Freedom of imagination

Art is not just a passion for internationally awarded sculptors Lee and Betty Benson — it’s the family business.

The Jackson, Tenn., couple has created works for 30 years around the globe. They, with help from their four grown children — Aaron Tennessee, Mary Elizabeth, Zachariah Chyanne and Sarah Blessing — are behind Benson Sculpture LLC

Lee and Betty work mainly in mixed media, stone, timber, wood, clay and 24k gold, producing large-scale architectural forms as well as “figurative, narrative monoliths.” 

The Bensons have works all over the United States and abroad as far as Sydney, Australia. They are expanding their footprint to Arkansas with “Sculpture Break For Tired Little Legs,” which was one of 10 temporary, outdoor artworks selected for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Art in its Natural State regional competition. 

They often build sculptures using primarily 2-by-4 standard wooden building studs. “See, with mature eyes and imaginations they transform into a very user-friendly sculptural medium for producing very complex and visually dynamic works of sculpture,” Lee said of the material. “This not only permits the artist a freedom of imagination, it also allows the viewer to immediately become involved in the work and the creative production process.”

Consideration is also given for the installation’s location so the sculpture does not compete with its environment but works with the location to give the viewer the optimum visual experience.

At the end of the exhibit, the wooden sculptures are dismantled and the lumber donated to Habitat for Humanity to use for building homes in the community where the sculptures were exhibited.

The Bensons used the material to build the 40-foot-long “Title Wave,” their first international sculpture. The award-winning environmental installation was part of 2010’s Sculpture by the Sea. Held on Bondi Beach in Sydney Harbor, the event is billed as the largest annual sculpture exhibition in the world.

Curator Daniel Pfalzgraf noted the Bensons’ thoughtful approach to and crafting of the two installations they created for the Carnegie Center for Art & History in New Albany, Ind.

“I would characterize their proposals as ‘living’ works that have a life of their own. It may start as one thing when they put their ideas down on paper, but it comes into its own as the construction unfolds and adjustments need to be made in reaction to, or in communication with, the sites they will live. While that may be disconcerting to someone with a more rigid personality, I think credit goes to the Bensons for being so adaptable and allowing their work to integrate more fully with its surroundings.”

With “I’d Rather Have A Tree,” which they installed in front of the Carnegie Center during a 2015 project, they created a grove of trees out of pre-cut lumber. The piece was intended to garner awareness that we as humans have limited resources. By using solar-powered LED lights that left light patterns on the surrounding landscape and architecture, the piece could also be viewed at night.

A shared love of nature, hiking and camping has strongly influenced their public works — especially the use of natural materials — Lee said.

“We use every tool and technique we need in order to make real that which we imagine and find compelled to realize but mostly look to natural materials: stone, wood, water, earth,” Lee said.  

“We believe that natural materials have an innate ability to relate to humans, and humans find the materials more inviting toward an aesthetic and artistic experience. Works of art can be achieved in a matter of moments or years. Art is not a time-based enterprise, but is achieved when sincere depth of meaning, clear understanding of concept, choice of right materials, commitment to craftsmanship and a sincere desire to create art is coupled with a human’s desire to be relevant.”   

Faith also plays an integral role in their work.

“I am inspired mostly by a deeply held spiritual belief in God as represented by Jesus … his natural world, the sincere uniqueness of human beings and their relationship with one another, and with their almost universal belief in a spiritual life and afterlife,” Lee said. “I find this story the most compelling story in history and its ability to foster creative endeavors second to none. The creative urge, an earth richly endowed with sincere materials, the human dimension of meaning outside the scientific, and a desire to explore that pushes us to the moon and to the divine has charmed me most of my adult life.”

Lee and Betty have created works for 30 years, but they didn’t set up their family enterprise until 2005.

“It took years to realize, but we both have great strengths that we bring to the public sculpture enterprise,” Lee said. “We found it to be better to live being involved in the same adventure as to living separate professional lives.”

“There is much more involved in living daily as an artist than just time spent in the studio. Art-making as a vocation requires a great deal of skill in a multitude of areas, and each area has its unique set of learned skills. We all try to focus our skills in the areas they are best needed. One of mine is answering questions; one of Betty’s is dealing with the public. “

After winning their first large public sculpture commission, they began to pursue public sculpture as a means of being vocationally active. They also realized that they both had strong assets that would work well in public sculpture, and it was at that point that they began Benson Sculpture LLC.

