Many people begin their journey with ideals to change the world, and, for the rare few, that happens. Central Pennsylvania has one of these people in its midst—Carrie Wissler-Thomas, who is starting her 40th year at the helm of the Art Association of Harrisburg (AAH).
Wissler-Thomas knew her life was destined for the world of art as a student at Ephrata High. When she married her high school sweetheart, Scott Thomas, and moved to Harrisburg, the dream began—a life of art unfolded as a publicist and copywriter at AAH. That stint grew into her becoming the main catalyst at the association, and, in 1980, she was elected president.
Later, Wissler-Thomas became the CEO and steered the vaunted institution from its 1926 humble beginnings to achieve its gold standard reputation today. When one enters the halls of the Art Association, it is like being ushered into a private club, without the pretense of pressure to fit into a certain niche. This state of mind is achieved through Wissler-Thomas, who is an expert in all facets of art through the ages.
Over a storied, four-decade career, Wissler-Thomas breathed fresh life into an association that relies on strong leadership across many settings. From art administrator to fundraiser to grant-writer, she does so many things well.
Her duties encompass full responsibility for the 500 students enrolled in the year-round art classes and in maintaining an art membership that now boasts 600 members. In addition, she supervises a part-time gallery staff of five and relies on 20 faculty educators. In fact, she is the first to recognize that the association is only as strong as every cog in the wheel and is quick to praise not only staff, but students and association members alike.
Gracious, genteel and gifted are but a few of the words that come to mind immediately upon meeting Wissler-Thomas. She welcomes you like an old friend of the family. And being in her presence is like taking a history lesson in the world of art.
In many ways, Wissler-Thomas was the progenitor of multi-tasking long before it came into vogue. She is an educator, painter, gallerist, author, mentor and the coordinator for the citywide Harrisburg Gallery Walk, which takes place on Sept. 8 for its 31st year. She also oversees 17 sites of rotating art installations found in select businesses, assisted in her mission by gallery Curator Rachel O’Connor.
Today, Wissler-Thomas whiles away any free time painting on the banks of the Susquehanna across from the association’s lovely building and on the wee shores of her beloved Scotland.
Wissler-Thomas is responsible in part for the Art Association’s new mission statement, “The AAH promotes the visual arts through education and exhibitions and enhances the wellness of area residents.”
Possibly the most fascinating chapter of the Wissler-Thomas/AAH relationship is the history captured in print by the CEO herself. Her book, “As the Paint Dries, the History of the Art Association of Harrisburg,” is more than a personal reflection on her life. It reads like a who’s who of both the association and the city that has supported the arts over the years. Rich in historical perspective, her lens lovingly recreates snapshots frozen in time from years predating her involvement with AAH and all the years since.
If longevity is a criteria for greatness, that box would be checked. If it’s the imprint one makes on a culture, then put an “x” in that box, as well. True greatness encompasses both and so much more. Greatness is measured on the tenets of enriching others’ lives and making the world a better place for all.
So, it is with a grateful heart that Harrisburg gets to acknowledge a veritable icon in the art world of central PA—Carrie Wissler-Thomas. Her orbit is as far-reaching as the number of lives she has touched throughout her career, equivalent to trying to count the stars in the sky.
2019 Gallery Walk is slated for Sunday, Sept. 8, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. The Art Association of Harrisburg is located at 21 N. Front St., Harrisburg. For more information on both, visit www.artassocofhbg.com.
“The Painted Word” is an occasional column on the fine arts scene around Harrisburg.