IF ONLY WALLS COULD TALK!

Have you ever had an experience where you found yourself involved in something that at first seemed random, but as your involvement deepened, there were so many coincidences that you couldn’t help but think…this was meant to be. Some higher power led me to this place of discovery.

Blue Willow Home & Farm

Shown above is a vintage photograph of the Nobles Ferry studio from the DAC Foundation Archives.

—by MARK HARRIS, Founder and Director of the Dixie Art Colony Foundation

In my younger days, I remember my mother saying that she could give me a box of crayons and some paper and unlike most children of a similar age, I would contently sit and draw for hours at a time. As I entered grade school, my interest in art continued and my interest in history began to emerge.

Having grown up in Wetumpka, I was certainly familiar with the artist Kelly Fitzpatrick. And through word-of-mouth and my time spent as a docent at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts I had limited knowledge of the Dixie Art Colony. It wasn’t until one day in mid-2011, while browsing on the Internet that my knew-found interest in the Dixie Art Colony began to emerge. I happened upon a preview of an article published in 1997 in Alabama Heritage magazine about Wetumpka artist Kelly Fitzpatrick and the Dixie Art Colony.

After ordering an archived issue of the magazine and then contacting the author of the article, Lynn Bartis Williams, I began a journey of discovery that led me to curate the first comprehensive exhibition about the Dixie Art Colony. After nearly three years of extensive research and work, the exhibition consisting of 35 oversized storyboards about the history of the colony and more than 70 pieces of original artwork by the colony artists opened in the Spring of 2014 to a crowd of approximately 200 visitors. Based on the exhibitions success, in November of 2015 I founded the Dixie Art Colony Foundation as part of an effort to preserve the history behind one of the Deep South’s first and most successful art colonies.

Through this journey I have met many amazing individuals including children and grandchildren of many of the DAC artists that I now consider part of my extended family. A few of those include Sally LeBron Holland, the daughter of DAC co-founder Warree Carmichael LeBron, Martha Moon Kracke, the daughter of DAC artist Carlos Alpha “Shiney” Moon, and of course Chrys and Robert Bowden. A couple of the many amazing coincidences that have come to light include the fact that Martha Moon Kracke and my mother graduated form high school together and that Chrys Bowden and I were in fact neighbors when we were toddlers and attended the same kindergarten. As I mentioned earlier…I believe this was just meant to be.

To me, one of the most intriguing aspects about the Dixie Art Colony is the fact it emerged and prospered during an overwhelmingly, repressive and troubling time in our history. The colony started during the Great Depression and survived the devastating impact of World War II.

During its first few years, the colony took place at various locations; most of them on lakes in central Alabama where a summer home large enough to house the artists could be rented. In its first year, 1933, the Dixie Art Colony was held on an experimental basis for two weeks in June at an old Boy Scout camp building on Lake Martin near Kowaliga Creek in Elmore County. Named Camp Dixie, this camp was the site from which the colony derived its name.

Frank Applebee, head of the Art Department at Auburn Polytechnic University (now Auburn University), joined founders Kelly Fitzpatrick and Warree Carmichael LeBron as teaching staff. Warree’s mother Sallie Boyd Carmichael served as hostess. Her daughter Caroline and a cook came to assist. The first year, nine other artists participated. One was Eloise (Heloise) Hawkins, known to be Kelly’s girl, whom a number of former colonists speculated he would have married had he been able to support a wife. Louise Howorth and Amanda Moon, who like Eloise became regulars in the following years, also attended.

In 1937, the colony settled at what Sallie Boyd Carmichael hoped would be a permanent home. The six acres of forested land, owned by Judge Malcolm Carmichael and his wife Sallie Boyd Carmichael, was located at a place called Noble’s Ferry on Lake Jordan in the Deatsville area of Elmore County. The permanent site was known as a former Indian campsite on Lake Jordan at the site of Noble’s Ferry in the Deatsville area of Elmore County. Sallie Carmichael, the Colony’s primary financial backer nicknamed the Colony site Poka Hutchi, a Creek word meaning “gathering of picture writers.” (Now the weekend home of Blue Willow Home & Farm proprietors Chrys and Robert Bowden.)