Betty was raised in Memphis, Tenn., and Lee was raised in eastern Tennessee. The pair met when they were both working at Tennessee School for the Deaf.

Lee has been involved in the arts all of his life; drawing and painting are some of his earliest memories, he says. While pursing geology at another university, his drawing professor encouraged him to go and visit the University of Tennessee, Knoxville because the university had just built a new art building. It was then in 1982 that he transferred to UT and began to pursue art as a vocation.

Lee and Betty both earned their Master of Fine Arts degrees from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. All four of their children earned degrees from UT as well.

Lee joined the faculty of Union University in Jackson in 1996. He is the chairman of UU’s art department and head of the three-dimensional art program.

The Bensons are already planning their next project.

We have an idea where we would drill a well in a 3½-inch casing. The casing would extend above ground with a 4-foot ornate brass tube. We would place a gumball machine filled with stones next to it. For a quarter, you could purchase a stone, drop it in the well, place your ear to the tube and listen to it land in the underground hundreds of feet below the earth’s surface.”


Plowing ahead

Hot Springs sculptor and metalsmith Marshall Miller worked primarily in wood until the gift of a welder 20 years ago changed the direction of his art. 

Regardless of the materials, Miller’s style is simple, clean, abstract figurative representation.

“I’m just trying to pull out the essence of something, really,” he said.

His subjects include both animals — birds are a favorite — and the human form.

Miller’s array of sculptures populates his home and backyard. One of the fun pieces outside is a steel cutout of the characters from the Brothers Grimm fairy tale “The Bremen Town Musicians.” The showstopper is “Hug Me,” a tall, brightly painted ambulatory piece that was featured outside one of the historic bathhouses during a Hot Springs juried art competition in 1997. The curved arms of the sculpture tempt visitors to respond to the sculpture’s title.

Miller’s impressively equipped studio sits just a few yards from his sculpture garden. 

Art dealer Dale Blackwelder, a member of the Hot Springs Arts Advisory Committee, admires Miller’s workmanship and quality of work.

“He has a real good eye for composition and he is very attentive to detail and quality. Everything is so precise,” Blackwelder said. “His execution is superb. It’s purposefully done for longevity.”  

Miller recently began exploring incorporating tools and other found objects in his sculptures. An ambitious example of this new direction can be seen with “Plowing the Troposphere,” one of 10 temporary, outdoor artworks selected for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Art in its Natural State regional competition. 

It may surprise viewers of his vast array of works that Miller did not study art formally and did not really begin creating sculptures until he was in his mid-30s.

Miller credits the beginning of his love of art to his fourth-grade teacher, who taught “the equivalent of a college freshman-level art appreciation course,” he said. Each student in the class created a notebook in which they pasted images of artworks and wrote information about them. He still has his notebook.

“He has been a student of art ever since I’ve known him,” said his wife, Jeanne.

Miller attended Hendrix College, the University of Arkansas at Monticello and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff.

After college, Miller worked in the construction industry until retirement. The work took him all over the South. He has lived in Georgia, Texas, Tennessee and Florida, and on St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands. He met Jeanne in Savannah, Ga., in 1976, and they married in 1980.

They eventually moved back to Arkansas and ultimately settled in Hot Springs in 1990. Miller was also the primary caretaker of their son, Marsh, as Jeanne travelled regularly for work and their daughter, Jessica, was attending college.

Miller wanted to try his hand at 3D work for a while, and his technical experience helped him segue into creating sculptures.

“All my life, I developed skills in the construction industry, for many different abilities,” he said. “By the time I got started, I was already pretty well equipped to manipulate materials. It wasn’t a matter of me having to develop my capabilities along with my concept. I was pretty well able to attack it on any level I wanted to. I didn’t need to take any courses to manipulate wood or steel or anything else, although I had not done that much welding and all. But by that point, it was just a matter of whatever it was, I could do it.”

Miller worked primarily in wood until about 1997, when a metal sculptor friend brought by a small welder for Miller to try out.

“I got carried away with this metal sculpture and that’s been it,” he said. 

Miller has begun using found objects to create pieces like “Kyoto Bush,” which won the People’s Choice Award at the 2017 UpCycle Sculpture Festival in Hot Springs. The piece is made of discarded items including a carbide drum, a partially burned shrub, an abandoned bird nest and a dollhouse-sized pair of fried eggs.

Crow Bird”, like the upcoming “Plowing the Troposphere” installation, utilizes farm implements. The bird’s head is a sickle bar mower blade guard.

