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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.”

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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.”

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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 IndustrialLook.com

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.”

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Five values rolled into one event

Working at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute means embracing a set of five core values: Believe the Mission; See the Possibilities; Focus on We, Not Me; Do the Right Thing; and Have Fun! We had the chance earlier this week to live out all five of those values when we hosted a Christmas party for a group of children and their caregivers from the Southern Christian Children’s Home in Morrilton.

According to SCCH’s website, its founders sought “to care for, keep, train and educate orphan children. One of their goals was to act on the behalf of orphaned, neglected, and dependent children. Southern Christian Home continues to pursue this purpose. Southern Christian Home is licensed by the State of Arkansas as a Residential Childcare Facility. Southern Christian Home intends to serve families by providing a safe place for neglected, abused, and dependent children when they need to be placed out of the parent(s)’ home.

“Southern Christian Home is committed to the belief that children should not be placed unnecessarily out of their home. There does come a point when children may need placement where they can feel safe and have their needs met. These children may also need to learn to have healthy interpersonal relationships with their own families as well as substitute care givers. Southern Christian Home understands those needs may be met in the more structured environment of our residential facilities.”

Human Resources Manager Jennifer Pipes led the group that coordinated the special event here at the Institute. Here’s how she summed it up:

“Special,” she said. “That is the word I've heard employees use to describe Monday night's Christmas experience for kids and families who live at Southern Christian Children's Home in Morrilton. It was indeed a special night. Approximately 30 kids and adults joined us for a memorable night of good food and holiday fellowship. One of my favorite parts of the night was posing in the photo booth for pics with sweet kiddos. Other special parts of the night were when our director of programs, Janet Harris, interacted with the kids to teach them a little bit about Winthrop Rockefeller, and then watching rock-star employees coordinate the entire evening.”

Harris said she spent a few minutes asking the children from SCCH what they knew about Winthrop Rockefeller.

“A few of them knew he was ‘rich because of the oil and stuff,’” she said. “A young man wise beyond his years reminded the group that true wealth ‘came from God,’ which was a good opportunity to talk about how Mr. Rockefeller agreed, and how he reminded his own son (Win Paul Rockefeller) about this in a letter written many years ago. In that letter, Mr. Rockefeller reminded his son that respecting and understanding our neighbors is the key to human happiness, and to peace in the world, and that if we ‘attempt to live and act in terms of human values, then rich or poor, [our] lives will be rewarding.’”

While our guests enjoyed a home-cooked meal, our marketing assistant, Venita Berry, printed photos that had been taken before dinner and framed them to send with the kids as a keepsake.

“To say the kids were thrilled with their gift is an understatement,” Pipes said.

 For Berry, who started working at the Institute a couple of months ago, this was her first time to participate in a companywide volunteer project.

“I thoroughly enjoyed volunteering at our ‘give back night,’” Berry said. “I was reminded of how very blessed I am. The children were amazing. I loved watching their faces light up after getting to see the pictures from the photo booth. They were a joy to be around.”

After dinner, the kids were given the opportunity to decorate Christmas cookies and get their picture taken with Santa.

The children seemed to have a great time, and our staff members were genuinely excited to be able to serve and share in the holiday spirit.

“Maybe the best proof of this event’s success is the buzz it has created for next year's plans to entertain our new SCCH friends,” Pipes said.

Winthrop Rockefeller’s legacy is at the heart of our mission. That legacy includes his generosity and his willingness to open up his estate to people beyond just those in his inner circle. That’s how we “Believe the Mission” through this event. We “See the Possibilities” by trying a new idea. We have participated in service projects before, but never anything quite like this. We “Focus on We, Not Me” by considering how to help others. We embraced “Do the Right Thing” by creating a special experience for those who we believed needed one. As for “Have Fun!,” it was hard to tell who enjoyed themselves more on Monday night, our guests or our staff.

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Rockefeller legacies intersect to do good work

This article first appeared in the Roaring Rock, a Rockefeller family newsletter.

