This year's homecoming arrives with mixed feelings for Zephyrhills High art teacher, Deborah Gillars. With her retirement set for early January, now comes time to begin the painstaking process of disassembling the classroom she has been teaching in since 1996.
It starts with the ceiling — a patchwork of self-portraits created by Zephyrhills High graduates who have since moved on to other things. On Friday, in the hours before this year's homecoming game, some of those students will return to claim their artwork at a special gathering held in their old classroom.
"It's a bittersweet, happy/sad kind of feeling," Gillars said. "It's been a great joy to me to be able to look up at these kids."
The ceiling tile art project was started, in part, to remember and reward upper-level students who had been with Gillars for high school's long haul.
"You spend every day with these kids from the time they are 14 years old to becoming this person at 18," Gillars said. "You have a lot invested. You know them at a formative time in their lives. You know their struggles, their passions, their angst."
There was also the thought that the portraits would inspire freshmen, who, with an upward glance, could see a fraction of the talent that had spilled out in Gillars' windowless classroom.
"When you look up, you can see that they are pretty darn amazing, and that became an incredible motivator for freshmen class," she said. "I would have students say to me, 'I'm going to do that.' "
Among those who did — more than 100 — included 2004 grad, Desire D'Assandro who stares down in stark black and white, bringing the message that "What does not kill us makes us stronger." She continued her art and earned a master's degree in art from the University of South Florida. Contrasting that is a colorful self portrait of Miranda Burns, who graduated in 2008 and is studying at the Ringling School of Art and Design in Sarasota. Add to that the portraits of Robin Baldwin (2000), former high school wrestler , Chris Palmer (1999) and Elizabeth Acevedo who has kept in contact with Gillars since graduating in 2010.
Gillars' classroom turned out to be a safe haven for Acevedo after she transferred from a small, private school in North Carolina to Zephyrhills High during her junior year.
"Being in a new school with so many kids was overwhelming. I ended up hanging out mainly in the art room," Acevedo said. "Here was this place that felt safe and was full of people who had creative ideas just like me. It started me from going from a closed book to an open book."
Acevedo leapt at the opportunity to create her own ceiling tile — a colorful take-off inspired by the Beatle's Yellow Submarine that has kept a place these past years above Gillars' desk.
On Friday, Acevedo will return to the school to claim her ceiling tile. She plans to hang it in her dorm room next semester at Savannah College of Art and Design, where she plans to begin studies in the growing field of interactive game development and visual effects.
She too has mixed feelings about the dismantling of the ceiling as well as the future of public school art programs like the one she blossomed in.
"My concern is that nowadays art is not considered important," Acevedo said. "But you walk into the (Gillars') classroom and you look up and there's just so much there. You pull ideas and inspiration from the different techniques from the different artists. It inspires you to meet that level."