Miller lets the found objects themselves guide his process into creating a piece. “It’s more like the experience I encountered with abstract work, to where, rather than you being led during the drafting process, you’re led during the construction process to make changes. It’s kind of like there’s a spirit that enters into this whole thing that you access at some point, and if you’re smart, you’ll go with it.”

He wants to continue exploring with scraps and tools. "Taking stuff out and putting it together and seeing what I come up with. It’s a change. It’s not a radical change in my style but it’s a development. You know, you’ve got to keep something going to keep things from getting stale. And that’s what this is about. Plus, it’s enjoyable.”


Making big stuff

Even in a gallery full of diverse mediums — ceramics, oil paintings, jewelry, textiles, wooden sculptures, just to name a few — Russell Lemond’s aluminum sculptures stand out.

Inspired by nature, architecture or simply the attributes of the material at hand, Lemond transforms basic aluminum sheets into hanging and freestanding sculptures with a signature holograph-like finish. Mobiles, skyscrapers and fish have been among his favorite subjects and can be seen in the art gallery of the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in downtown Little Rock. 

Lemond is creating his largest freestanding work yet this spring. “Water as Needed” is one of 10 temporary, outdoor artworks selected for the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Art in its Natural State regional competition. 

Aluminum is a lightweight material, so despite its size the sculpture only weighs 125 pounds. 

”It can be carried by two men,” he said. 

The sculpture will be prominently placed in the institute’s front lawn. 

Lemond said he was “tickled to death” to be picked for the Institute’s competition. “One thing I’m really happy about in being selected for this show is that [it includes] Arkansas artists. There is so much stuff around town that’s monumental stuff and it’s good stuff, but they’re not from Arkansas.”

Lemond has only been making aluminum art since 2004.

He graduated with a Master of Business Administration degree from the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville in 1978. He worked at IBM right out of graduate school and then spent about 16 years in medical equipment sales. 

Lemond became burned out on sales and was tired of being away from his wife, Karen, and their two young sons while traveling for work. So he left the sales world and went on to own a series of businesses over the next couple of decades, including a restaurant. He then worked for a nonprofit organization as a business consultant in the Delta. After the organization lost one of its major funders, Lemond lost his job. 

“My entrepreneurial blood runs thick, so I was like, ‘What can I do to generate an income?’ I’ve always had an artistic whim. I’ve always enjoyed drawing. I was pretty good at building furniture.” 

The idea of working with aluminum came from a trip to a boat shop with his father a couple of years before. “We pulled up, I saw all this shiny diamond plate and aluminum in their scrap pile and filed it away in the back of my head,” he said. 

When Lemond’s wife asked him to make two bedside tables, he returned to the boat shop with plans and had them fabricate the tables because he didn’t have the equipment to do so. With encouragement from family friends, Lemond began making furniture himself out of aluminum and diamond plate. 

He quickly sold his first couple of pieces on eBay. He still sells pieces through his own website, appropriately titled

A distinct feature of Lemond’s pieces is the holographic-like swirl pattern, which he creates using a 3M bristle disc in an angle grinder. 

“The swirling came from cleaning up the metal, because aluminum is such a soft metal and scratches real easy, and that’s why I like it because it scratches so easy,” he explained. “I just go over it totally random with a bristle disc flat on it to make just a real matte finish. And then I’ll come back later and do the swirl pattern that I kind of pick out for the piece.” 

Lemond said he takes great pleasure in coming up with tongue-in-cheek names for his works. One piece, which featured sharp parts, he titled “Don’t Poke Your Eye Out!” 

The piece for Art in its Natural State will represent something that is growing, he said. “Being made out of aluminum, I called it ‘Water as Needed.’”

In addition to The Butler Center, Lemond’s work can be found at other Central Arkansas Library System properties. He created the decorative gates in front of the Ron Robinson Theater and a freestanding sculpture at the Hillary Rodham Clinton Children's Library

“Most people don't realize that a lot of these public art projects often take a year or more (usually) to complete,” said Colin Thompson, art administrator for The Butler Center. “Russell has good ideas. He's creative, willing to see a project through to completion and he is game to try something new.” 

Lemond creates his pieces in his workshop at his Little Rock home. His roomy-but-cozy workshop includes a variety of large and specialty tools. A plasma cutter allows him to easily cut curves and circles out of the aluminum. His decades-old stomp shear cuts or bends the metal in straight lines by using his body weight. 