The legacies of two family members separated by a generation and 1,500 miles converged earlier this year. The impact of Winthrop Rockefeller on his adopted state of Arkansas lives on through the work of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute, located on what was part of Winthrop’s cattle farm atop Petit Jean Mountain. So, too, does the work of Laura Rockefeller Chasin live on through the organization she founded in Boston – Essential Partners.

These two organizations with two separate missions and in two different geographic locations came together accidentally around a common purpose, resulting in a new and wonderful partnership.

How did this happy accident occur? The Winthrop Rockefeller Institute convenes leaders, thinkers and practitioners to address issues and search for solutions that improve the lives of Arkansans and others. We do this by employing the Rockefeller ethic given to us by the example of both John D. Rockefeller Sr. and JDR Jr. of first framing the issue, then bringing the foremost expert(s) together with others who care about the issue, and structuring the conversation in a way where all voices are respectfully heard and solutions are sought.

The Institute’s mission naturally involves us in the work of civil discourse, so we were recently contacted by two state representatives whose districts had played one another in football. The game was played during the campaign phase of the 2016 presidential election, and because of inappropriate behavior by some of the adults involved, the evening resulted in ugly activities from both sides. The two legislators asked the Institute to guide the students and school/ community leaders through a civil discourse exercise to help students learn how to respect and understand the views of others, even though different from their own. As we began to frame the issue and design the program, we reached out to our partners at the Clinton School of Public Service. That is where we learned about Essential Partners (EP). The Clinton School told us that EP provided effective training in Reflective Structured Dialogue, a method that guides people through a safe and respectful process, to first turn inward and examine themselves, and then turn their focus to listening and understanding others, appreciating their similarities and differences. At the time, the Clinton School did not realize that EP was founded by Winthrop Rockefeller’s niece, Laura Chasin.

Coincidentally, one tidbit of Winthrop Rockefeller’s advice to his son, Win, in A Letter to My Son was to “Never be quick to blame others—turn first to an examination of yourself and your own shortcomings in your relations to them. Enjoy and understand others for the qualities that are good about them—not their faults.” Laura called this a “journey into the new,” providing a new way to engage people with whom we deeply disagree.

Since our early encounter, the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute has utilized what we learned from Robert “Bob” Stains, whose mentor was Laura Chasin, to successfully facilitate a conversation around the divisive herbicide dicamba for the Arkansas Department of Agriculture. The result of that conversation was new agricultural policy in Arkansas, and it has the potential to affect ag policy across the country. Likewise, Essential Partners encourages other clients by using the Institute’s example of employing reflective structured dialogue to help groups reach consensus on difficult issues. We have since learned that our founders shared other values and beliefs also. They both believed in rolling up their sleeves and working alongside those “doing the real work of making the world a better place.”

Bob Stains summed it up nicely by saying, “It is like a family song that is sung across generations or an underlying melody that informs and sustains the passionate commitment to changing the world in a way shown to us by both Winthrop and Laura and many other family members we’ve had the privilege to meet. That kind of music seems in such short supply today.” 

Both organizations and those with whom we serve remain forever grateful to Winthrop and Laura for their big ideas on human relations, reminding us what is possible and how people can connect across a big divide.

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Fly like an eagle

It’s not an everyday sight, but it’s also not terribly uncommon.

Working here on Petit Jean Mountain, we have our fair share of bald eagles that occasionally take a peek at our corner of the broad plateau that rises above the Arkansas River Valley.

What IS uncommon is seeing an eagle on our front lawn, tethered to a human handler. Don Higgins, who first began working with large birds in 1972 and now lives on the mountain, has spent the past few mornings working with Verna, a female bald eagle who showed up in someone’s driveway a few weeks ago.

The person who found Verna outside their home in Mount Vernon (Pope County) had the presence of mind to call Lynne Slater, who runs the HAWK (Helping Arkansas Wild Kritters) Center near Russellville. Don has worked with Lynne to rehabilitate raptors since 2011, so she immediately gave him a call.

“She took the eagle to a local veterinarian,” Don said. “She checked her over, and there were no serious physical injuries, but she was full of parasites.”

