By Carson Gerber
---- — More than 60 years ago, Peru High School alumnus G. David Thompson was visiting an art class at his old school. The project for the week was making ceramic pottery.
Thompson asked the teacher if he’d like some classic examples of ceramics to help teach his class. Of course, the teacher said he’d like that.
A few weeks later, large crates showed up at the high school’s door with 54 vases, urns and other historic pottery pieces from ancient Asia. The oldest piece was made in 450 B.C. in China.
It was a seriously valuable donation to the school, and it was just one of many Thompson made to the high school from the 1930s through the 1950s.
Thompson, who graduated from Peru High School in 1913 and eventually amassed a fortune owning several steel companies in Pittsburgh, would sporadically drop off paintings, sketches and other pieces from world famous artists like Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali over those three decades.
And for the last year, those artworks have hung in the Peru Community Schools Fine Art Gallery.
The gallery recently celebrated its first anniversary since it opened its doors after the school corporation spent $250,000 to transform a large, unused storage space behind the school’s stage into a high-tech, state-of-the-art museum.
One thing’s for sure. The gallery is a huge step up from where the school’s multimillion dollar art collection was previously housed.
After the new high school was built in the 1970s, the paintings, pottery pieces and sketches sat in a storage closet, unused and unseen by hardly anyone.
A few of the paintings hung on the wall, but that was it.
“Nobody really talked about them,” said Connie Cutler, the museum’s curator. “They were just there. A few people knew about how great the collection was, but not a lot.”
But with the construction of the new gallery, the art works have started creating some buzz.
“A gallery like this at a high school is kind of unheard of,” Cutler said. “The wonderful thing about this collection now is that it’s not in a storage closet anymore.”
Over the last year, the gallery has exposed thousands of students from across the state to world-famous artists and world-class artworks without the hassle of driving to New York, Chicago or even Indianapolis.
And that’s the point, said Ann Kennedy, a member of the art collection advisory board, which helps oversee the collection.
“You don’t have to travel all the way across the country or all the way across the world to see amazing art anymore,” she said. “You can walk here from your house, like I did this morning … This gallery is all about exposing people to the arts, but it’s difficult to have that exposure when you live in the middle of a rural area.”
Since Thompson’s original donation of 75 paintings and 54 pottery pieces, the collection has grown to more than 170 works.
And as the new gallery gains a reputation in the art world, Cutler said even more art patrons have decided to bequeath parts of their collection to further the gallery’s educational mission.
The most recent donation came from an Indianapolis woman who passed along sketches by Renoir, John Singer Sargent, Albert Gleizes and Albert Marquet that she acquired in France.
The pieces were unveiled Sunday at the museum. Cutler said the artworks are valued at more than $100,000.
Peru High School Principal Jason Cary said the gallery and collection are truly rare. First, it’s one of the very few collections completely owned and maintained by a school corporation. Second, the collection contains a huge variety of styles, time periods and artists. Third, it’s housed in a gallery that rivals some of the best in the country.
“It’s very unique, and very appreciated by the students here,” he said. “The community seems to love it, too.”
“This is a big-city museum in a small town,” Kennedy added.
Cutler said the biggest hit at the gallery so far has been the pottery collection.
“The students really like the pottery, especially the art students, because they’re doing the same type of stuff in class,” she said. “They understand what it takes to form, glaze and make a piece of pottery.”
Although the gallery’s aim is to educate and expose people to art, Kennedy said it’s more than that.
“It’s a just a warm, cozy refuge,” she said. “It’s a place to escape the busy world and simply enjoy beauty. You need to do that sometimes. It keeps you alive and thriving … A gallery like this stirs people’s sense of dignity and self-respect in Peru.”
And by exposing students to world-class art, Cutler said there’s a chance for kids to be inspired, and that’s not always an easy thing to do.
“This is an investment in providing artistic culture to the school and community,” she said. “We’ve already seen the payoff by the caliber of artists coming out of this school. That’s priceless.”
“The students in the art classes and music classes — I wonder which one of them will be the next world-renowned artist? This investment in the gallery could help create the next generation of artists out there,” she said.
Carson Gerber can be reached at 765-854-6739, email@example.com or on Twitter @carsongerber1.