His Miniature Dachshunds, Moe and Ella, pop in and out through a doggie door when the shop is quiet. 

As busy as Lemond is, he isn’t a full-time artist. Lemond started a plumbing inspection business in 2010. He said the business allows him the flexibility to continue working as an artist and the means to create the larger pieces. 

“I’ve reached the point now where I’m really starting to like making big stuff.”


Good news coming

The judging is complete. The lineup is set. A big announcement is coming.

Our esteemed panel of judges for Art in its Natural State (AiiNS) finished their work last month, and we have secured agreements with the 10 winning artists whose impressive work will grace the grounds of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute and Petit Jean State Park beginning this spring.

As a recap, AiiNS is an exhibtion of public, outdoor, temporary art installations that will be on display here on Petit Jean Mountain for one year. A call for entries went out in February, and judging took place during September and October. Our panel of judges hailed from Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, the Arkansas Arts Center, the Arkansas Arts Council, the art departments of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, UA-Fort Smith and UA-Little Rock, plus the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism.

As for the art itself, we're keeping things a bit under wraps for now, but we plan to make a big announcement in January to introduce the artists. We can tell you that they hail from all across the South, with four artists from Arkansas, three from Missouri and one each from Texas, Tennessee and Florida.

Each artist will receive a $5,000 stipend to help cover the cost of constructing and transporting their art.

Be sure and reserve Saturday, April 28, on your calendar. That's when we plan to unveil the exhibition. Once we get past the New Year, we'll give you more details on the unveiling.


What they’re built for, after all

It was seeking relief from the heat that ignited Angela Danovi’s passion for historic theaters. That respite led to a love of classic movies shown at the Orpheum on mid-afternoon summers in sweltering Memphis. Of all those films, Gone with the Wind was her favorite. It was the now 101 year-old Olivia De Havilland with her portrayal of Scarlett O’Hara’s kindly but fierce sister-in-law Melanie Wilkes that led Danovi to seek out De Havilland’s other films and eventually develop a website dedicated to the film icon.

“I’d seen Gone with the Wind on TV but never in a theater, much less a theater as majestic as the Orpheum,” the now Rogers resident said on a recent call. “At that time ‘pan and scan’ versions of films were shown on television.”

Pan and scan compresses the film for what were square-ish televisions vs. the rectangular projection shown in a movie theater.

“Watching it at the Orpheum, we saw parts of the background and characters who were cropped out for television. Seeing that made me want to see what else I’d missed.”

Part of “seeing what she missed” led to about a dozen road trips throughout the United States to check out historic theaters. She’s been to Marietta, Ga., Franklin, Tenn., Birmingham, Ala., Wichita, Kan., and Knoxville, Tenn., among others. But the highlight of her Historic Theaters road trips was to Austin, Texas’ Paramount Theater for the 75th anniversary showing of Gone with the Wind.

“When I heard that the David O. Selznick Archives (held at the University of Texas, Austin) would be partnering with the Paramount Theater to provide memorabilia from the film, including costumes, I knew I just had to go,” she said.

This was the first time her historic theater tourism required more than a tank of gas. Plane tickets, hotel rooms and a rental car would be involved, not to mention tickets to the 75th anniversary red carpet showing.

“It was an event. A true experience,” she said. “They had the Paramount fully programmed. In every space where there was an activity or experience in every nook and cranny.”

These experiences ranged from costume displays to props with interpretive panels to a photo booth where you could have your picture taken in front of a digital background from the film that was immediately available for online download.

“These are the kinds of experiences we can replicate in our historic theaters in Arkansas,” she said, echoing the advice of League of Historic American Theaters Executive Director Ken Stein gave during his keynote at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Historic Theaters Conference in August. Stein was the executive director of the Paramount Theater in Austin during Angela’s pilgrimage.

Having traveled across the country to visit and experience historic theaters, she’d always wanted to attend the Theatre Historical Society of America conference, where she could learn more about historic theaters and their role in 21st century communities.

“Those conferences are very expensive and have a national focus,” she said. “That’s why I was so glad to have learned about the conference at the Rockefeller Institute. It was nearby, affordable and would be full of other locals passionate about the same things I’m passionate about.”

The Historic Theaters Conference and its 75 attendees from across the state have formed a network where one didn’t exist before. They will be sharing stories of successes, failures, best practices and obscura ranging from lighting issues to how to best deal with the need for wider seats in the modern era and much more. A Facebook group started by the Institute will help keep the dialogue going in between summits like the one held last month atop Petit Jean.