The parasites were both internal and external, Don said, which affected both her ability to eat and her ability to fly. Once Verna – so named because she was found in Mount Vernon, and Don said he wasn’t going to call a female eagle “Vern” – got past the need for medical attention, it was time for her to learn to fly again. That’s where Don stepped in.

Since he began working with the HAWK Center in 2011, Don has rehabilitated about 30 raptors, everything from screech owls to several types of hawks and falcons. But Verna is his first eagle.

“With most of the other birds I’ve worked with, they were smaller, and I didn’t need as much space to work with them,” Don said. “With an eagle, she can cover 100 yards in no time, so I needed a much bigger space.”

It was also important to have space with short grass, he said, because when Verna began her rehab, she could only fly very low to the ground due to a tether, called a creance, and he worried that if he took her out to a pasture, she could get her wings snared on a bush or tall grass.

Among the many features of the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute’s 188-acre campus is several open fields that we keep well-manicured. Don, having gotten to know our executive director, Dr. Marta Loyd, over the past few years, rang her up and asked if he could use our front lawn for some flying lessons. Marta agreed, on the condition that she could come take some photos.

“I’m really grateful to Marta and the Institute for letting us come out there and take advantage of the wonderful grounds,” Don said.

While Don was working with Verna today, two bald eagles soared overhead, making sure their cousin was in good hands.

“That was pretty neat to see,” Marta said.

Verna is close to being back to full strength and seems to be responding well to her training. The rehab techniques that Don uses are all based in falconry, he said. He got his start training the mascots for the Air Force Academy when he was a cadet there in the early 1970s.

The last test for Verna before she can be released back into the wild is called live-prey testing, and it’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like. A small mammal that would be a typical part of an eagle’s diet will be released in a controlled setting and Verna will have to hunt her own supper successfully.

Once she’s cleared for release, various wildlife agencies will be notified and will assist in delivering her back to the wild, possibly at Holla Bend National Wildlife Refuge.

Don said he and his wife, Janie, find this type of volunteer work to be very rewarding, and he urged me to encourage people to consider supporting the HAWK Center, which helps care for and rehabilitate all kinds of animals, not just birds of prey.

 

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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.

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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.”

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Uncommon Communities spurs community development in Conway County

Spend a few minutes talking with Barry McKuin and it quickly becomes evident how much he loves Conway County. You can hear it in his voice and his choice of words. He’s spent the greater part of his life there. It’s home.

But not too terribly far in the past, he says, he felt that something was missing. He just couldn’t quite put his finger on it. But it kept coming to mind whenever he would discuss economic development and job recruitment in Conway County. In his community.

Then, approximately 20 years ago, McKuin was at a symposium in Batesville where he heard a speech from Dr. Vaughn Grisham, professor emeritus of sociology and founding director of the McLean Institute for Community Development at the University of Mississippi. Something Dr. Grisham said immediately struck the now former director of the Conway County Economic Development Corp. “That’s it! That is what’s missing.”

Community development precedes economic development, Dr. Grisham said. 

“The message from Vaughn Grisham [was about] the history of Tupelo focusing on community development, and how it led to economic development,” said McKuin, who is currently on the board of directors at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute. “I have never been one to take many notes, but I found myself writing on every blank piece of paper I had.”

Fast forward a couple decades.

In August 2015, the Institute began training sessions for a two-year pilot program based on the methodology and insight of Dr. Grisham. This community and economic development program, Uncommon Communities, was created with the goal of producing community leaders who were equipped to assess the gaps in their communities, as well as mobilize the community to fill those gaps in the areas of economic development, education and workforce development, and quality of life and place, said Cary Tyson, the former program officer who led the pilot program at the Institute. The program was developed as a partnership between the Institute, Dr. Grisham, Breakthrough Solutions – under the direction of Dr. Mark Peterson at the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service – and Dr. Roby Robertson, retired professor of public administration and former director of the Institute of Government at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

“Before you can do 21st century economic development,” Tyson said, “you have to do community development.”

Tyson also noted that from the beginning, representatives from all five counties who participated in the Uncommon Communities training – counties near the Institute: Conway, Perry, Pope, Van Buren and Yell – all participated together. They had to learn to cooperate with each other more as partners and less, perhaps, as competition.

“Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller strongly believed in partnership and regionalism,” Tyson said. “I always called it, ‘coopertition.’”

To that purpose, said current Institute program officer Samantha Evans, year three of Uncommon Communities will feature tours of each participating county, during which representatives will be able to report on their community development progress. This new aspect – which will kick off with a tour of Conway County – will allow communities to learn from each other and assess what might work for them in their own backyards.

“If you want jobs, want economic development, then you have to have leaders – the right people on the bus,” Evans said. “Then you just determine where you want to go.”

Dr. Linda Birkner, vice chancellor of administration at the University of Arkansas Community College at Morrilton, is already on that bus, and she’s already looking forward to touring her neighboring counties to witness the transformations taking place.

“We’re building bridges, really – ‘people-bridges’ – to address any problem that may arise in our community,” said Birkner, who moved to Conway County in 1984.

In fact, to continue with the bridges metaphor, Birkner says she can best describe the work that has been taking place in Conway County under Uncommon Communities as “making connections.” And, nowhere was the importance of community connections more evident than during Munchin on Main Street – a new one-day community festival that was a big success this past spring.

Due to some unforeseen challenges, the joint project of Main Street Morrilton, the Morrilton Area Chamber of Commerce and Uncommon Communities had to come together in a relatively short period of time: music, entertainment, food trucks and activities for kids all had to be finalized within six weeks. Not only did everything come together, it was such a success that another festival is planned for next year, as well.

“That would have never been able to happen in six weeks if we had not already had all those [Uncommon Communities] meetings and made those community relationships,” Birkner said.

Munchin on Main was a dynamic community achievement. Perhaps the type of dynamic achievement McKuin felt was missing from Conway County over the years. It didn’t help that an existing leadership program ended in the mid-2000s, McKuin said. But that’s now slowly coming back.

“As a result of Uncommon Communities, we were motivated to restart the leadership training (Leadership Conway County),” he said. “We had our first graduating class last year and we already have a second class filled for 2017. Through our leadership classes we are identifying community projects that merit working together and developing funding, when appropriate.”

But the success of Uncommon Communities can perhaps be best summed up in something else McKuin said: “This is not the end of the story.”

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Final thoughts from a leader

I remember the first time I met Dr. Dan Rahn. He was taller than I expected, distinguished and had a handshake that could crush a cue ball.

I watched him over a two-and-a-half-day period in late 2013 as he and 60 other health care leaders debated and discussed the issue of obesity in Arkansas. Dr. Rahn was passionately cool, if such a thing exists. He addressed each complexity of the issue with pointed thoughtfulness. He was careful not to dominate the conversation, though when he spoke, people listened.

Through his leadership and that of many others – like Dr. Joe Thompson of the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement and Dr. Joe Bates, now retired from the Arkansas Department of Health – a plan to combat obesity was born.

The plan was formally drafted here at the Winthrop Rockefeller Institute throughout 2014, and in 2015 we sought and received the endorsement of Gov. Asa Hutchinson to launch Healthy Active Arkansas, a statewide initiative to increase the number of Arkansans who are at a healthy weight.

Throughout that process and since, my impression of Dr. Rahn hasn’t changed. He’s often the smartest person in the room, but he treats everyone he encounters with respect.

Today is Dr. Rahn’s official last day as chancellor of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. When I met with him a couple of weeks ago, his shelves were already empty, his desk nearly bare. I encountered that same strong handshake, and Dr. Rahn eased from pleasantries and salutations to a succinct assessment of the origin of Healthy Active Arkansas.

“The starting point was specifically focused on obesity,” he began with the kind of energy one would expect from a leader just stepping into his role, not leaving it. “In Arkansas, we have a strategy for the health care sector. That strategy is insurance expansion, promulgation of electronic health information through incentives, and payment redesign. We’re gradually shifting from a volume-based structure to a value-based structure.”

He continued to explain to me the problem that UAMS and other health care systems face when trying to address obesity.

