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Spotlight on Philanthropy: Retired MICA Faculty member, Dr. Joan Gaither, leaves a lasting impact

Dr. Joan Gaither’s birthday party has become an annual summer tradition for her family, friends, and colleagues – filled with music, food, and celebration. But although Dr. Gaither is the guest of honor, she has humbly and generously chosen Maryland Institute College of Art as her beneficiary.

From left: Barbara Gaither Jenkins, Joan Gaither, Jonathan Mann, and X

From left: Barbara Gaither Jenkins, Joan Gaither, Jonathan Mann, and guest.

“Being an artist is about being unequivocally you.” says Dr. Joan Gaither while sitting in the backyard of her family home. She’s been flitting around attending to party preparations – band, caterer, silent auction. It’s a beautiful day in August, and any moment, more than one hundred guests will begin to arrive to celebrate Joan’s 75th birthday.  Graciously, she’s agreed to sit for a moment and share with me about her life, how she balances her artmaking, teaching, and advocacy work, and about the experiences and people woven into her career. 

A native Baltimorean, former MICA professor, and chair of undergraduate art education, Dr. Gaither’s creative journey began when she was just a girl. Fiber art is part of her heritage; growing up, she helped her mother and grandmother piece together rag rugs and other functional woven items. She credits her junior high school teacher and mentor George Barrick as first inspiring her to use the artistic process to document and reflect on her experiences. “Uncover your story. Those who can, must,” Joan says, quoting Barrick. “As an artist, if you are in a position to give more, you have a responsibility to do so for the betterment of the community.” She received a B.S. degree from Morgan State University in 1965, and achieved her Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in 1998. She joined MICA’s faculty in 1996. 

Early on in her career, photographic and watercolor artwork focused on character studies and her immediate surroundings. Over time, she began to incorporate textiles into her practice. “As an artist, I've discovered that my voice is informed by an interest in mixed media, fibers, and photographic images that allow close scrutiny of surfaces and metaphors for personal meaning,” says Gaither. Joan didn’t hand-stitch her first large-scale narrative quilt until 2000 when she created My Story: A Family Quilt. The 10’ X 12’masterpiece features text and imagery that narrates and celebrates her culture, lineage, and family identity. 

Pictured: My Spiritual Family Quilt

Since then, Dr. Gaither has completed more than 246 quilts, including the Sesquicentennial 1864 Slave Emancipation Quilt, which commemorates the 150th anniversary of the end of slavery in Maryland; and American Women Making a Difference, featuring 266 women of color who have contributed to our collective history, culture, and economy. Her body of work is rich with visual metaphors and familiar iconography focused on faith, heritage, social, and political commentary. Like time capsules, each one serves as a means to capture and preserve its story for us now and for future generations. Some quilts inspire joy and nostalgia while others conjure anger or spark action. Available for viewing at her birthday party is a work in progress, The Christmas Song/Fall of Empires/Revelation, which, as its name suggests, juxtaposes the twelve days of Christmas with the fall of the Roman Empire. I can’t help but to spend some extended time admiring her work before rejoining the party. Happily, you too will soon be able to view this work and dozens of Joan’s quilts in a new exhibition at the Ward Museum in Salisbury, MD, opening May 22, 2020 and on view through September 17, 2020.

Pictured: The Christmas Song/Fall of Empires/Revelation (in progress)

It’s no wonder that Dr. Gaither welcomes so many guests to her annual birthday soiree. For her, art education is a life-changing and lifelong practice, and over the course of her well-earned 75 years, she has impacted countless lives through her work as an artist, teacher, researcher, and advocate. Mirroring the intricate and vibrant narrative quilts that make up her artistic practice, Joan’s diverse array of guests are stitched into the fabric of her life and career. Joan’s birthday party has become an annual summer tradition filled with music, food, and celebration. But although Dr. Gaither is the guest of honor, she has humbly and generously chosen Maryland Institute College of Art as her beneficiary. 

Dr. Gaither established The Dr. Joan M.E. Gaither Young People’s Studio Scholarship Fund in 2012, shortly after retiring from MICA. Seeking to pay it forward for future generations of burgeoning artists and educators, Joan personally committed $25,000 toward the fund, while asking her loved ones to make additional donations in her honor, in lieu of gifting her traditional birthday presents. The endowed fund will provide, in perpetuity, scholarship support for youth with merit or financial need who wish to enroll in the Young People’s Studio program. She’s currently working to reach $50,000. “I’m not what you’d call wealthy,” says Joan, “but I can do this. I am determined to get there.” As of January 2020, she only has $9,719 left to reach her goal. MAKE YOUR DONATION NOW to the Joan M. E. Gaither Young People’s Studio Scholarship.

From her first introduction to the Young People’s Studio (YPS) program at MICA, Dr. Gaither knew it was something special. “YPS is good for the kids, and outstanding for the teachers” says Joan of the program. YPS offers K-12 students with opportunities to study art through courses designed to spark creativity, encourage invention, and nurture artistic innovation. For art education students and working artists/educators, YPS offers an opportunity to cut their teeth working with students of all ages and backgrounds, and with varying levels of talent and previous exposure to the arts.

MICA has been proudly providing Baltimore’s young people with arts education for more than 100 years. 1884 was the first year in which there is recorded information on offering youth classes. MICA offered Drawing and Painting classes on Saturdays from 9 am - 2:30 pm. 

Maryland Institute youth class offerings, circa 1921-22.

Since then, the offerings have expanded to include a full array of classes tailored to young people’s developmental needs and designed to inspire their creativity. Today, YPS art and design courses are offered during the school year as Weekend Art Classes and during the summer as Summer Art Camp. Students can enroll in such courses as Out of this World, which introduces beginners to painting, drawing, printmaking, and sculpting within the context of science and space; to more advanced mediums such as Photography, Oil Painting and Digital Illustration.

In the last quarter-century alone, MICA’s YPS program has enrolled more than 16,000 youth in classes. This past year (Fall 2018 and Spring/Summer 2019), 833 students attended a YPS class. Since its creation, Joan’s endowed scholarship fund has provided 76 scholarships totaling $16,665 to support 34 students ranging all grade levels the opportunity to attend a YPS Fall, Spring, or Summer class.

   Dr. Gaither’s backyard birthday party, August 2019.

As I sit back and survey the joyful display of love, celebration, and generosity at Dr. Gaither’s birthday party, I am aware of how closely her charitable contribution to MICA’s YPS program resembles her philosophy of community engagement and artistic collaboration, as well as her method for assembling the quilt: Establishing her vision and engaging her community in the composition and influence of its own story. It perfectly illustrates her commitment to the lasting impact of her life’s work, and it ensures that students and teachers will continue to benefit from her passion for art education now and for generations to come.

To make a contribution in honor of Joan, please visit www.mica.edu/give. Interested in establishing your own named scholarship? Contact me in MICA’s Advancement office at 410.225.2364 / jabel01@mica.edu.