“Who knew that there was a League of Historic Theaters board member who lived in Northwest Arkansas? I had no idea,” she said.

Making these sort of connections and putting smart people in the same room to solve problems facing the state is exactly the thing Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller did repeatedly. This follows directly in his legacy, his love of the arts and passion for historic places.

In the meantime, Danovi will be working on programming classic films in historic theaters in her neck of the woods.

“That’s what they’re built for, after all.”

She’ll also be taking the advice of Ms. De Havilland, who said, “One must take what comes, with laughter.”


A touch of the Unexpected in Fort Smith

Unexpected. Far more than just a catchy name, the word “unexpected” truly captures the spirit of the yearly art celebration in Fort Smith, the Unexpected Mural Festival.

Curated by art network JustKids, the Unexpected is an initiative to bring international artists and creative artwork to downtown Fort Smith, Ark., perhaps not the first venue that would come to mind as the focal point for world-class art. Yet that is part of what makes it the perfect backdrop. Walking through a downtown that has been a lynchpin in Arkansas history and industry and seeing walls and alleyways adorned with bright colors and stunning tableaus serves as a bridge to the present. The murals and installed artworks are also enhanced by the history surrounding them. There is a symbiosis between old and new that helps one appreciate them both through the contrast.

Mural by DFace

That is not to say, however, that the murals and other art don’t have a Fort Smith flavor. Much of the art ties into Fort Smith’s frontier past and its proximity to Oklahoma featuring Western and Native American themes. New Zealand artist ASKEW, for instance, met with a modern Cherokee chief in Oklahoma while conceptualizing his mural. Inspired by the meeting, ASKEW created a mural incorporating the faces of four Cherokee women close to the chief: his mother, wife, daughter and sister.

Mural by ASKEW

The nod to the history and culture of Fort Smith in so many murals was itself unexpected. Artists are given free range to create the murals, without the need for approval or input from the organizers or the business owners on whose walls they are working. This leap of faith has been rewarded year after year with thoughtful and stunning works of art. This running success is a testament to careful selection of world-class artists whose chosen medium happens to be mural work.

Mural by UAFS students

Something else one might not expect as part of a mural festival are the variety of installed elements accompanying the art. From standalone sculptures of local fauna made from metal scraps, to incorporated neon lights, several pieces of art go beyond flat walls and bring the viewer inside of the work. At the Unexpected headquarters in the historic New Theater, artist Doze Green has installed his work “The Divine Sparks Project.” The work pulls visitors into a darkened space, through an entryway lit by dime blue lights that make the stark white figures painted on the walls jump out. Past the entrance, the space opens up into the theater proper with custom neon figures lighting up the walls and a pair of blue giants towering on either side of the proscenium. Standing on the darkened stage, flanked by colossal abstract figures and looking out a ring of glowing outlines on the far wall, you lose yourself for a moment.

Divine Sparks Project 1

Divine Sparks Project 2

Divine Sparks Project 3

Another piece that invites interaction is by Amsterdam artists Circus Family. “TRIPH” is an installed work that features glowing geometric shapes and ambient sounds that react to viewer interaction. In the absence of spectators, the lights are dull and the sounds nearly non-existent. When approached, however, the shapes light up and pulse with different colors, and sounds fill the space. The work is a fantastic blend of art and technology that takes the viewer out of passive role.

Mural by UAFS student

Carved mural by Vhils

There are so many great artworks to discus, from work that was chiseled into plaster, a mural on a print shop storage building appropriately featuring Guttenberg, to abstract pieces that speak for themselves, but words do them only so much justice. You really can’t know what it’s like until you’ve seen it for yourself. Even though the festival is over, the art remains an integral part of Fort Smith. I encourage you to make the trip and take a stroll downtown. Soak in the history, shop the shops and expect the Unexpected.


97-year-old Royal Theatre remains a gem

If only the brick walls of the Royal Theatre in downtown Benton could talk, I imagine the conversation would be full of amusing, awe-inspiring tales of the different types of people who have graced the interior of the two-story historic structure. From early movie days in the 1920s to the ’50s when concessions were sold to passersby on the street, and later in the ’90s when actor Jerry Van Dyke owned the theater and adjacent Soda Shoppe, the Royal Theatre has touched many lives throughout the past century.

