Artists make their mark across all media.
It’s Tuesday, past noon, and I’m 5 minutes late for my weekly meeting with Christopher Brazelton, executive director of Elm Street Cultural Arts Village. I trot from the parking lot to the Elm Street offices, where the double doors glow with painted, larger-than-life drama masks. The faces of comedy and tragedy are a nod not only to Elm Street’s year-round theater productions, but also the painting prowess of the visual artists who call Elm Street home.
Just inside, the buzz of voices and laughter emanates from artist Debbie Tidwell’s bustling studio, filled with students three mornings a week. They come to learn to paint, and they stay, as far as I can tell, for years.
I first met Debbie when our two studios were outposts in the virtual ghost town of Woodstock, late 2006. The old depot had just opened as (the now defunct) Right Wing Tavern. There were no high-rise condos, no row of shops on Main Street’s east side. Debbie and I wondered, how can we create a “gallery walk” to get folks here? We recruited three other business owners, Cheryl of Seven Arrows, Al with Interior Illusions and Ellen of Foxtale Bookshop. We waffled a bit between Saturday Night Live and Friday Night Live, finally deciding which night on a coin-flip.
And that was the birth of Woodstock’s Friday Night Live.
Now, the community of Debbie’s painters have become loyal theater advocates, some serving as Elm Street volunteers (called visionaries) for activities ranging from painting sets to serving Reformation beer in the theater lounge.
Seeing Debbie, I make a mental checkmark. I’ve just received an article request from Candi Hannigan, senior editor of this magazine. Candi’s email notes that August is American Artist Appreciation Month and asks whether I would be willing to write about other artists? Yes, I say, with the caveat that the theme is “how artists impact community.”
Debbie, I think, is a prime example.
I refocus on the meeting with Christopher. He’s busy. We leapfrog through a laundry list of Elm Street topics – board recruitment, budget items, plan approvals for the reconstructed Reeves House, the visual arts center of Elm Street.
Leaving, my thoughts light on another artist — Kristina Havens. A few years after opening my Woodstock studio, I invited Kristina to join me there, where she became a vital force in growing the downtown arts scene. A tour de force in figure painting and portraiture, Kristina led classes and open studio sessions with models every Wednesday night. Recruiting national name artists to teach weeklong workshops, Kristina brought art enthusiasts from around the Southeast to Woodstock, introducing them to the surprisingly urban vibe of this Atlanta suburb.
Kristina’s generous gift to the community was a collection of paintings, The Woodstock Vignettes, which she auctioned off one beautiful September night in a benefit for Elm Street Arts Center. Kristina is her usual articulate self when I call: “Main Street Woodstock provided me with endless – spontaneous – inspiration, and that was the real beauty that I was privileged to capture.” Kristina recently has explored other artistic avenues, from haunting nature scenes to stunning custom embellished clothing.
As I drive away from Elm Street, I call Mary Akers, executive director of the Cherokee Arts Center in Canton. Among her suggestions for artists with “community impact” is photographer Kim Bates. Kim and I served together on the Cherokee Arts Center board in Canton, where Kim has been a lynchpin in the photography community — the founder and president of the Cherokee Photography Club. Kim is characteristically modest: “In 2004, digital photography was just becoming popular. The club just sorta happened — I was friends with the president of the Cobb Photography Club, and I decided to start one for Cherokee County.” Since then, Kim has been president, organizing speakers for the group meetings, monthly exhibits in the Arts Center, and club field trips to places such as Boston and Cape Romaine — all the while amassing a remarkable photography portfolio.
“What drives you?” I ask. Kim’s quiet voice rises. “I believe the arts are just as important to a city as retail stores – when you visit places like Asheville, Greenville, Sedona, you can see that the arts are the reason these places are so vital.”
Next, is clay artist Fred Ellis. Fred also serves on the CAC board, but his connection with many Cherokee artists is that he and his wife Laura Ellis organized a regional holiday studio tour, the North Georgia Arts Ramble. The two artists were a whirlwind, securing sponsors and creating an exciting studio circuit with a colorful map and website. For several years, their Ramble connected artists and patrons all over the county, for a glorious weekend of holiday shopping and art.
Fred relates that he and Laura both retired from the Georgia State Patrol, after which Laura promptly signed him up for a clay class, “to get me out of the house.” He laughs. After that, their involvement in the community mushroomed. Fred now holds the office of president of the Georgia Clay Council, with Laura as secretary. They travel and show their work, but Fred says he loves best the school tours: “To see their little faces when you take the wheel and throw a pot! One little girl got REALLY excited and said, ‘Will you come home and be MY grampa?!’ It’s exposing them to the arts. Showing the kids they can create work in clay and sell it – that is a great experience for them.”
The next morning, I wake early to paint, and then text Annalysa Kimball, the artist who won the mural commission for the city of Woodstock. For months, she has perched on scaffolding along Mill Street, painting in the cold and heat. I’m eager to hear about her experience.
Her project research was impressive: She interviewed dozens of business people, community leaders, fellow artists (her insightful questions were probing). Today, she reflects back: “I think I got this job because, when they asked me what ideas I had for the project, I said, ‘NONE!’ I’m a blank slate, just like the wall, for the community to share with me what should be their story.’”
Last month, Annalysa circled back to me. She said she had painted scenes of Woodstock’s past and present, but, in wrapping up, she wanted to include Woodstock’s future. She thought of the Reeves House – could she show a few of us in front of it, looking at plans? I reached out to Founding Artistic Director Gay Grooms. Gay moved to Florida to care for her father, now in his 90s. She couldn’t come, but she could stage a photo and send it! Gay’s beautiful silver hair falls in waves as she looks over Reeves House plans, her figure magically inserted in paint among Shawn, me and Christopher.
I was happy to know Annalysa will be painting our community’s future, with a picture of the old Reeves House, reborn as an arts center.
The arts bring vibrancy and beauty to a community. I believe that, as long as there are artists, these things live on.
– Ann Litrel, artist who lives in Towne Lake