When Christine Summits took out an anthology of “Ghosts of Gettysburg” books from the Cambria County Library, she had every intention to return them. When she lost them, she accrued a hefty fee that she attempted to settle in an unconventional (yet wholly American) way: Volunteer work.
As a self-taught, freelance artist living in a loft in downtown Johnstown, she figured she would pay with her brush instead of her wallet. The library didn’t go for it. But, she’s following through with a pro bono mural in its third-floor “teen corner,” doing her best to – as she put it – “spruce up” a building that was a part of her childhood.
And, every artist needs a portfolio.
“I got some ideas together for (them),” she said. “I wanted to do something pretty general, but fun at the same time. Something that’s not gonna look dated in five or 10 years.”
Summits, 28, also works as a partner at Bottle Works Ethnic Arts Center, teaching arts and crafts to grade-schoolers in an after-school program.
She is a 2002 Bishop McCort graduate and majored in advertising and public relations at Penn State before switching to St. Francis to earn her MBA.
Until a year ago she had been a marketing director, eschewing that career for the creative outlet of “la vie Boheme.”
“I decided to hang it up in the marketing world because it just wasn’t the right fit. I decided to put myself out there as an artist, and I’ve been steady ever since,” Summits said, the envy of starving artists everywhere.
“I was scared at first,” she recalled. “But I thought ‘what’s the worst that could happen? I get no response’ and I think I’ve had one week where I’ve had nothing to do.”
Most of her work, she said, comes from word of mouth and through people who have bought her paintings.
She has been working on the library’s mural for about a month and estimates she still has at least two weeks to go.
She sees painting as a form of meditation; a form of therapy.
“All my problems and the world outside, it kinda goes away for me. I get to just be in this peaceful sense with my music and painting and it really feels like where I should be right now,” she said. “I just love to come here, jam out to Pandora (Radio) and tune out the world and paint.”
Summits is a member of the Young Professionals of the Alleghenies and also has volunteered with Alternative Community Resource Program, although she said she never really was good with kids.
“I found that it was something that was not only good for them ... (but) it was a positive influence on me,” she said.
And when she steps back from her unpaid work, the sense of pride she gets makes pushing papers and promoting businesses seem worlds away.
“You’re obviously doing something for others, but at the same time, it makes you feel so good,” she said.
“(Marketing) was great, but I never felt the way that I feel when I’m creating something with my hands.”
Unlike many her age, Summits said she enjoys involving herself in the community she grew up in. When she was young, she recalls the library as a hallowed, magical place.
“It’s an honor to be at the Cambria County Library, putting my work on the wall. I just think that’s kind of cool,” she said.
“I was one of those people who went to (college) and never thought I’d be back here. I’m really happy to be back and I really hope that I can, as a young person, make a positive impact on this community.”
Too often, she said, locals are quick to cast a harsh, disapproving judgment on the city, rather than taking action to better it themselves.
“I really think that there are so many negative things and people who try to bring this place down and just complain,” she said. “Paint a mural – I’m doing it. Participate in a trash pickup day or beautify a green space. There’s so many people you can get in touch with to do something like that.
“You can never say there’s nothing going on in Johnstown. I hate when people say that,” she said.
The road she’s walking is uncertain, but she said she sort of likes it that way. One thing she does know is she’s outgrown her loft.
“My projects are everywhere. I’m really hoping to get a studio,” she said.
“Down the road, I’d like to break out of Johnstown and maybe have some (works) online but right now, I’m just kind of building that.”
But, taking account of the present, Summits said she’s glad she gets to do something that makes her happy in lieu of a more lucrative job that she dreads every morning. And giving back to the community is its own reward, a feeling she sums up by paraphrasing Ghandi:
“Be the change you want to see in the world. Be the change you want to see in Johnstown,” she said.
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