Valdosta Daily Times

May 15, 2013

Retiring dean leaving artistic legacy

Dean Poling
The Valdosta Daily Times

VALDOSTA — As Dr. John Gaston discusses what he considers the greatest achievement of his time as the dean of Valdosta State University College of the Arts, one cannot help but notice the plant that stretches along the shelves and walls of one side of his office.

Its vines reach to the ceiling. Its green stretches from the potted soil of its possible origin, interconnecting with the leaves of another plant atop another book shelf nearly half of the office away.

Mention this, Gaston radiates his quiet smile, and says, the plant was something purchased at Walmart, and it has just grown into this network of vines. One can become lost in the rhythm of its eco-circuitry, uncertain where one plant ends and another begins.

Yet, why would such a plant capture a visitor’s eye? Especially at this moment, when a respected man such as John Gaston, on the cusp of retiring as the College of Arts dean come the end of June, discusses what he considers his greatest achievement from more than a decade in the job.

The plant is no distraction. Rather, its interconnected complexity complements Gaston’s words.

In his eyes, his greatest achievement: Seeing the numerous departments — communications arts, visual arts, theatre, dance, music, etc. — working together, all interconnected. All of the elements were already there, he explains. As dean, Gaston encouraged the arts departments to intermingle: The music department serves as the orchestra for the theatre and dance productions of Peach State Summer Theatre; mass media continues filming the Valdosta Symphony Orchestra; VSU musicians perform for VSU Art opening exhibit receptions; VSU Theatre & Dance partner with VSU Music to raise performing arts scholarships through Dancing with the Valdosta Stars.

“We have worked together well, the departments,” Gaston says. “People are amazed to have these artistic types who can eat at the same table.”

As for Gaston’s role, he describes it almost as a gardener, which is something he enjoys in his off-time along with cultivating bonsai trees. He nurtures talents, but administrates best by staying out of the way. He believes in letting them do what they are trained to do.

“You are the expert,” he says of this approach. “How can I help you do what you want to do?”

Preparing for retirement, Gaston must figure some way to carefully move the thriving plant from his office. He believes the interconnections between departments will continue with his departure.

Asked if he’s looking forward to retirement, Gaston’s eyes brighten, “Yes” booms from a smile grown wide.

With days that often start at 5:30 a.m., in the office before 8 a.m. and not returning home until before 8 p.m. or later most nights, he has stacks of books and materials he has been itching to read and review for years.

“Several people have suggested I will be bored in retirement,” Gaston chuckles. “I will not be bored.”

He also will not let others dictate his retirement. Several people have already suggested ways he can spend his newfound time. Gaston will decide how he spends his retirement. Though he has loved coming to work each morning, he’s waited a long time to pursue other interests.

For more than 20 years, since arriving in 1992 at Valdosta State, Gaston has balanced being an administrator as his chief job description while being an artist at heart. Though he has directed and co-directed some VSU Theatre productions, such as “The Piano Player,” and starred as Hoke in Theatre Guild Valdosta’s “Driving Miss Daisy,” administration has typically tipped the scales for Gaston’s time, talents and energies.

Yet, a quick glance at his zoominfo resume, Gaston is not only listed as the College of the Arts academic dean but as a poet, playwright, actor, and storyteller. Before Valdosta, he wrote, produced, acted and toured the one-man show “The Brothers.” He views the arts as not only a way to entertain, not only as a way to express one’s self, but as a means to teach and to learn.

In retirement, he hopes to return to writing and creating and sharing his artistic endeavors with young people and children. Gaston recalls how the arts transformed him from being what he describes with a smile as “a shy, skinny kid with glasses into someone who is still skinny, still wears glasses, but not quite as shy.”

The arts changed his life. He has seen how it changes other people’s lives, and he would like to continue changing lives through his art in the coming years.

Gaston knows he will be staying in Valdosta, often traveling to see his son and daughter in Kansas, but he will stay in South Georgia because he likes the warmth of both the community and the climate. Possibly, this summer, he will play Hoke again along with Joanne Griner in the title role of a Guild revival of “Driving Miss Daisy.”

But otherwise, he has no definitive plans, other than working in his garden, and cultivating his next creative endeavor, one that will likely grow, and flourish, and reach out to others in a network of connections.