Artful dodge screeches to a halt

Stephen Harris

A review committee of the old Chatham scholarship program perhaps thought that it had thrown me a zinger back one time when they asked me what was my biggest weakness.

I was up for an important student scholarship. It turned out that I wouldn’t finish college without it.

I didn’t anticipate the committee’s question and I didn’t have a prepared response. But I did have a quick, easy answer.

I had been describing to the distinguished panel my interest in journalism and my dream of some day reporting on public affairs.

But journalism is not only about the big issues of the day, government and politics and such. It is also about business, sports, society, home, lifestyle, a multitude of experiences.

At the tender age of 17 I truthfully could have acknowledged a number of topics on which I was not up to speed.

But the topic that I chose on that spur of that moment was art.

“If I were assigned to cover an art gallery opening, I might be in trouble,” I rather artlessly told Bobby Collins and the rest of the panel as we sat in the old YMCA building at the old Chatham mill in Elkin.

The deficiency was understandable. There was no art gallery in Elkin. We didn’t even have the pretty murals that have sprung up around downtown of late. So growing up here I was unacquainted with art.

That is until we took a seventh-grade school field trip to the state capital. We toured the new (at the time) Greek-style General Assembly building. Little did I suspect then that someday I would work in that building as a member of the state capital press corps.

During the field trip I stopped and spent a little extra time gazing at the statue on the state Capitol grounds of the three presidents who’ve hailed from North Carolina (Note: Andrew Jackson’s under dispute). I puzzled over the George Washington statue in the Capitol rotunda, thinking Washington in a classical Roman tunic quite odd.

My classmates and I were having a grand time playing around in the government district of Raleigh until my teacher, Pauline Greenwood, announced that next we would go to the state Museum of Art.

Some groaned. At the time the museum entrance was downtown and entered by a nondescript side door on a side street that was as plain as the nearby Capitol and General Assembly grounds were grand.

We youngsters bided our time in the art gallery until we could move on to something fun.

Such a contempt for art was my loss, of course. Years later I showed a similar impatience in Europe as I breezed by the art in the grand cathedrals there as I sought to hurry on to other, more interesting sights. I hadn’t grown up much since seventh grade, at least in my appreciation of fine art.

One time I did get an art assignment like the one that I had mentioned with trepidation years earlier to the Chatham committee. Sort of.

A newspaper sent me to Ashe County to report on the new (at the time) Ben Long frescoes in three churches there. Fortunately, my news report focused on tourism and did not require a great knowledge of art.

By the way, you can spend a fine afternoon some time traveling up the mountain and visiting the frescoes around West Jefferson. The county Chamber of Commerce has a website on the Internet with some details, but you’ll have to call if you need directions. There are also signs along the highways that will help.

Over the years I lived quite happily with my art deficiency, my handicap. Until a work of art stopped me in my tracks.

At the end of the tour of the Billy Graham Library in Charlotte is a huge mural covering an entire wall. The painting, “The Cross,” is by noted artist Thomas Kinkdale. The landscape mural depicts a grand vista with a cross high on a ledge overlooking a lovely, cloud-covered valley.

At the end of my tour I stopped at the mural in awe. My jaw dropped. At the gigantic size. At the bright colors. I’d seen and tried to appreciate works of art before, but something about that one touched my soul.

I loved the colors, the symbolism, the details and the artist’s lessons taught in the details. A museum volunteer finally wandered over and started chatting just to make sure I was OK.

I had no ability to evaluate the art. I just know what I liked. And at the library I finally discovered that I could really love art.

So do yourself and your family a favor some time and stop by an art museum during your vacation trip. They have, for instance, a beautiful state art museum now on the outskirts of Raleigh.

The kids might howl. But they’ll remember it, and it just might open their eyes to something grand. And open yours.

By the way, I was honored to indeed receive one of the college scholarships from the Chatham Foundation, in 1973.

At the time I thought if necessary I could make it through college without the scholarship. But my and my family’s situation changed in the succeeding years and money became tight. I would not have finished college and gotten my degree without the scholarship.

I am forever in the debt of the foundation and the Chatham business. Thank you, again.

It’s another reason that I’m proud of and happy to be back in the hometown.

Stephen Harris returned home to live in State Road.

comments powered by Disqus