by Jenny Walker
For more than 17 years, Jennifer Unger has built a career helping others understand the value of the arts at the Texarkana Regional Arts and Humanities Council. Before stepping into the organization’s top position in November, she served as the Education Director of TRAHC, working closely with area schools to infuse the arts into their daily curriculum.
However, Unger’s passion did not just impact the children in those classrooms. She also infused art into daily life at home, inspiring her children Tyler, 15, and Rebecca, 11, to shine as artists themselves.
Unger said her parents made sure she had a strong foundation in the arts by exposing her to visual and performing art opportunities at a very young age. This helped push her to explore her options as a young artist.
“I cannot think of a time when I did not have some sort of arts in my life,” Unger said. “My dad was a doctor and played music on the side, so even though my parents did not work in the arts, they made sure I attended concerts and plays, and they always signed me up for art classes.”
It was this exposure that led her to begin an early career in theatre.
“I really fell in love with live theatre and started participating in it in a deep way in middle school,” Unger said. “I took classes at Casa Mañana in Ft. Worth and acted in local, regional and professional theatre all throughout middle school and high school.”
For Unger and her husband, Mike, instilling that same appreciation for the arts in their children has been a natural part of their family life.
“Because the kids have grown up with me working at TRAHC, they have grown up watching performances and participating in all kinds of arts classes,” Unger said. “When we travel, we try to make sure we go see a show, listen to music or go to an art museum.”
Unger said Tyler loves to draw and paint, and Rebecca sings and dances. Both children are talented pianists. Although they are both talented in visual and performing arts, they—like Unger—have found themselves at home on the stage. Both started acting with TISD’s Tiger Theatre Company well before high school.
Tyler, now a sophomore at Texas High, began his career at TTC in second grade when he played the role of Winthrop in The Music Man, and Rebecca played an orphan in their production of Annie. Last month, Rebecca, a fifth grader at Morris Elementary, starred in the lead role in the school’s production of Moana. The Ungers have also been involved with Silvermoon Children’s Theatre and TexRep’s summer drama camp.
“I never pushed them to perform,” Unger said. “We wanted to make sure they were exposed to the arts and loved them, but they have really pursued these things on their own. They have been the driving force, and I love that.”
Unger said Tyler, who has earned multiple All-Star Cast awards for his theatre performances in UIL contests, may look to follow in his mother’s footsteps as he plans his college career.
“He is considering theatre as one of his options,” Unger said. “He is really great at math and science too, but I know that whatever he decides, the arts will be part of it. Whether he pursues it professionally or for fun, he will always be an artist.”
Rebecca also has a bright future as a performer.
“She is a good little actress, but she also has a sweet singing voice,” Unger said. “There is a lot of potential with her voice as she continues to practice.”
Unger said that it is easy for parents to help their children develop an appreciation for the arts, and it is also important. Research shows that the arts allow children to learn and retain information more deeply, solve complex problems and communicate in a way that sometimes words cannot express. Children involved in the arts are more likely to graduate from high school.
Fortunately, parents do not have to travel in order to provide opportunities for their children to have a strong art foundation.
“There really are so many options in Texarkana,” Unger said. “At TRAHC, not only do we work in the area school districts, we have arts classes for all ages, free exhibits that change often to allow for a variety of art to come into our area, and we have a speaker series that features artists who share stories about their careers and their experiences.”
She said that any exposure to the arts is valuable, even if a child lacks natural talent.
“I loved a particular pottery class as a kid,” Unger said. “I wasn’t particularly good at pottery, but I would say to let children have as many arts experiences as they can. Take them to performances, enroll in classes and go to art museums. Let them experiment and play with arts materials at home. Be ok with making a mess. That’s how they learn. Just let them explore and experiment.”
Additionally, she encourages parents to allow children to observe the work of professional visual and performing artists.
“Whether it is theatre, visual art, or music, make sure they experience the arts on a professional level so they have an idea about what is possible,” Unger said. “We are fortunate to be able to bring high-quality options right here to Texarkana.”
For information on those opportunities and for upcoming classes and exhibits, Unger encourages parents to check out the TRAHC website at trahc.org or follow their social media.
About the Author: Texarkana native Jenny Walker has worked in education for almost 20 years, but her favorite and most important job has been to serve as mom to Ryan Kate and Owen.