In 2004 when I joined the staff at the Benton Courier (now the Saline Courier), I quickly learned from seasoned reporter and editor Lynda Hollenbeck – a Royal Players board member and veteran cast and crew participant – the important role the theater plays in the community. During my newspaper tenure I would go on to know other key players of the Royal, such as theatre manager Shannon Moss and founding members the late Gayla McCoy, Louann Cameron and Selena Ellis.

The Royal Players (formerly the Central Arkansas Community Players) has called the Royal Theatre home since 2000 when Van Dyke deeded the building to the performance group. Established in 1994, for the first few years the theatre group put on plays at Benton High School’s Butler Auditorium. The Royal Players and the Young Players for youth have produced more than 100 plays.

The original section of the Royal Theatre was built in 1920 when it was known as the IMP, an acronym for Independent Motion Pictures, according to the history section of the theater’s website. The theater was remodeled and the name changed to the Royal in 1949. In 1974, Wallace Kauffman relinquished control of the Royal to his son Warren Lee and his wife, Mildred. In 1986, Warren Lee passed ownership to his son Randy Kauffman, who continued to manage it until 1996 when he sold it to Van Dyke.

Because the Royal Theatre is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the Royal Players is able to apply for preservation grants and low-interest loans to help maintain the structure for all to enjoy for years to come.

Susan Dill, president of the Royal Players Board of Directors, gives Van Dyke credit for cleaning up downtown. The area has been on the upswing ever since.

“The area continues to improve, and we attract people from all of central Arkansas,” Dill says, adding that the theater “improves the quality of life for all who experience it, from the actors to the people who come to watch.”

The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s very own Jeff LeMaster, director of communications and marketing, grew up in Benton, calling the Royal “our movie theater.” Until Tinseltown theater was built in 1997, LeMaster says the Royal was the only option for seeing movies locally.

“One of my most vivid memories of the Royal was when we went to see The Rescuers Down Under with my family. About halfway through the movie, they stopped the projector and the manager came in and told the audience that it was snowing pretty hard outside and that he would give us a rain check ticket if we wanted to leave. My parents opted to stay and finish the movie even though most people left, and by the time we got out of the theater, there was about six inches of snow on the ground. It took us a while to get home, but I remember thinking how cool it was to have the theater almost all to ourselves.”

LeMaster echoes Dill’s sentiments about downtown’s improvement during the Van Dyke days.

“Back in the ’90s, Benton’s downtown was struggling. Businesses were having a hard time staying open, and there were lots of vacant buildings. The one little glimmer of life was the Royal. That became especially true when Jerry Van Dyke installed the soda shop next door and the Royal installed a stage and began producing live local theater. The soda shop venture didn’t last, but I remember being amazed at how many more people I saw on Market Street during that time.”

With the increased foot traffic came a renewed interest from investors to revive vacant buildings near the Royal that remain occupied.  

Since the Royal Players took control of the building, the Royal Theatre is not only a stellar downtown asset, but also a safe haven for youth and adults to come together to be themselves, establish bonds and gain valuable life lessons.

Payton Christenberry, a program officer at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute in charge of arts and humanities programs, also grew up in Benton and recalls fondly his time as part of the Royal Players.

The Royal was a big part of my teenage and early adult years, performing on stage and working behind the scenes,” Christenberry says. “I didn’t appreciate its history at the time, but there was no way to miss the presence the building has. From the classic theater marquee to the towering ceiling inside to the creak of the chairs, everything pulls you into another world.

“What sticks out most, though, is how many people the Royal brings together. I got to meet and work with people from my community on something we all shared a passion for. On top of that, we got to perform for our friends and neighbors. I can’t think of a time I felt more connected to my hometown than standing on stage to take a final bow beside my fellow cast and crew in front of a packed house. I wouldn’t have those memories without the Royal.”

That intrinsic link to the artistic and commercial health of a community will be a key theme at the Rockefeller Institute’s upcoming Historic Theaters Conference, which will be held at the Institute on Petit Jean Mountain Thursday, Aug. 10, through Friday, Aug. 11.


Morrilton’s Rialto Theatre undergoes epic transformation through the years

The Hollywood stars who once graced its screen may be gone with the wind (if you’ll forgive the play on words), but the Rialto Theatre still remains a gem in downtown Morrilton today. Actually, the story of the theater — with its myriad stops and starts, and especially its survival in the face of long odds — would arguably be worthy of the sweeping epics that used to screen there.

