The Early years of the Conway League of Artists

A rather rare occurrence happened at the CLA meeting last night, but one I didn’t notice at the time.  There are three founding members of CLA remaining and all three were at the meeting. This got me thinking about those early years before there was a CLA.

Five women artists formed The Conway League of Artists in December 1973. They hadn’t known each other very long, but shared the love of painting and the belief that they could improve their skills by regularly getting together to share their knowledge and work for the common good.  All the following elements came together at the right time and the right place to bring The Conway League of Artists into being.

Ginger Potter and Becky Oswalt had both recently moved into the neighborhood across from Hendrix Village. They became acquainted as a result of Becky’s daily walks pushing her baby stroller, and the fact that Becky’s son, Glenn, delivered the Log Cabin Democrat to Ginger’s door.  Ginger was the past president of the Flint Art Guild in Michigan and missed having art show opportunities.  It wasn’t long before the two young neighbors were talking about paintings and bemoaning the fact that there was no place to show their art, as there had never been an art show in Conway outside of the colleges.  They knew then that they needed to start an art club here in Conway.

Becky’s home town of Earle, Arkansas was surrounded by cotton fields and worker shacks which inspired her to pick up a paint brush and record these scenes so they wouldn’t be forgotten.  But there was no place to show these beautiful paintings, so they languished in hiding at her home.

Jerry Poole, chairman of the art department of UCA, told us about Mid Southern Watercolorists in Little Rock, but we were all oil painters.  The Arkansas League of Artists had recently formed in North Little Rock, but was too far away for busy young Conway mothers to attend.

Jackie Guerin recently relocated from California where she had been active in an art group.  She was painting outside her husband’s office, having sidewalk art shows, and rapidly becoming a visible and respected artist in Conway.  Jackie was also teaching art classes and one of her students was Ann Cullum, an accomplished oil painter.

Meanwhile, Dorris Curtis – song writer, poet, folk painter, and beloved kindergarten teacher, who always said she’d lived a dozen lives in her 65 years – was getting ready to retire from the Conway Public School system.  She had recently had a one-woman art show in Memphis and was inspired to seek yet another career, that of a full-time artist.

These creative women all came together as a result of incredible timing.  Conway was planning to tear down its beautiful historic depot around which the city had been built.  That was the same depot where Dorris and her husband George had been telegraph operators in another of her many lives.  A committee had formed to “save the depot” and one of the ways of getting people to have a closer look at the depot was to have an art show there.  They placed a notice in the paper which was read by everyone in town.

The two neighbors, Ginger and Becky, became involved in the “Save the Depot” movement where they met Dorris, Jackie, and Ann and they all participated in the art show early in the year.  At that show they met Sheila Parsons, who was teaching in far places and joined the League a few years later.  Forming an art club was the main topic of conversation for months.  Although the battle to save the depot was lost, the Brush and Palette Club – the group’s first name before it was known as CLA – came into being in December 1973.  The first to join at the next meeting were Marie List and Lois Kehoe who were students at Ginger’s studio. Soon after, there were many other artists joining the League, and we learned not just from each other, but from teachers: Gene Hatfield, Jerry Poole, Bob Thompson, and Pat Larson from UCA.  All these educators gave generously of their time and talents.  Soon after, we changed our name to the Conway League of Artists to reflect our interest in all fine art.

The club met twice a week, and members were called upon frequently to provide programs and to demonstrate painting techniques and methods.  In the mid 70’s, Jerry Poole demonstrated watercolors for us, which led to our first mini workshop with Dr. George Herrod teaching us watercolors.  Many of us were so intrigued by this experience that we frequented college art classes for years.  We were still a relatively small group and shared many fun and productive art experiences.  We took classes together at the Arkansas Art Center, drove to Searcy to see demonstrations, attended art shows at McArthur Park, and went on regularly scheduled outdoor paint outs in addition to painting together at our meetings.  We worked hard trying to save the old theater on Front Street by having an art show inside during a heavy rain storm, which was a lot like having an arts and crafts show outside in the rain.  We failed in that endeavor, too, but had a really good time painting and laughing like a bunch of kids.  The League grew stronger, bigger, and better.

During one of our early art shows, we held a statewide show where we exhibited our work on the locker doors at the old Middle School.  In order to have prizes to award winners, we had to beg for money from local businesses. The show was hugely successful.  Carroll Cloar was our juror and we inexperienced newbies were swamped by very experienced, professional artists from Little Rock and Stuttgart.  We learned as a group that we didn’t know as much as we thought we did, and having learned that we made changes accordingly.  We continued having exhibits yearly, but our shows from that time on were for local artists from the Tri-County area of Faulkner, Perry, and Conway Counties.  These exhibits were more manageable and better supported by our local community, which included the Rockefeller Foundation.  The early Tri-County shows were exhibited on both floors of the First National Bank and were well-attended.  Our shows were published in the local paper and the community looked forward to attending them.

Five women from ages 31 to 65, with different talents and abilities and one interest in common, came together and served their community and each other for over 40 years.  Each played an important part and was essential in forming and maintaining the League.  Dorris is the member whose experience and wisdom we counted on in most matters, especially in matters of social etiquette.  Ann was the first Correspondence Secretary, and she still keeps all of the old copies of the CLA by-laws so we don’t forget them.  Becky, always excited and energetic about trying new things, was the first Chairman.  Ginger was the first Treasurer and provided the studio space for our first meetings and workshops.  Jackie always kept our spirits up with her sunny disposition, always having a kind word for everyone, and always finding beauty in the most mundane of subjects.  The first members passed the leadership positions around, serving time and time again, until the League grew enough to stand alone.

Those artists who came together at the right time and place were more successful than they could ever have imagined.  Their passion for art grew and blossomed into something much bigger in the next century. Thanks to strong leadership and the talented artists of the League, their little art club became a vital part of their own lives and the Conway community.

Just five women birthed the League all those years ago, but it takes more than giving birth to be a mother.  It takes nurturing.  Those artists who have joined CLA over the years are the ones who have grown and nurtured the little art club into a viable force recognized and respected statewide as the Conway League of Artists.

Written by Virginia Potter-Vredeveld, April 2016
Edited by Leslie Collier and Nico VanEeckhoutte, April 2022

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