Peters’ creative spark has connected her to people and the world around her.
By Kelly Barbazette
Two years ago, Carol Peter led a project in local high schools to paint rocks to empower students to express their feelings and to promote emotional healing after the 2019 shooting at the Gilroy Garlic Festival.
“It was something I felt like I could do,” she said. “I think everyone wanted to do something. I think art is really healing. You find a little bright rock and you feel a little bit better. You know someone is in the same place you are. It connects.”
A few months later after she was diagnosed with cancer, art as healing was given back to her when friends painted rocks in her honor.
“I was trying to heal the town. They were trying to heal me. This town has been good to me,” she said. She’s happy to report that today she’s cancer-free.
Art has always been the touchstone in Carol’s life. That creative spark has connected her to people and the world around her.
I had the pleasure recently of chatting online with the 77-year-old Gilroyan who taught art for 30 years at Gilroy High School. She continues to express herself through her artistic endeavors and believes it’s no accident that it has been one of the guiding forces in her life.
“I just get up in the morning and ask God, ‘What would you want me to do with my day?’” Carol told me. “I don’t go out searching for stuff. I think opportunities come to people and you don’t always recognize what they are.”
Her dad, an engraver and welder, created the custom belt buckles for all of the winners of many rodeos as well as bits and spurs.
“He could draw. I was around it all the time,” she said. “I thought everyone could do it.”
Later, while attending San Jose State University, she started doing weekly art projects while working for Gilroy’s Parks and Recreation Department.
Carol enjoyed teaching art so much she decided to switch her major from journalism to art. “My counselor said, ‘What are you thinking? You never took an art class.” I thought: how hard it could be?” Carol laughed.
She increased her class load to graduate in four years and upon graduation taught art at night to graduate students at Santa Clara University. At the same time, she accepted a position teaching art to Gilroy junior high students when the art teacher went on maternity leave. She said that became her training camp, a sort of boot camp to prepare her for teaching art at Gilroy High School four years later.
“I was having the greatest time of my life. This is where I needed to be,” she said. “In my gut I just felt like this was the right thing. And I’ve never regretted that decision. I loved it until the day I retired.”
Tapping into her inner artist, she enjoyed dreaming up projects while ensuring she was meeting the state’s art curriculum requirements.
“I always thought it was fun. If I saw something I was interested in, I always incorporated it,” she said.
Carol recalls one of her students returning from a trip to India with a henna tattoo on her hand. The next day, permission slips went home and Carol asked students to research their culture to design a henna tattoo that was unique to their background. Students painted the tattoos on each other’s hands. She likened her students’ immersive experience with art to how artists’ art evolved over time as their perception of the world changed.
“I looked out at all of these kids. Every single person has something different about them,” she observed. “And how you communicate something visually is through art. Your soul comes out in art. Every student was going to give me something different.”
Years later, she still connects with former students on social media. She’s gone to their weddings, visited them all over the world, and meets up with them when they return to Gilroy. She continues to see former students who live in Gilroy, like Linda Pulido, who Carol has been working out with since Linda opened her gym, Pulido’s Pro Fitness.
“It’s so heartwarming all the way around. You can’t buy that,” Carol said. “The pay was zilch, but the rewards are in your heart. You can’t trade that for anything.”
Carol retired from teaching in 2001 and the senior class chose her to give the graduation keynote speech. Afterwards, she was asked to speak at Leadership Gilroy’s graduation that fall. She went on to become part of the Leadership Gilroy class of 2002 and joined the nonprofit group’s board, helping to write the curriculum for the intensive leadership program. She also served on the Gilroy Arts and Culture Commission.
About 2005 while attending her GHS class reunion, a fellow alumna asked her if she would be interested in modeling. Carol decided to give it a chance and traveled to New York City where she competed successfully, landing a modeling contract. She said it was fun for a while, flying back and forth from Gilroy to New York City for casting calls and was offered a role on the soap opera “Days of Our Lives.” But ultimately, it wasn’t in her heart.
“It wasn’t like art. I was asking myself what would this road lead to?”
Instead, she turned her focus on the chance to collaborate with Gavilan College and Community Media Access Partnership TV (CMAP) to star in and produce an art instructional TV show. Carol admitted at first she was hesitant to make the leap from the classroom to TV.
“I wasn’t sure. I walked to my car and I was sitting in my car and I thought, this is the reason why I got into acting,” she said. “God had the same plan. Now I’m going to teach but now through TV. I think I was always meant to be that art teacher. There was no question.”
Carol’s TV show caught the eye of Dennis Sakamoto, an actor and acting coach. He and Carol went onto collaborate on many projects, including videos and curriculum for First 5 Santa Clara County and audiobooks of Bible bedtime stories for children.
Carol continues to do art projects throughout the community, including the cougar mural in the lobby of Christopher High School and painting a fresh facade — with the help of Gilroy High School art students — for Leedo Gallery in downtown Gilroy.
Most recently, the Gilroy Historical Museum board of directors asked Carol to paint signs for the museum depicting how artifacts were used. In addition, the city commissioned her to paint the logo for Gilroy’s 150th anniversary and her artwork that will appear on the town’s time capsule.
Carol enjoys spending time with her children and three grandchildren, ages 12, 10, and 7. Her husband, Jack, of 30 years passed away in 2015. She has no plans to slow down and looks forward to creating more art, as well as visiting museums and the theater, and traveling. “I’ve had a big life,” she said.
Asked what advice she’d give to other women, Carol said to follow your heart and look for opportunities when they come.
“Don’t say no right away,” she said. “If it seems beyond your capabilities or you’re frightened or won’t be able to do it, go out on a limb. Go where you’re scared. Go where you’re not qualified and push yourself. I found with the acting, it’s not where it stopped. It will take you somewhere where you’re supposed to be. If you take the opportunity, you’ll get there even if you don’t know what it is. Take a leap of faith and take a chance on yourself.”
Kelly Barbazette, a former journalist for Bay Area newspapers, is a freelance writer. She lives in Gilroy with her husband and two daughters. She can be reached at [email protected]
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