Art Matters: The Creative Side of the Summer Camp Experience

by Eden Foster

This summer, Lorrien Dames from Pembroke Pines, Florida, quietly walked through the sun and music-filled gallery at The Arts Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, murmuring to herself when she was particularly struck by a piece on display. She stopped when she found her daughter, Cibonay’s, perfectly formed sky-blue coffee mug, and a proud smile filled her face.

“Cibonay has gotten so much more hands-on experience at summer camp than she ever could have in the school system,” said Dames. “I am seeing a lot of her gifts being developed through her camp experience, including things like poetry and photography that I didn’t even know she knew how to do.”
Chances are Cibonay, eleven, didn’t know she could create beautiful things before she went to Blue Star Camps in Hendersonville, North Carolina, for the first time, either.

But it should be no surprise that Blue Star Camps, in addition to the dozens of other camps in Western North Carolina, put a great deal of emphasis on encouraging campers to explore and develop their creativity. After all, art is a fundamental and traditional camp activity, and the visual arts are experiential learning at its very best.

In an unprecedented collaboration, more than two-dozen summer camps, business leaders, and a local community arts council came together this summer to celebrate the visual and performing arts created by campers. “Art Matters: The Creative Side of the Summer Camp Experience” was on display from July 25 through August 2, 2003, and drew record-breaking crowds on its opening night event. The Arts Center, a small, grass-roots organization whose mission is to “bring art experiences to a diverse community in Western North Carolina,” hosted the display of children’s art, which appeared in virtually every media imaginable, including works in ceramics, weaving, papermaking, wood burning, photography, blacksmithing, poetry, and many others.

Worlds Apart

Brainchild of Starr Teel, a member of the board of directors for The Arts Center, a summer camp advocate, and a business owner in the area, planning began for the show a year before it opened. Teel attended summer camp as a boy and considers it to be one of the highlights of his youth. He is an active member of the Western North Carolina Camps Association, and maintains contacts and friendships with many of the camps’ directors and counselors.

Everyone in this small, rural but cosmopolitan Southern Appalachian town did not share Teel’s enthusiasm for summer camps, however. Long known as a retirement mecca, most residents of Hendersonville, (population 10,420 within a county of about 90,000 people, according to the 2000 census), gave little thought to the impact that local summer camps have on their economy and community.

But a 1999 study done by the Appa-lachian Regional Development Institute at Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, brought to the fore some remarkable statistics. The report indicates (Appalachian State University 1999):

  • Western North Carolina has one of the highest concentrations of organized camps in the United States, with fifty-two camps concentrated around Asheville, North Carolina, in Buncombe, Henderson, Jackson, and Transylvania Counties.
  • In 1998, these camps served more than 41,000 summer campers representing approximately 34,000 families.
  • Most of the camper families live outside of North Carolina, and 26 percent of the children attending camp traveled at least one way by plane.
  • More than 3,500 staff worked in the camp, and 90 percent of them were seasonal.
  • Twenty-two camps responding to the survey reported owning or leasing an average of 524 acres per camp, and 58 percent of them have undertaken special efforts to protect the native flora and fauna.
  • Camp budgets pump considerable dollars into the local economy. Direct spending by the camps was projected to be $44.6 million in 1997, and parents provided an additional estimated $19.5 million direct-spending impact. When calculated with indirect spending induced by a conservative multiplier effect, “The total estimated economic impact of organized camping in the study area was $96.2 million for 1998 (Appalachian Regional Development Institute 1999).”

Teel and others believed that it was high time to educate the community about the economic and educational value of summer camps. He formed an informal committee consisting of representatives from camps, businesses, and The Arts Center, and planning began in earnest for the “Art Matters” show.

The committee began by visiting the local Chamber of Commerce and Travel and Tourism center to inform business leaders about the value of camps as an environmentally friendly and lucrative industry that has the added benefit of playing an invaluable role in the education of our nation’s children. They came away with promises of major financial support from two businesses with a large financial investment in the economic success of local summer camps.

Why Art?

“Art is such a bridge and The Arts Center uses it to bring diverse groups together,” said Nancy Hayes Neill, executive director of the nonprofit Arts Center. “Art is the perfect medium to come together and find respect for each other’s cultures and to learn about one another. We thought that the “Art Matters” show would be a conduit to highlight the benefits of summer camps to the community, including their economic, educational, cultural, artistic, and environmental contributions,” she said.

While much attention has been given to adventure camping in recent years, many camps have quietly continued the tradition of encouraging children to explore their creative sides. And according to the National Center of Education Statistics, art in summer camps may be the only exposure many children have to art.

According to the center, only 55 percent of the nation’s elementary schools had full-time, visual arts teachers, and their mean teaching load was 555 students per week. Seventy-three percent of the nation’s elementary-aged children received one or two sessions of art instruction each week with an average time of just forty-three minutes. Only one quarter of all elementary schools that offered visual arts had a dedicated room with special equipment for that purpose (National Center of Education Statistics 2002).

