7 Day Art Challenge Day 1: Winthrop University photography class

My friend and art idol Tamara Lavalla tagged me recently in a 7-day art challenge. I’ve been a graphic designer/layout editor for the better part of 16 years and I still sit up a little straighter and smile when someone calls me an artist. And when someone as talented as Tamara tags me in an ART CHALLENGE, well, I full on freak out a little bit.

Here’s what Tamara wrote:



So, without further adieu, let’s start this art challenge!

Day 1: Winthrop University photography class

I should start the challenge by telling you that I never actually set out to become an artist. I never took art classes of any sort in high school or college. I can’t draw, so why would I, right?

I grew up as a writer. While at Winthrop, I was working hard toward my print journalism degree with a minor in creative writing, and I was really good at it. I put off one class until the last semester of my senior year, however, because I just wasn’t feeling it. I had the choice between taking graphic design and photography.

Well, since I can’t draw, I better take photography, right? (Ohhhh, the irony.)

I ended up in Jim Stratakos’ photo journalism class in the winter of 2000. I felt a little like a fish out of water, though in hindsight, I shouldn’t have. I have always loved photography and have a natural eye for it, I just didn’t know it yet as I always used point and shoot.  I was more worried that I didn’t understand what an F-stop was.

On our first assignment, Melissa McClelland and I went out to Glencairn Gardens in Rock Hill and took photos of anything we could think of. On a whim (I’m telling you, I already knew composition!), I sprawled out on the ground in order to get an eye-level shot of some lily pads floating in the water. Got a crash course in using a darkroom (so cool), developed the negatives, slapped in on the enlarger, played around in some chemicals … and got an A.

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Wow, this photography thing is so easy, I thought. I’m a pro! Armed with an ego the size of my house, I took the camera with me to Boone for the weekend and shot people all over town (see, I even use photography jokes!). Turned in a kid rock climbing for my second assignment, and waited with a smug grin on my face to see what Jim thought of that one.

And then, I got a C. Oops.

I’m not going to bother to post the picture because it was a well-deserved C. Maybe this photography thing took a little more skill than I was giving it credit for …

I say all this to tell you about the project that I really wanted to highlight today. Part of the photojournalism class included learning not just how to take a good photo, but how to be a journalist using the lens instead of a pen (That’s not just a saying; we actually used pens then.)

One of the best things Jim taught us, aside from teaching me how to dodge and burn using an enlarger, was how to interact with people. And he did this by giving us a crash course on Blackmon Road.

Blackmon Road is in Rock Hill, South Carolina, but it may as well have been a third-world country in 2000. It’s located at the end of a dirt road and it’s a community made of squatters who live in dilapidated shacks and junked-out busses. There was no plumbing or electricity. I had never seen anything like it in my life (and I’m not sure I have since, either). And on two occasions, about 15-20 of us college students with bright, shiny cameras descended on this community as if we were the paparazzi having spotted Lady Gaga at a Starbucks wearing a meat dress.

Needless to say, not everyone was happy to see us. But Jim had built a rapport with them and he knew what he was doing. He spoke softly with a couple of the residents, and, after a little time, some of them actually warmed up to us.

I met a man who was collecting aluminum cans. Bags upon bags lined his property, and his intention was to save enough so that once he cashed in, he’d be able to buy a house.

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The bags of aluminum cans were his golden ticket.


I met a young girl who showed me the van she lived in.

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This is the front door of her home.


And I met a man who was as nice as he could be. He was the tour guide of the community, taking us from spot to spot and telling us everyone’s stories. I didn’t get a chance to photograph him the first time we visited, but I did the second. The only thing was, the second time we came out, he threatened to shoot us if we didn’t leave. He was anxious and upset and wasn’t playing tour guide that day. He may have offered me a first glimpse into what mental illness can really do to a person.

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The pan is full of Thanksgiving dinner that Jim brought for the Blackmon Road residents. The white on his face is the food he was eating.


Fast forward 16 years, and when I look back at these photos I see that I had a lot to learn when it came to photography. I didn’t yet know how to get a subject to “pop”. I didn’t know how to keep something from “blowing out”.

But I had learned so much from this assignment, and from this class. This was the first story I’d ever covered in which the subjects weren’t full-on willing participants. It’s a different experience than when you’re interviewing a play director about an upcoming opening night.

I had also learned there are other ways to tell a story than with words, and I was hooked on that concept.

Upon Jim’s advice, I submitted my resume to The Herald, the city’s local newspaper (Jim’s full-time job was as a photographer there), and when I got a call back that reporter positions were all full at this time, but there was an opening on the layout desk, I thought, “Hmm. Layout, huh? I can do that …”

And that’s where my career took a turn. But that’s for another day.

For today, I’ll tag two of my classmates from the photojournalism class to do this 7-day art challenge with me. Jason Wheatley and Melissa Umbarger, both of you went from the classroom to the newspaper and then you’ve gone on to hone your skills elsewhere … Tag, you’re both it!