By Keysha Drexel
Sally Johnson said it seems like just yesterday that she and other parents with children at Bluff Park Elementary School in Hoover banded together to raise money to build the school’s first library.
But it has actually been half a century since the idea of the Bluff Park Art Show was born out of the desire to give back to the community through the love of art.
Johnson, who now lives in Vestavia Hills, is a founding member of the Bluff Park Art Association, which will host the 50th annual Bluff Park Art Show on Oct. 5.
“How did 50 years go by? It doesn’t seem like it’s been that long since we started all this,” she said. “And it doesn’t seem like I should have turned 80 this year.”
Named one of the state’s top events for 2013 by the Alabama Department of Tourism, the Bluff Park Art Show has grown from a way to pay for a school library to a nationally recognized and acclaimed art show.
“At that time, the school library was nothing more than a coat closet,” Johnson said. “We knew the children and the community needed a real library and so we were trying to come up with ways to raise money. We all had children in the school, and we cared about the community.”
Henry and Liz Kimbrell, who lived across the street from Johnson and her husband, Jim, in 1963, came up with the idea to hold a dance to raise money for the cause, Johnson said.
“Henry was a musician and artist, a very creative person, and he came up with the idea to throw a (fundraising) party where everyone came dressed as their favorite book,” Johnson said.
Kimbrell was a musician in a band and performed at the dance, Johnson said.
“The dance raised about $600, and we needed about $26,000 for the library. That was a lot of money back then, so we kept on looking for ways to raise more money,” she said.
The idea of an art show came after artist Betty Brown offered to donate one of her oil paintings to be sold for the library fund, Johnson said.
“It was Betty Brown’s generous offer to help any way she could that led more artists to donate their work, and we raised about $850 from that first, funny little show,” she said.
The success of the first show not only highlighted the community’s generosity and willingness to support the library and the arts, Johnson said, it also showed that there were a lot of talented artists in the Birmingham metro area.
“There were so many talented people involved, like Henry Kimbrell. He won the first purchase award (best in show) in 1965,” she said. “We had so many young mothers who would put their children to bed and then gather in someone’s basement or garage and paint all night to get ready for the show, and they were all so unique and talented.”
Johnson herself was one of those young mothers who took up a paintbrush after tucking her children into bed at night.
Johnson was born in Cleveland, Ohio. Her father’s job brought the family south to Montgomery, where she started school at Capital Heights Elementary.
“I was 6, but because I could read, they started me out in the third grade. I always loved information, so I read everything I could get my hands on back then,” she said.
As a teenager, Johnson had a friend who took art lessons, and even though she itched to take up the paintbrush, she said she was afraid of being overshadowed by her friend.
“I just felt like that was her arena and I dare not step into it, but the desire to create was definitely there when I was in high school,” she said.
But Johnson also had to fulfill her desire to find out how things worked, which is why she fell in love with science, she said.
“A lot of what we were learning in physics was brand-new science at that time, and it fascinated me, and I wanted to learn how everything worked and how everything fit together. I loved the periodic table and later, after I started painting seriously, I did a series of paintings on the periodic table,” she said.
An accomplished student, Johnson graduated from high school at 16 and went to Birmingham-Southern College.
“At one point, I wanted to be a missionary, so at first, my major was religion. Then I changed it to physical education, and then I took a botany class. It just blew me away,” she said.
Johnson said she reveled in the field trips to the woods during her botany classes at Birmingham-Southern because they taught her how to look at the world in a new way.
“It really helped me to understand how things are connected, and I really just thrived on the whole experience at Birmingham-Southern. It was a good school for me,” she said.
It was while studying towards her biology degree that Johnson got her first hint that perhaps art would be a part of her future.
“I did a lot of biological and botanical drawing at that time and loved it, but I didn’t take any art classes because at that time, I didn’t see the practicality in taking a course I probably wouldn’t be able to use. I planned on doing cancer research after I graduated from college,” she said.
But before she graduated, the young science scholar met and fell in love with a medical student named Jim Johnson.
“I graduated from college in 1953, and we were married in 1954,” she said. “I actually received a fellowship to Tulane in cancer research, but I didn’t take it because we didn’t want to be apart. Jim was a flight surgeon in the Air Force at that time, and although we had all these grand dreams of traveling all over the world, he got orders to go to Texas, and that’s where we spent the early part of our marriage.”
In was in the Lone Star State that Johnson discovered her passion for art.
“Art lessons were being offered for the officers’ wives on base, and so I decided to take a few lessons, just out of curiosity,” she said. “My first paintings were just horrible, but Jim said he loved them. He was supportive from the very beginning.”
In 1955, the couple welcomed the first of their four children.
The young family moved back to Alabama where Johnson would get together and paint and draw with the other young mothers in her Bluff Park neighborhood.
One of the women she used to paint and draw with was Lois Albright, whose daughter Beth Johns, the current Bluff Park Art Association president, was born around the same time as Johnson’s daughter, Susan.
“Susan was born right around the time we were doing the first art show and so was Beth,” she said. “There are so many children who grew up around the show, and that’s still happening today.”
As Johnson’s young family grew, the art association and art show she helped to found also continued to expand.