Before its demise, the colony consisted of a series of cabins and a lodge/studio that was later converted into a private residence. The kitchen was located in the lodge, a two-story frame structure perched on a hill overlooking the lake. The kitchen was the only room to have running water. Bathroom facilities were very primitive. An outhouse was located behind the lodge and an outdoor shower was located on the other side of the hill from the lodge. One year the colonists thought of painting the tin ceiling, which was divided into square panels of two and one-half square feet. They decided that each of them should create a small composition for one square, and after that year, everyone who came to the colony had to be represented by a work on a square of the ceiling. Kelly also contributed a bas-relief of Alice Boyd to hang above the hearth. (This bas-relief still hangs proudly above the hearth and thanks to Chrys and Robert Bowden, many of the painted ceiling panels have be preserved.)

In the first slide Kelly Fitzpatrick is shown in the Nobles Ferry studio standing under some of the painted ceiling panels.  The next three slides show some of the actual rescued panels. The last slide shows Warree LeBron's daughter Sally and the bas-relief of Alice Boyd.

Before its demise, the colony consisted of a series of cabins and a lodge/studio that was later converted into a private residence. The kitchen was located in the lodge, a two-story frame structure perched on a hill overlooking the lake. The kitchen was the only room to have running water. Bathroom facilities were very primitive. An outhouse was located behind the lodge and an outdoor shower was located on the other side of the hill from the lodge. One year the colonists thought of painting the tin ceiling, which was divided into square panels of two and one-half square feet. They decided that each of them should create a small composition for one square, and after that year, everyone who came to the colony had to be represented by a work on a square of the ceiling. Kelly also contributed a bas-relief of Alice Boyd to hang above the hearth. (This bas-relief still hangs proudly above the hearth and thanks to Chrys and Robert Bowden, many of the painted ceiling panels have be preserved.)

The colony was active for more than 14 years, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1940s. It offered a very casual atmosphere in which artists were encouraged to experiment by exploring their creative side. Although most were “Sunday Artist,” a few were more serious and later became well-known Southern artists.

Although it is clear Fitzpatrick wanted his students to develop their own personal style, Fitzpatrick’s influence is apparent in examining the work of other colonists. His influence is particularly visible through brushwork and the use of color and light; some colony descendants commonly refer to this distinction as “the colony style.” The colonists’ choice of subject matter could be classified as one of regionalism, an artistic focus that shunned city life in favor of common rural scenes. The colony’s legacy is broad and varied. Some of the colonists were instrumental in founding some of the South’s finest regional art museums, including the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts and the Mississippi Museum of Art, while others left their mark as prominent educators on both the primary and secondary level. Colonist Frank Applebee left his most prominent mark in Auburn. Applebee was responsible for the 1948 acquisition of the core collection of Auburn’s Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, which is today estimated to be worth millions.

The last formal session of the Elmore County branch of the Dixie Art Colony took place at the historic Nobles Ferry site in the summer of 1948. I cannot put into words how grateful I am to Chrys and Robert Bowden for the vision and courage they have shown in securing and restoring this important property and for their assistance in preserving this important chapter in Alabama’s history.

Shown above are some of the vintage Nobles Ferry photographs from the DAC Foundation Archives.

In part-three of this series, together Chrys and I will share photographs and information about the Dixie Art Colony Foundation events that are now taking place at this location. Chrys will also share photographs showing some of the creative ideas she has incorporated into the renovation of the property.

To learn more about the history of the Dixie Art Colony, visit DixieArtColony.org.

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Comment(1)

  1. REPLY
    Teresa Strichik says

    Thanks Chrys I really enjoy your blogs. Merry Christmas. Teresa & Boomer

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