids are busy finding out more about themselves, communities surrounding WNC summer camps are discovering the financial benefits of their seasonal neighbors.
The estimated economic impact of organized camping for Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson and Transylvania counties combined was $96.2 million for 1998, the year the latest figures are available from the Appalachian Regional Development Institute in Boone.
Bob Williford, president of the Greater Hendersonville Chamber of Commerce, believes that even more people are starting to understand how lucrative the summer-camp industry can be.
“These camps provide both summer and year-round employment opportunities,” he points out.
During the time that kids are at WNC camps, parents spend an average of $791 per visit on hotels, food and regional attractions, according to the APDI.
“People get excited when they see these kind of numbers,” admits Nancy Hayes Neill, executive director of The Arts Center of Henderson County. Local retail shops, bed-and-breakfasts and restaurants also become the direct beneficiaries of this positive, “nonpredatory” industry, she points out.
Weaving on the wall
The Arts Center has put together an unprecedented exhibit to celebrate the art created at local camps.
Art Matters: The Creative Side of the Camp Experience includes more than 250 individual works by campers from nearly 25 local summer programs.
“The display includes an enormous range of creative endeavors that campers are exposed to at various camps,” Neill reveals.
Traditional crafts such as wood burning, candle making and weaving are represented, as well as projects that involve a more sophisticated creative process — including photography, paper making and metal sculpting.
But it’s more than just art for art’s sake.