“If one looks at the drivers of ill health in Arkansas, there is an uneven distribution. The majority of the factors that contribute to ill health are not due to access to high-quality health care services. The majority are due to social and behavioral factors. The general concept is about 80 percent of the determinants of health care outcomes are external to the health care delivery system.

“Through our strategy for health care, we can deal with the consequences of obesity, but we can’t deal with the root cause.”

He says his support for Health Active Arkansas was borne of a desire to “move upstream” and work on strategies to prevent obesity from occurring in the first place. That decision starts at birth with a mother’s decision to breastfeed, he says, and continues through the child’s life with their intake of healthy foods and their level of physical activity (which, he notes, are both often affected by access).

I ask him about the state of Healthy Active Arkansas today, where we are and where we’re headed. I’ve learned over the past several years that Dr. Rahn is not a man to talk around a topic. He keenly analyzed our current organization, identifying that the HAA board is weighing a decision of whether to approach the initiative with a top-down management approach or a bottom-up system of encouragement. Faced with a decision between these two approaches, “the answer is likely ‘yes,’” he says and laughs.

He acknowledges the challenges of motivating players from various sectors to commit to the same ideals, especially if it involves instituting new policies or limiting choices, such as reforming the way vending machines are stocked.

I’ve long thought that Dr. Rahn is a prime example of someone who embraces what Jim Collins called the “Stockdale Paradox” in his best-seller Good to Great. The concept, broadly defined, is that the best approach to problems is to always preserve hope of a positive outcome while always honestly confronting the challenges that are in front of you.

In our conversation, swift on the heels of describing some of HAA’s challenges, Dr. Rahn follows with what has been encouraging to him.

“I think we’ve progressed well with no new funding,” he says. “I think it has been an effective, inclusive process. I think we’ve done a good job of raising awareness of the importance of the issue … and that we need to take control of our own health and our own future – at the family level, at the community level, at the employer level.”

Looking to the future of Healthy Active Arkansas, Dr. Rahn cautions against taking an all-or-nothing approach.

“We don’t want to get stuck saying ‘if we can’t do everything, then we can’t do anything.’”

Another challenge will be determining measures of success that will effectively determine whether our efforts are making a difference.

“This is a generational thing,” he says. “Change occurs across generations. So what will be our measures of success that will provide encouragement to stay the course?”

He also points out the importance of the collaborative nature of Healthy Active Arkansas.

“It’s important for each party or participant to not become something that it isn’t, but to bring its strengths to the table and to be working in collaboration and partnership with other individuals and organizations that have complementary strengths.”

I ask him about health literacy. As someone involved in the marketing aspect of Healthy Active Arkansas, health literacy comes up often as a key issue in the battle against not just obesity, but diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and a host of other health-related issues.

Dr. Rahn points out that health literacy is not about whether people understand technical words about health care, it’s whether they understand important concepts, getting to the “why” of health care and moving to a level of understand beyond just the “what.”

As we move toward that future, preparing to take on those challenges, it will be a little harder without Dr. Rahn involved. Healthy Active Arkansas is losing one of its original champions. Two of his colleagues on the Healthy Active Arkansas board gave their thoughts on the outgoing chancellor.

“Dan provided critical leadership in both articulating and committing both his institution and encouraging others across the state to join together to address this environmental threat to our future health, productivity and economic well-being,” Thompson said.

Dr. Nate Smith, state health officer and director of the Arkansas Department of Health, had this to say:

“Under Chancellor Rahn’s leadership, UAMS has been an invaluable ally in the statewide efforts to reduce obesity and chronic disease. Our progress in obesity prevention and reduction wouldn’t have been possible without Dr. Rahn’s support as chancellor of the state’s only academic health center. Arkansas is a healthier state because of UAMS’ commitment to public health, and Dr. Rahn has been at the center of that commitment for the past eight years.”

Many people know Dr. Rahn better than I do. I can’t share personal stories of fun memories or tell you what it was like to work with him day in and day out. But I’ve watched him lead from a close distance. He hasn’t always led by being in front of a group, but he’s always led.

From my vantage point, Dr. Rahn has been the type of leader Arkansas needed at the exact moment he was here. He leaves Healthy Active Arkansas in good hands, but he will be missed.

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