One day recently, Ronnita Whipple sat in a second-floor conference room at Atlanta’s Savannah College of Art and Design remembering the moment her dream of attending the elite university came to her.
She was heading God knows where with her friend and mentor Katherine Hutto, who mentioned the school as a possible place for her after graduation and, well, it stuck in the back of Whipple’s mind.
“I don’t think she realized it resonated with me,” she said. “From that moment on, it became my dream.”
In reality, it seemed an improbable if not impossible dream.
You see, Ronnita grew up in Macon’s Unionville neighborhood, where the poverty of aspiration is as common as the poverty of economics and where too often children suffer from a chronic, debilitating lack of hope and expectation.
Truth is that by then Whipple was pretty sure that at her core she was an artist, a vision of herself she’d held onto since the time when she was, oh, 10 or 11 and her church pastor spoke these words: You’re going to be a famous artist.
The prophecy made sense. Teachers had been telling her that since kindergarten.
“They were all saying it so I had no choice but to believe it,” she said.
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Hutto saw it too but it wasn’t until Ronnita’s sophomore year that she started to pay attention.
About that time Hutto, who’d known Nita as she likes to call her almost since birth, got a peek inside the teen’s room with its neon green and shocking pink walls laden with inspirational quotes, the one bright spot in an otherwise dilapidated dwelling the teen shared with her guardian and great-grandmother, Lelia Wiley, and three siblings.
Hutto couldn’t believe her eyes. She was seeing for the first time the artist others had seen.
From a little girl, Ronnita possessed the soul of an artist.
Her AP fine arts teacher, Sherrie Jamison, said as much and once mused: “No matter how hard her life has been she has ALWAYS found ways to make art.”
Ronnita, she said, reminded her of a line from the movie, “Babette’s Feast”: “Throughout the world sounds one long cry from the heart of the artist: Give me the chance to do my very best.”
Even so, Ronnita knew attending such an elite school as SCAD was a long shot. She didn’t have stellar grades. She had no money and no hope of a scholarship.
And yet people including Hutto and classmates at Macon’s Central High kept talking about her attending college. Maybe, she thought.
Sometime during her sophomore year of high school Ronnita started to get serious about putting together the perfect portfolio.
To quiet the naysayers, she told them she was going to do something big one day.
“Just watch. It’ll be all over the news,” she told them.
Time rolled on like it always does and by her senior year, Ronnita had nothing save an acceptance letter to SCAD and the dream.
“When Ms. Hutto told me how expensive the school was, I cried,” she said. “I felt overwhelmed. How would I afford something like this?”
She’d just have to have faith. If things didn’t work out, they agreed Ronnita could attend Georgia Southwestern and then transfer to SCAD.
She was at the library looking for scholarships again one day when she happened upon the annual Duct Tape Stuck at Prom competition. Maybe, she thought. After recruiting a male classmate to sport the requisite tux to match her dress, she got busy, working around the clock to meet an April deadline.
It was December 2013 when she sat down to draw sketches. She knew she wouldn’t be able to keep her jobs, complete a portfolio and finish the pieces, so she saved up $4,000 from several part-time jobs over many months, then quit.
“I stayed up until every morning, working on the dress,” she said. “At 7 a.m., I walked to school and repeated the process until it was finished.”
That was 400 hours later.
Sometime in June 2014, Ronnita learned she’d placed second in the competition. It wasn’t what she had hoped for but along with the second-place finish she had a $5,000 scholarship: pennies, when put up against SCAD tuition.
She was grateful but still far far away from realizing the dream.
She’d long bragged to friends she’d go to SCAD one day, that her tuition would be paid in full. It would take a miracle to pull it off now.
“Realistically speaking, it didn’t seem possible, but to me it was,” she said. “I believed in my heart that if I asked God for something and I had the will power, it would happen.”
When news of her duct-tape win was aired on CNN, an Atlanta resident, who asked to remain anonymous but has made a career out of helping kids fulfill their dreams, saw the story and tracked Ronnita down.
After just one meeting, he and his wife, along with a few other benefactors, decided to pay Ronnita’s way through SCAD. On top of $240,000 tuition, room and board, they gave her a car and introduced her to a friend who became a kind of fairy godmother, teaching Ronnita table etiquette and taking her on shopping sprees.
“They were like angels sent just when I really needed the support,” she said. “There were no strings attached. The only thing they asked was that I not get any tattoos and piercings. I was blown away.”
The dream had come true.
Whipple, now 23, would not let her benefactors or herself down. Over the next four years, while pursing a degree in fashion design, she would maintain a 3.2 GPA and garner a string of impressive awards and recognition for her designs. Zelma Redding, widow of Otis Redding, purchased one of her paintings, a replica of her husband’s statute.
More recently, she created a pink paper-towel dress for Georgia Pacific, helping to raise $77,000 toward the Susan G. Komen breast cancer fight. She also was a winner of the National Black Arts Festival’s Emerging Talent Award. Ronnita’s design will be displayed in the windows of Neiman Marcus.
Now as she prepares to graduate in May, she is working on a hand-painted evening wear collection for a spring fashion show.
And yet, Ronnita Whipple finds herself at yet another crossroads, unsure what she will do next, if there will indeed be a place for her talent in the fashion industry.
“It feels scary,” she said. “I don’t know what’s about to happen but my faith says, like before, it’ll be more than what I can think or ask.”