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Sixteen-year-old Sarah Seaman wants to be an Air Force photojournalist. 

“I’d get to use my creativity, but also serve my country,” she said. Her inspiration to join the military comes from being part of a big military family. Her dad was in the Marine Corps, her brother is currently a Marine, and she has grandparents and great-grandparents who served in WWI and WWII.

Her inspiration for art and photography is simple — she’s always loved it. Today, Seaman is able to grow as an artist while taking classes in advertising and graphic design at McDowell Technical Community College (MTCC), even though she’s homeschooled.

“I think there’s a misconception that homeschoolers aren’t social, but we are,” she said. “We have social skills. We have friends. I love talking to people.”

Sarah Seaman, with her acrylic on canvas piece, “Lady on Blue.” Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Through the College and Career Promise program, Seaman can enroll and get credit in courses at the college tuition-free as a high school student and will complete her associate degree.

“I think having graphics under my belt will help me in the Air Force with knowing the programs that I’m going to be using for photojournalism,” she said. Plus, at MTCC, she gets access to design programs that she said would have costed her thousands of dollars at home.

“Using the computers and the different design programs — it really allows me more space, more creativity. I get to do things on the computer that I don’t get to do on paper,” she said.

The McDowell Tech student art show highlighted the work of the advertising and graphic design students. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

Last Thursday, at the Student Art Show artist reception hosted at the McDowell Arts Council Association in downtown Marion, Seaman showcased some of her pieces alongside the work of other students in MTCC’s advertising and graphic design program.

“I love the energy the students bring,” said MTCC President John Gossett. “Their creativity blows me away, and they’re just so proud of the work they do, which makes me proud to be in this industry that I’m in.”

Artwork covering the gallery walls included acrylic paintings on canvas and screen prints, with depictions ranging from Johnny Cash to Marilyn Monroe. 

Stan Lee tribute by Alexandra Chinery

One piece, a Stan Lee tribute, took student Alexandra Chinery 12 hours to complete.

“What better way to do Stan Lee than in Jack King Kirby’s style?” she said of the comic book artist she worked to mimic. “That’s why it has the big, black shadedness.”

Although Chinery said she’s loved drawing since she could hold a pencil in her hand, her Stan Lee artwork and another piece on showcase were done in Adobe Illustrator.

She credits her instructor, Jay Perry, for her newfound graphic design skills.

“When he’s teaching us how to use these really advanced, sometimes difficult art programs on the computer, he will take as long as you need to sit there by your side while you’re at the computer,” she said.

She said Perry also helped her to get over being a perfectionist and, taking a cue from Bob Ross, to “accept the happy mistakes.”

“They may end up being what makes the piece really, really great,” she said.

Split personality self portrait by Zoey Laker

Jay Perry, who has been an instructor and adviser of advertising and graphic design at MTCC for nearly 10 years, said it’s actually his students that inspire him. 

“I like to see the way they come up with an idea, something I wouldn’t have thought of,” he said.

He said it was also a point of pride for him to see students get to “where they can create with the software as easily as a paintbrush,” and also to see that students have developed a work ethic.

“No matter how skilled you are, it takes time,” Perry said. “Some of these works, like the Marilyn Monroe drawing, she probably put 25 hours into that.”

Marilyn Monroe portrait by Katherine Metcalf

For student Nick Guinn, who is halfway through the associate degree program, attending MTCC represents not only a passion, but a career change. He previously served in the military and later worked in heavy equipment.

“I’d like to get into the advertising field, [have] some freedom to work on your own, and go outside the box,” Guinn said. 

Rose illustration by Nick Guinn

While he has always been interested in art and drawing, the graphic design aspects are completely new to him.

“On the digital side, the programs are a little freaky in the beginning because it’s like ‘I’ve never touched this before,'” he explained. “It’s like dipping your toe in the water.”

However, with MTCC’s family atmosphere and one-on-one time with the instructors, Guinn said he was quickly put at ease.

Meanwhile, for Brooke Holland, who knew she wanted to work for a bigger company doing design work, coming to the program at MTCC was an academic change. She had previously been enrolled at a four-year university but decided for the switch halfway through.

“I wasn’t getting what I need there,” she said in terms of her desire for strong hands-on training and mentorship.

Brooke Holland and her screen printed Johnny Cash poster. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

In contrast, at MTCC, she said she’s learned skills she wouldn’t have thought of, like airbrushing and designing her first screen printed poster.

“I went outside of my comfort zone, definitely, within art itself,” Holland said. “They’ve taught me how to be comfortable in my design. I used to be super shy. I didn’t have any confidence in any of my stuff.”

She said the supportive and welcoming atmosphere for students extends beyond the program and throughout the whole college.

“I want them to leave better than they were, however they define that,” President Gossett said. “I want them to look back at their time and say, ‘yes, that was time well spent.’”

Yasmin Bendaas

Yasmin Bendaas is a Science writer.  A North Carolina native, she received her master’s degree in Science & Medical Journalism at UNC Chapel Hill, where she was a Park Fellow. She received her Bachelor of Arts in anthropology in 2013 from Wake Forest University, where she double-minored in journalism and Middle East and South Asia studies. As an undergraduate student, Bendaas gained insight into public health when she interned at the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust, a statewide grantmaker focused on rural health, including access to primary care, diabetes, community-centered prevention, and mental health and substance abuse. 

As a journalist, Bendaas has been funded twice by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for fieldwork in Algeria — first to cover a disappearing indigenous tattoo tradition, and again to look at how climate change affects rural sheepherding practices.