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SC Governor’s School blurs the line between art and technology

Logan Stephens sits at a computer workstation and shows off George. George’s aqua-colored bald head, neck and shoulders frame green, brown and purple swirls around his lips and eyes. George isn’t real — at least, he wasn’t until Stephens created him three weeks ago.

“It is freaky weird,” says the 17-year-old senior at the SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities in Greenville. “That was just me attempting to build the topology of the face.”

So goes a typical classroom experience at the residential high school; the inaugural class arrived from across the state to the Tuscan-inspired campus in 1999, long before such things as, say, the internet, 3D computer animation and game art.

“We’re evolving our curriculum to meet the needs and interests of students,” says Christina Vandiver, public relations director at the school where this year’s 219 Govies, as they’re called, are getting immersed in five disciplines: creative writing, dance, visual arts, music and drama.

SCGSAH, which grew out of a series of summer camps in 1996 at Furman University, has long-lauded alumni. Some have gone on to earn Tony, Grammy and Emmy awards and nominations, roles in hit films and TV series and playing music on Broadway to major creative-writing accomplishments.

That list includes, to name just a few: Brandon Micheal Hall, 2011 alum, has appeared on Broadway and in such acclaimed television series as TBS’s “Search Party” and CBS’s “God Friended Me”; Patina Miller, class of 2014, won a 2013 Tony Award in the revival of  “Pippin”; Maggie Olszewski, class of 2019, saw Black Sunflowers Poetry Press publish her chapbook, “Laika,” in 2021; Kedrick Armstrong, class of 2012, listed in the Washington Post among composers to watch in 2022, has been a guest conductor for the Chicago Opera Theater and the all-Black, Chicago-based RIZE Orchestra; and Maggie Gould Wilson, 2008 grad, has played violin on Broadway for “Hamilton” and on Bruce Springsteen’s “Western Stars” album.

These days, the tuition-free school plans to launch new dance and film programs in the summer of 2023, among other initiatives. And last spring, the music and drama departments collaborated for a first-ever musical, a sold-out run of “Into the Woods.”

Meanwhile, classes are becoming increasingly technical — and classrooms hyper-technological. In one studio space, a new 3D printer creates ceramic sculptures that look handcrafted. In Zach Inks’ animation classes, Stephens and her peers make the kind of art you might see in a Pixar film or the latest blockbuster video game.

This afternoon, Stephens leans into the computer monitor and boots up another of her latest projects: adding lip-sync to a character from Overwatch, an online-only free-to-play, team-based action game set in the optimistic future. From the computer workstation, a woman’s voice from the game intones, “I’m scared to come out of my room most mornings because I don’t know what you’re going to say to me.”

Stephens, on the other hand, has a pretty good idea about how her work here will inform her plans.

Zach Inks, visual arts animation instructor at SC Governors School.

“I’m just really invested in digital arts because I feel like there’s such potential in it and I’m excited to see where it goes in the future and I want to be a part of it, I want to be a part of developing, and I want to be able to use it to my advantage,” she says.

Now she says she wants to use these skills to create books — the old-fashioned kind, only filled with her computer-generated designs.

In a sense, the school remains old-fashioned: that is, building from the basics.

“They still do all the foundational stuff: drawing, sculpture, painting, the whole nine yards,” says Inks, a visual arts animation instructor who holds a Ph.D. in human-centered computing. “All of the traditional areas are foundational for animation, being able to understand how the form works, being able to replicate that.”

As a senior, Stephens got to choose Inks’ elective course. Like her peers, she is required to immerse herself in the school’s buffet of arts and rigorous academics. Over their two years at the school, students also soak up soft skills and handle live-in chores, which include, among others, doing their own laundry, as Vandiver points out.

Sure, not all graduates wind up as stars in arts and letters. Many pursue fields in medicine, business, law, engineering. As Vandiver says, “A lot of skills you get in music, for instance, are great for science.”

In the context of Stephens and her classmates’ virtual creations, here’s how Inks puts it: “I’ve seen people who didn’t have this foundation from this area make it there after college, so I see no reason why these students couldn’t continue on with this if that’s what they choose to do.”

The SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities, whose residential capacity can accommodate 238 students:

  • Offers creative writing, dance, drama, music and visual arts
  • Serves juniors and seniors, as well as “exceptional sophomores” in music and dance
  • Divides school days between academic classes in the morning and arts studies in the afternoon
  • Provides numerous public performances and events for students to share their talents and skills
  • Admits approximately 115 new students each year
  • Serves 400 students through summer programs
  • Offers statewide programs, as well as teacher-development training

New programs include:

  • Introduction to Film: In the two-week, overnight summer program, aspiring filmmakers will produce a short film from their original scripts while participating in every step of the process. Current seventh- and eighth-grade students can apply.
  • Dance Immersion – Current sixth- and seventh-graders can apply to the new two-week, overnight summer program.

Source: SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities

SCGSAH by the numbers:

  • Current enrollment for the residential high school: 219.
  • Current male student population: 24%
  • 76 faculty members: 36 full-time, 40 part-time
  • Student-teacher ratio in core subjects: 24:1
  • 2,237 graduates since first graduating class of 2001
  • 100% college acceptance rate
  • The Office of Outreach reached 85,425 students in 35 South Carolina counties through 1,035 arts education experiences in 2021-2022 — a 40% increase from the previous year

Source: SC Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities

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Source: SCGSAH