In 1965, the Bluff Park Art Association was granted nonprofit status, and Betty Jones Whitfield created the organization’s logo.
That same year, the association’s Permanent Collection was formed to include the purchase award-winning, or Best in Show, pieces from each year’s show, Johnson said.
“The purchase awards from the first four years were given to the school library, and now the permanent collection has grown to include 105 works,” she said.
This year, the Alabama Arts Council invited the Bluff Park Art Association to display pieces by Alabama artists at the Georgine Clarke Gallery in Montgomery. The 44 pieces will be on display at the Montgomery gallery through the end of October. A smaller version of the exhibit will be on display at the art gallery at Hoover City Hall on Municipal Drive in November and December.
The pieces in the permanent collection rotate through the Hoover schools and other locations, including the Alabama School of Fine Arts, the University of Montevallo, Epic School and the Sterne Library at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
“It’s really part of our whole mission to have these pieces in so many different places. The more eyes we have on these pieces, the more chances we have to inspire people and foster a love of art,” Johnson said.
That commitment to fostering a love and appreciation for art is the secret behind the success of the Bluff Park Art Show, Johnson said.
Johnson said the community support for the art show and the art association has always been what she considers part of “the magic of the show.”
“We had people like Helen Kumli Stephens, who was the principal at Bluff Park Elementary, who just loved the art show and loved the association and was always willing to help us out in any way she could. It was the people like Helen who helped the community really embrace what we were trying to do when we first got started,” she said.
Johnson said people like Liz Kimbrell and Geneva Myers, who chaired the art show for 20 years, and Sara Perry, who for the last 36 years has volunteered and served as secretary, vice president and show co-chairman, are what makes the Bluff Park Art Show so special.
“It’s all because of the people who are devoted to the show, to the artists, to the schools and to each other–that’s what makes this art show special,” she said. “We have a common, central connection and goal.”
Jeff Pierson, the chairman of this year’s show, was recruited to join the association by Sara Perry. He said he thinks the show is so beloved because of its unique place in Hoover’s history.
“When the show began, it was a way to raise money for the library at Bluff Park Elementary School. As it has evolved, residents of the area have come to regard the show as something lasting that they have had a part in creating over the course of their lifetime,” Pierson said. “We have patrons that were brought to the show each year by their parents, who then brought their children and are now attending with their grandchildren in tow.”
And while the art show has a strong appreciation for its history and the history of the Bluff Park community, Pierson said the goal is to make the annual event a part of the life stories of even more people.
“We have a deep connection to our past and offer returning patrons those memories, and we give new ones a sense of place in our art community,” he said. “We want any patron to immediately feel like they’ve been attending the show for as long as they can remember and to feel that they have made friends when they leave.”
Pierson said he thinks the art show has a reputation for being a place where patrons can have access to art and artists in a calm, unhurried atmosphere.
“Our venue is small and the terrain is challenging but that is part of what has kept the Bluff Park Art Show from losing its identity,” he said.
The art association’s fingerprint is also evident throughout the Birmingham metro area, Pierson said.
“In the past 50 years, the association has donated more than $150,000 to different art and civic organizations,” he said. “We’ve commissioned and funded four public sculptures. Two are located at Aldridge Gardens, one is inside the Hoover Public Library and the other is behind Hoover City Hall.”
While the art association continues to embrace and celebrate its past, organizers of the art show say that visitors to the 2013 can expect some new elements, as well.
This year, there will be 143 artists exhibiting, 45 of whom are new and have never exhibited at the Bluff Park Art Show, Pierson said.
“Even though this is our 50th year, patrons will notice a huge difference in the show because of the new artists involved this year,” he said. “We focus on bringing the best art to Bluff Park that we can, and that overrides other considerations.”
Patrons will see art in all mediums, including clay, fiber, glass, graphite and pastels, painting, photography, printmaking, sculpture, woodworking and jewelry, Pierson said.
This year’s show at the Bluff Park Community Center at 517 Cloudland Drive will run from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and will include refreshments, food and hands-on art activities.
Admission is free. Free parking and shuttle buses will be available at Bluff Park United Methodist Church, Shades Mountain Independent, Church, Shades Mountain Plaza, Bluff Park Village Shopping Center and Shades Crest Baptist Church.
The show’s rain date is Oct. 7.
To celebrate the 50th year of the art show, Aldridge Gardens is saluting the Bluff Park Art Association with a look back through time with the “What I Got at the Show: 50 Years of Collecting Art at the Annual Bluff Park Art Show” exhibit. The exhibit includes the works of dozens of well-known local and regional artists and can be viewed Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free.
For more information on the exhibit at Aldridge Gardens, visit aldridgegardens.com.
As organizers look forward to the 51st Bluff Park Art Show and beyond, they are hoping to continue the tradition of promoting the arts for many years to come, Pierson said.
“I would hope that in 50 years, one could look back and rightly regard our founders as visionaries, and our progress as determined, ethical and productive,” Pierson said. “I would hope that the baby in arms at the show on Oct. 5 will still be a patron of the show and will be telling grandchildren that ‘I remember when…'”
For more information on the 50th annual Bluff Park Art Show, visit www.bluffparkartassociation.org.