April Showers Bring May Flowers
Making an impact on students in small ways
Call the main telephone number at GCC, and chances are you’ll talk to Amy Gonzalez, who operates the switchboard in the Administration building. If you call, you’ll receive a warm welcome and professional assistance.
But for an extra-special treat, don’t call; visit the reception desk in person. There, you’ll be rewarded with Gonzalez’s colorful artistry: floral arrangements, fashioned from the flowers and plants grown on the GCC campus. Stop by the desk regularly, and you will be treated to an ever-changing tableau of creative compositions that welcome visitors to the college’s main reception area.
The flowers create a homey environment for students and staff and a positive first impression for visitors. Gonzalez is just one of countless individuals across campus who take the initiative to create a nurturing environment, both in and outside of the classroom. And this is no small matter; student success and retention are directly related to students feeling comfortable and knowing others care.
Gonzalez uses a variety of containers to set off her botanical finds, including a range of vessels used in new ways: tea pots, antique thermoses and other interesting objects people wouldn’t normally expect to see. She often brings things from home. Sometimes other people will contribute bottles and unique objects to the cause, saying only, “I know you can do something with this.”
Other unexpected items find their way into her decorative arrangements, too: buttons, ribbons, figurines, pebbles, carefully placed around or in the in the water.
Beyond the call of duty
Though “artist-in-residence” isn’t part of Gonzalez’s formal job description, her creative endeavors are officially sanctioned. She routinely comes in early and spends a few moments prepping the reception area, which includes gathering materials, arranging just so and making the counter visitor-ready. She spends the rest of her day answering phone questions, assisting students and faculty and welcoming campus visitors.
When she’s carefully foraging for botanical material, Gonzalez usually has scissors in hand to make it evident she has special permission, and isn’t just trespassing in campus flower beds. “But it’s also very early in the morning, before most people are on campus, so I don’t usually get into trouble,” she said, laughing.
Many hands create beauty
Gonzalez has been engaged in this creative undertaking for about four years. GCC grounds-keeping colleagues who plant and maintain the beautiful flora on the campus have long been central to the endeavor. Though grounds keeper David Valdez and many of her original co-creative conspirators have retired, the tradition continues, thanks to the new grounds supervisor Jamie Aldama and his crew. “Jamie was very accommodating when he came,” said Gonzalez. “He understood the culture and let me continue to glean.”
She depends on the kindness and expertise of Al Gonzales and his crew, including master gardener Mike Pais and grounds keepers John Busse, George Garcia, Joe Macias and Richard Dodrill. They act as scouts and alert her to locations where she’s likely to find something especially nice (like the beautiful Birds of Paradise near the Athletics building).
Sometimes they’ll ask before they plant, “What would you like, what would be good?” She might research what grows well in the Arizona desert and what works well for cutting and assembling. The expertise, diligence and gentle nurturing of the grounds crew yields roses, zinnias, dianthus, petunias, and other plantings that rotate seasonally. Spring, with its bounty of blooms, is a high point. When summer temperatures soar and pickings get leaner, Gonzalez might bring flowers from the grocery store. But she focuses on the campus flowers because she values what the grounds keepers do and wants to showcase their work.
Creative inspiration from nature – and from children
Gonzalez, who grew up in Phoenix area, has had no formal training in floral design or art. Before transferring to her current position, she spent 22 years at the GCC Children’s Center, where she began working in early-childhood education at the age of 18.
Three- to five-year-olds were cared for on campus at the Center. “It was a low-cost program that benefitted GCC students,” said Gonzalez. “It also offered the highest quality early-childhood education in the Valley.” She feels fortunate to have been mentored by accomplished women who modeled a highly creative form of early-childhood education. “We designed our own curriculum, based on the needs and interests of the children,” she said. “So every day was a process of creating, learning and evolving.”
Exploration and creativity were encouraged in every area, from reading a story, to building with blocks, to painting pictures. Never did the adult have a preconceived outcome. Instead, their attitude was, “Show me what you can do with this.”
Interns from the GCC Child and Family Studies Department participated, and the Center partnered with other campus departments. Photography students would use the area to take photos, Nursing students would do assessments, the Art Department would host children in the Ceramics studio and Literature students would read to them. Many of the grounds keepers also played a role, helping the children learn about the outdoor environment: the trees, plants and gardens on campus.
“With children, you’re always investigating, so you never know what turn it’s going to take,” said Gonzalez. “You’re drawing from the real world around you, tapping into the innate spirit of adventure and saying, ‘Look! Let’s find out more; what do you want to know about this?’”
With such loving attention, the children blossomed. Gonzalez thrived, too, deeply appreciating the daily immersion in nature that was part of her job. “I’ve always appreciated the earth and the beauty it has to offer,” she said.
When her beloved Children’s Center closed, Gonzalez was at a loss. Used to being outside for many hours a day with the children, she suddenly found herself with a far more sedentary job. In a chair all day, she was “going crazy,” she recalled.
“I needed to have some beauty and nature around me, so I asked permission to clip a few flowers,” she said. Compared to the large canvas she had worked with before at the Children’s Center, the gesture was small, but meaningful. As her creative expression evolved, so did her peace of mind. Before long, others noticed and responded to the arrangements, affirming her aesthetic instincts.
Spreading the joy
Gonzalez says the labor of love makes her day. She gets lots of positive comments. President Kovala is among those who appreciate the continually changing displays. “I joke that Dr. Kovala gave me my first paying gig,” said Gonzalez, explaining that she was asked to create several arrangements to beautify campus conference rooms during a visit by the Higher Learning Commission (HLC) team. While Gonzalez felt a bit of pressure to perform, she was also flattered the college president had faith in her ability and gave her the opportunity. (She did great, by the way.)
“People tell me they make a point of passing through the building just to get that heart smile,” she said. “I’m glad it’s valued.” She takes the opportunity to share her enthusiasm with visitors, reminding them, “This is a product from right here on campus, isn’t it great? And it comes from the people who work here; it’s us!”