A National Art Education Association report states that only 19 percent of high schools conducted district-wide assessments in art. In their “Where’s the Art” campaign materials, the organization states: “Without art study, large and important legacies of art and culture go unseen, unheard, unread, unstudied, and unlearned. Many of our children are being left behind. The surest way to create semiliterate graduates from American schools is to insure that many of the important artistic forms in which meaning is represented will be enigmas to our students – codes they cannot crack.”

Hundreds of summer camps help children and youth “crack the code” by offering opportunities for campers to experiment with a variety of creative expressions under the tutelage of dedicated professional art educators, far from the pressures of schools, family, and long-established peers. Summer camps have become incubators for a lifetime of creative discovery, self-confidence, and community building.

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Staging an innovative multimedia art show in a small community is heavily dependent upon local volunteers and business support. “We could never have done this without Starr and other Arts Center volunteers,” said Neill. “We brought the same attention to detail to this show as we did to the show on Picasso that followed it. Art Matters was very professionally presented, but that happened only because we spent a great deal of time making attractive labels for each piece, playing with the display until we felt it looked right, and then getting the word out to the community. I heard comments from parents, campers, and camp directors that the show looked very professional. That’s important, because we want kids to know that art is just as important as sports or academics,” she said.

Two major businesses provided a significant portion of the project’s funding, but approximately a dozen smaller businesses and camp vendors also lent their support by joining The Arts Center as Corporate members and providing other services. In return, all sponsors received recognition in all printed and Web-based materials and on a prominent display during the show. “We never missed an opportunity to give them credit — it’s important to recognize the contribution these organizations made to the success of Art Matters,” said Teel.

The twenty-four camps that participated also joined The Arts Center as members. Each camp was required to safely deliver and pick up their art work and to provide sufficient information for a label for each piece on display. The camps then ensured that the campers’ works were returned in tact.

Publicity for the show began six months before the opening with an op-ed feature in a local paper, the Hendersonville Times-News, written by the president of the Chamber of Commerce, Bob Williford, which further added credence to the idea of an art show.

Funds raised from the show were used to hire a freelance writer and to purchase half-page “advertorial” space in the paper. Each of these illustrated feature stories gave prominent mention to the show’s major sponsors, and each focused on a different aspect of the summer camp industry, including the local economic impact, educational value, and artistic expressions.

More than one thousand postcards describing the show were mailed to Arts Center patrons and volunteers. Several weekly and daily newspapers and radio and television stations also picked up the story. The Arts Center and the WNC Camps Association both featured the show on their Web sites.

Camp Arrowhead for Boys in Tuxedo dismantled an old car and rebuilt it into a competitive racecar with the help of well-known custom and performance car builder, Dale Morgan. The car was painted fire engine red, and decorated with promotional “Art Matters” information along with the various sponsors of their race team. In advance of the show’s opening, the car was parked in front of The Arts Center on Main Street, generating a great deal of excitement and curiosity.

The happy result of all the publicity and planning was that opening night was a smashing success. “It was shoulder to shoulder, you couldn’t move in here. It far exceeded our expectations,” said Neill.

The Last Words

“The Arts Center now has an established relationship with both professional and young artists in camps, and many more people are aware of what we do because of this program,” said Neill.

“This is a program that we are so very proud of and that we want to continue. We strongly encourage other geographic concentrations of camps and their communities to create their own artistic collaborations,” said Tom Rosenberg, director of Blue Star Camps and president of the American Camping Association Southeastern Section.

“Western North Carolina (WNC) camp directors have for generations been known for excellence in creative programming. In their role as child educators, it is no accident that beyond the assumed physical experience of climbing, hiking, canoeing, and other activities everyone associates with WNC camping, they are keenly focused on the arts and the importance it plays in balancing a child’s complete development,” said Teel.

Will Hamby enthusiastically summarized his Eagle’s Nest Camp experience: “It’s so artsy here that it just gets stuck into your life and becomes a habit. Now, if I don’t have art in my life it feels weird, somehow.”

Appalachian Regional Development Institute. (1999). The Economic Impact of Organized Camping in The Western North Carolina Counties of Buncombe, Jackson, Henderson, and Transylvania. Boone: Appalachian State University.

National Center for Education Statistics. (2002). National Center for Education Statistics report, 131.

The National Art Education Association, “Where’s the Art” campaign,

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Eden Foster is a freelance writer who lives and works in the mountains of Western North Carolina. Contact her at For more information on “Art Matters: The Creative Side of the Summer Camp Experience,” contact Starr Teel at or Nancy Hayes Neill at


Originally published in the 2003 November/December issue of Camping Magazine.


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