Priest River woman follows dream of being an artist by entering NIC welding program

On the first day of class in the North Idaho College welding program this fall, the instructor asked students to individually introduce themselves and tell why they were in the program.
|photo1|When it was her turn, Betty Gardner who is not only the oldest student in the program but also the only female, felt the curious stares of the dozen other 20-something students upon her. She knew she had to do something to put them at ease.
“‘You guys can relax,’” Gardner told the men in her class. “‘I don’t mind if you cuss, I can take an off-color joke and you don’t need to walk on egg shells around me.’”
Her speech seemed to break the ice and in time, Gardener became like a den mother in class; a role she had grown used to playing since returning to college.
Gardner, who has lived in Priest River for the past 28 years, decided to return to college after the telecommunications business she was working for took a tumble following 9/11.
“I thought I’d try college and try to find myself,” Gardner said, adding that she drives 120 miles a day, five days a week from Priest River to NIC’s Coeur d’Alene campus. “At 45 years old, I wanted to see what I really wanted to be when I grew up.”
She soon found her answer when she decided to pursue a lifelong dream of becoming an artist.
While working toward an associate’s degree in fine art at NIC, Gardner took a sculpture class that inspired her. She already knew she enjoyed working with her hands and she was moved by the idea of having the ability to give back to the community through public art that can make a social statement.
But according to Gardner, metal sculpture requires numerous technical skills and the brief welding class that she took through the sculpting course just barely scratched the surface of the welding skills she wanted to attain.
“I enrolled in the welding program because the welding we did in sculpture class was just enough to wet the appetite,” Gardner said. “I wanted to know how to properly work with the metal in my sculptures and by enrolling in the full-time technical welding program at NIC, I could learn more about metallurgy, bearing loads, tools, print reading and print drawing, different types of welding power supplies, welding techniques and safety. Having NIC’s welding lab at my disposal as a student would give me the experience to find out what tools I need to become familiar with and eventually buy to work with in my own studio.”
Gardner was unique in pursuing a welding certificate through the professional-technical side of NIC’s offerings. Even though artists have tapped the resources available in the welding program before, it’s rare to have a fine arts major seek the full 10-month certificate.
Gardner did it because she loved what she was doing, she said. But after making it successfully through the first half of the semester, Gardner received devastating news. She found out that her mother Dorothy Barnes had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Gardner immediately decided that she would serve as one of her mom’s primary care givers at her mother’s home in Priest River so she went in to talk to NIC Welding Instructor Dave Cox to tell him she was quitting the program.
“He basically told me, ‘No, I’m not going to let you do that when you’re two-thirds of the way done with the semester,’” Gardner said. “Instead, he offered to be flexible and we agreed to make it work. Dave is typical of the wonderful staff at NIC.”
That same week, the pieces in Gardner’s vision of a career unexpectedly came together when a much-needed distraction presented itself in the form of an art project as Gardner awaited her mother’s return from extensive chemotherapy treatments out of state.
NIC Vice President of Instruction Jerry Gee, who also serves as president of the Human Rights Education Institute Board of Directors, approached the welding program with an urgent project. The institute had two brick columns installed in front of the entrance to the building on Mullan in Coeur d’Alene. The pillars were eventually supposed to have something connecting them, forming an archway as the entrance to the facility. The institute was planning its grand opening in four weeks and wanted to complete the project prior to the opening.
Cox saw the project as a combination of practical welding experience for the class and a chance for public service art, which was perfect for Gardner.
Gardner took charge of the project immediately and within a few days, she had talked with Art Elliot, the contractor in charge of the renovation of the building, gotten blue prints, sketched an idea and created a watercolor rendition of the design.
She contacted several of her former NIC art instructors for feedback, drawing from their advice and the experiences she had in the NIC art department. Although the actual creation of the piece would be born of her welding experience with the support of her welding instructor and classmates.
Gardner’s design morphed into a cutout of people holding hands leading to a globe in the center, signifying the connectedness of the people of the world. Gardner selected a metal that would rust quickly, giving the piece an already aged appearance.
The entire welding class pitched in to help and completed the project in less than five days, making the project ready for installation two days prior to the Human Rights Education Institute opening. The archway received positive feedback from both the public and the institute’s board, indicating a possibility that the archway may stay installed as a permanent piece.
“It felt very good to work for an organization that sends a message that I believe in,” Gardner said. “And most importantly for me, this was a chance to design and build something that my mom can see and know that I created. I’m not sure if there would be another time that would ever be as significant to me as this is, for that reason. It was a great opportunity for me and a project that I’m very proud of.”
Gardner plans to graduate with a technical certificate in Welding this May along with her associate’s degree.

For More Information
NIC student Betty Gardner, (208) 610-5830, or NIC Welding Instructor Dave Cox, (208) 769-3463

Posted: Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2005

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