Not so long ago it appeared the more-than-100-year-old landmark had outlived its relevance: doomed to the same finale as countless aging buildings before it. In the 1990s, the Rialto was slated for demolition – to make room for a parking lot. Progress, it seemed, had caught up with the Rialto and left it behind. Movie-goers had long ago moved onto bigger multiplexes, larger screens and state-of-the-art surround sound.


The first film showed at the Rialto in 1911. In the 1950s, the building was gutted and seating increased. It reopened to great acclaim with a showing of Lovely to Look At, starring Kathryn Grayson and Red Skelton. In the 1970s, it was again modified to keep up with the times and was converted to three screens. It didn’t last, however, and the following decade, the once-grand theater was shut down.

For years, the Rialto sat there boarded up and empty — a deteriorating relic whose golden age had played out its run. Enter our hero in this script.

Lindell Roberts wasn’t the only person who helped save the Rialto, but if this were one of those “based-on-a-true-story” movies, this gregarious Morriltonian would undoubtedly play a leading role.

“When I would drive through downtown, I would look at it (the Rialto) and think, ‘We need to turn that into a performance theater.’ This was around 1995,” Roberts recounted one morning from the sidewalk outside the Rialto. Occasionally people would honk and wave as they drove past.

“Then one day, our new mayor at the time, Stewart Nelson, called me up and asked, ‘What would you think about making the old Rialto into a performance theater?,’” Roberts recalled between waves. “I said, ‘When do you want to start?’”

And like those feel-good celluloid stories that never get old, hard-working members of the community came together to bring the regal lady back to life. Most of the early labor was made up entirely of volunteers, Roberts said. Improved lighting was installed, a new stage was built and a proscenium added. A capital improvement grant helped renovate the building next door, which became a connected art gallery. A donor, Afton King, paid for the installation of the necessary dressing rooms for performers. A local artist even came in to restore the murals along the walls of the main seating hall that were added in 1952 when the theater was beginning its second life.

“When The Rep (in Little Rock) did their renovation, they gave us the seats that came out of the theater,” Roberts said, recalling just how broad the backing for this success story has been. “We have great community support for this theater. A lot of towns our size don’t have something like this (a downtown theater).”

Current Morrilton Mayor Allen Lipsmeyer agrees. “I’ve been to cities all over Arkansas that deeply regret tearing down their downtown theater,” he said. “In fact, cities are now building replicas of historic theaters. We did a good thing preserving this piece of history. No one regrets saving history.”

Roberts helped create the Rialto Community Arts Center Board, under the auspices of the Arts Council of Conway County, to manage the renovation and operation of the theater, which is now called the Rialto Community Arts Center. He was the first president and currently serves as chairman. The reopened 400-seat venue hosted its first performance in 2000 and has been used frequently ever since for a variety of plays, concerts, murder-mystery dinners and, of course, films, such as the classic Gone with the Wind, which was screened a few years ago. Next door — formerly a hardware store — houses a meeting center (complete with a full kitchen) and an art gallery, which varies its exhibits every few months.

This type of success story is part of what will be highlighted at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s Historic Theaters Conference on Aug. 10-11. The conference, which only costs $75 to attend (includes lodging and meals), will feature experts in historic preservation, fundraising and art as a method of community and economic development. It will also include time for networking among people who are all passionate about ensuring their community’s historic theater has its own success story.

Most seem to agree that Morrilton isn’t ready for the credits to roll on the Rialto, a true historic Arkansas landmark.

“Art is a part of what makes communities unique, and artists bring with them passion,” Lipsmeyer said. “I like knowing we have a space for our citizens to enjoy art, perform, celebrate, demonstrate and show their talent. I believe art will be a vital part of our downtown revitalization.

“We are a better city because of the Rialto.”


Art in its Natural State

To know why Arkansas is the Natural State, all one needs to do is take a short trip to Petit Jean Mountain. From impressive views of the Arkansas River Valley, to lakes and rivers, and wide fields and towering pines, Petit Jean offers a wonderful snapshot of Arkansas’ natural beauty. It’s no wonder that Petit Jean has also called to artists throughout the years, from Native American cave art all the way to modern day painters, sculptors and writers.

To celebrate that rich history and add to the artistic legacy of Petit Jean, we here at the Institute are partnering with Petit Jean State Park to host the first Art in its Natural State competition. We have worked with the Park to identify serval sites on our respective campuses that not only exemplify Petit Jean’s varied landscapes, but would also be a great spot for public art. Our contest challenges artists to design temporary, site-specific outdoor works for those areas. The best fit for the competition will likely be structural, sculptural or landscape art, but all designed public art will be considered. You can see all of the sites up for design here.

