Making Art to Make Change
Florida schools are full of diverse and interesting magnet programs — special courses of study that nurture areas of talent or interest, such as computer programming, culinary arts, and criminal justice.
At Gibbs High School in St. Petersburg, the Pinellas County Center for the Arts (or PCCA) draws up to 500 students per year and boasts several prominent alumni, including Broadway stars, ballet dancers, and even a professional boxer.
One recent grad, Gibbs 2022 salutatorian Abbie Garretson, is on her way to joining that list. Ironically, Garretson only applied to PCCA because she was welcomed so readily into the community. “That was really the only reason I started studying art,” she says. “When I shadowed at Gibbs, I was an awkward queer kid with way too much anxiety and a ‘mom’ haircut. The first thing a student said to me was that I was beautiful. If they could look at 13-year-old me and see something worth celebrating, I needed to learn in that environment.”
At Gibbs, Garretson found not only her tribe, but also her calling as a creative activist. Learning from home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Garretson juggled being a full-time technical theater student and being the primary daytime caregiver for her brother, who has special needs. She started making infographics about the pandemic and how it was affecting special needs people; soon, she was disseminating information about Black Lives Matter and attending local protests.
Garretson’s momentum continued to grow. She became co-president of the Gay Straight Alliance at her school, organized virtual lobbying through Equality Florida about the Anti-Trans Youth bill and the Trans Sports Ban, and led a walkout in protest of the state’s controversial Parents’ Bill of Rights. “The media coverage kinda blew up,” Garretson says. Teen Vogue included her in a recent profile, and she received the 2022 Webby Award for Social Movement of the Year alongside Will Larkins, Jack Petocz, and Javier Gomez.
“No form of activism is too small,” Garretson says. “You don’t have to start a national movement to make a difference.” For example, Garretson used the skills that she learned in a special effects class to lead a gender-affirming make-up tutorial for her peers. She fought for PCCA to embrace interdisciplinarity and confine students less strictly to their “majors.” She has made pieces about unethical medical treatments and created a full portfolio on her relationship with her brother.
Through Gibbs’ Mural Club, she learned that “owning, looking at, and participating in art is a privilege,” and that public art is one powerful way to invite everyone to the table. As Garretson heads off to Boston University in the fall, she plans to double major in sculpture and communications so that she can continue using her art as a form of activism. “I want everyone to feel like they are worthy of creativity, so I’m just pursuing that idea and trying to figure out what it means to me.”
If you’re inspired by Garretson’s story, start thinking about the issues that matter to you and look for ways to spread the word. Garretson’s advice? “Attend your first protest; introduce yourself to other activists; start a conversation in class; make a petition for something you want to change in school. Like art, your best activism happens when you are passionate about it. You got this!”