The artwork will be displayed in its outdoor site for up to one year, then taken down by the artist. The focus for the competition is a balance between the visual appeal of the created artwork and the natural beauty of the space it is designed for. The works must also have neutral impact to the site in which they are installed, meaning that after the works are removed and the area is allowed time to recover, it will be as if there was never any art installed at all.

The temporary nature of the installations is both respectful to Petit Jean’s environment and allows for artists to use creative materials that they might not otherwise work with. A bronze statue will withstand many decades of display, but our more ephemeral artworks needn’t be quite that durable. Though the works that are designed need to stand up to a year of seasonal weather, we hope that artists will incorporate recycled or recyclable materials for their work.  

We will take applications until September of this year, after which point all of the submitted designs will be considered by our judging and advisory panel. Made up of representatives from the Arkansas Arts Council; Arkansas Arts Center; Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism; Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art; University of Arkansas, Fayetteville; University of Arkansas at Fort Smith; University of Arkansas at Little Rock; the Park; and the Institute, our panel will select 10 winning designs. Those designs will be funded by a $5,000-per-artist stipend to cover the creation of the artwork and its transportation and installation on Petit Jean in March of 2018.

Although focused on the natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain, the Art in its Natural State competition is open to all Southern and Arkansas regional artists. That includes artists from Arkansas, Alabama, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, Missouri, North Carolina, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, West Virginia and Virginia. If you or someone you know is interested in entering the competition, the official rules and application guidelines for the competition can be found here

As we select winners and install the art, we’ll have plenty of updates here and on the Art in its Natural State page. Look for profiles of the winning artists, sneak peeks of the artwork and plenty of photos of the opening event on Saturday, March 10, 2018. Even better than seeing the art online, of course, will be to visit the art in person. We’ll have eight installed pieces at the Institute through March 2019, and the Park will host two installed works through July of 2018. We hope you’ll join us as we celebrate Arkansas’ beauty and the talents of Southern artists with the first Art in its Natural State competition.


Arts on the Mountain: a look back

This May we were honored to host a watercolor course from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Eleven art students lived and learned here at the Institute arriving on May 22 and leaving a week later, having spent every day learning new techniques and putting them to practice at several locations at the Institute and Petit Jean State Park.

I caught up with Sarah Spencer, one of the students, and got her impressions about the experience. Spencer explained, “This was not your typical university class experience. The week-long course at one of Arkansas’ most beautiful mountain retreats blended outstanding instruction and resources, serious study, and free time for walks, fishing, reading and reflecting.”

A participant in the watercolor workshop paints underneath a large rock face on Petit Jean Mountain.

Leading them through their week-long course was UALR visiting professor and artist in residence, Heidi Hogden. Hogden, whose work is currently in the Annual Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, taught classroom lessons out of the Institute’s Petit Jean I classroom, which was set up as the class’s studio for the week. More hands-on learning, however, took place outside of the class’s studio.

Students spent time painting beside the fields along the Institute’s drive, at the Studio, in Petit Jean State Park at locations like Davies Bridge and at the Arkansas Archeological Survey Station here at the Institute. Spencer explained, “For art students, the location on Petit Jean Mountain provided access to some of the state’s most stunning scenery, easily available by foot or by the staff-driven van that efficiently transported the group to unique locations for plein air painting.”

The visits made for a memorable week, Spencer said, noting that one of her favorite memories was the afternoon spent at the Arkansas Archeological Survey. Larry Porter, the archeological assistant for the survey station here, gave the students a tour of the station and selected several artifacts to be used as models for the class.

Students were inspired by the natural beauty of Petit Jean Mountain

“Following his tour of the facility, our class was invited to set up at the survey’s site for an afternoon of painting images of several rare objects from the collection,” Spencer said. “One of the artifacts was estimated to be over 1,000 years old – not your typical still life model!”

Reflecting on the mood of the class, Spencer said, “It was as much fun as going to camp – but a camp with a few more amenities. Spacious private cottages and meals provided three times a day by one of the state’s finest culinary programs.” 

Spencer’s overall recommendation? “I would say to any student (in any discipline) that an experience such as this is one you owe yourself. The ability to be removed from the ‘busyness’ of daily life and to learn new things in such a remarkable setting along with fellow students with shared interests is truly a gift. Note this as one priceless opportunity and take it.”