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Small Town, Big Art

Written by Maxine Mayes.

At the Kerr Arts & Cultural Center in Kerrville, dozens of eclectic exhibits—often four running concurrently—come and go throughout the year. Handmade quilts might share the spotlight one month with handsome photographs; the next month, paintings, ceramics, collages, and sculptures might bask in the limelight. Only one objet d’art remains constant amid KACC’s revolving door of artworks: a miniature mesquite Ferris wheel displayed on a pedestal in one of the galleries.

The unusual, three-and-a-half-foot-tall model, complete with 12 circling gondola baskets, was fashioned by 21 members of the Hill Country Turners for a 1999 competition sponsored by the American Association of Woodturners. Designed with a motion sensor, the wheel rotates to the accompaniment of Mitch Miller tunes when anyone comes near. Each spoke, basket, and tiny wooden rider reflects the skill and creative whimsy of the artisans, whose signatures are inscribed on the base.

Like the Ferris wheel, KACC’s facility is a work of art, a thing of beauty built by a group of talented and dedicated volunteers. The concept of a center originated in 1996 with a handful of Kerrville artists who were looking for a place to show and sell their work. Along the way, other arts and cultural groups joined in, and the common vision of establishing a regional art center was born.

For several years, the fledgling organization was nomadic, occupying various storefronts and other temporary quarters, but in 2000, KACC purchased the 1935 art deco building that had housed the town’s post office for more than six decades. The 16,000-square-foot, WPA-built structure was perfectly suited for galleries—the main floor had 14-foot ceilings and large spaces with good traffic flow. The building was also centrally located, and preserving the landmark appealed to KACC members.

Over the next six years, volunteers trans-formed the old post office into a dazzling arts arena with galleries and a gift shop on the upper floor and classrooms and studios below. It was a monumental challenge that initially involved shoveling out debris and much cleaning.

One of the most important aspects of the renovation was the addition of a sophisticated lighting system. “There was enough fluorescent light to read names on envelopes,” says KACC president Jim Derby, “but it wasn’t very conducive to displaying art.” Now the galleries boast halogen track lighting, considered the benchmark for this type of setting. Thanks to improvements like this, KACC is admired by art-lovers nationwide and suffused with the creative energy of artists and the enthusiasm of volunteers.

“This facility is first-class,” says executive director DeDe Albus. “That a group of volunteers brought all of this to fruition is amazing.”

The center in turn gives back to the community. Local artists can rent the two studios, and three classrooms host classes ranging from Sacred Geometry of the Human Face to Pine-Needle Weaving. The studios and classrooms also provide meeting space for cultural groups and other organizations. In addition, the lower level houses the center’s summer art program for children, which offers more than 60 classes, from sumi-e (a style of Japanese painting) to constructing marionettes.

The three galleries—named in honor of benefactors James Avery, Aline Cornels, and Jim and S.J. Derby—host more than 36 exhibits a year. Three annual juried shows draw the largest crowds: the Texas Furniture Makers Show, which opens this month; the Southwest Gourd Fine Art Show, and Images, an exhibit that spotlights the work of KACC members.

At the Texas Furniture Makers Show (October 25-December 1, 2007), more than 50 artisans from across the state compete in various categories, including studio, contemporary, traditional, whimsical, and classic reproduction. Occasionally, a special award is created for entries that defy categorization, like last year’s pentagonal cabinet with secret compartments, the work of Richard Thomas of Houston.

Each year, entries cover the spectrum of styles and range from rustic to ornate. Mesquite is a prevalent wood, but cherry and mahogany are common, too. A reproduction of a child’s Windsor rocker in curly maple may pose beside a computer center made of cocobola.

In 2005, Alton Bowman, a professional antique restorer from Flower Mound, won the President’s Choice Award for his Throne Chair of Queen Hetepheres, an ebony interpretation of the world’s oldest surviving chair form. Last year’s entries included a king-size canopy bed made from “elk-chewed” aspen logs harvested from dead trees, a floor lamp containing 3,071 tiny blocks of Texas mesquite, an oak guitar stool, complete with a footrest, an African-mahogany trestle table, and Alan Carr’s Racing Zebra, a rocking horse that won the whimsical category. Alan, a retired U.S. Navy captain from Fredericksburg, considers the KACC show “the leading fine furniture show in the Southwest.” Indeed, at this event, buyers have found true one-of-a-kind treasures not available at furniture-company showrooms.

The Images exhibit includes artworks in all mediums. Three black bear cubs romp on a gilt-edged porcelain plate not far from a magnificent 18-inch-tall buffalo carved from limestone. On the walls, petite, floral still lifes hang amid abstracts bursting with riotous color. A rustic roadrunner carved from driftwood found in the Hill Country stands just a few paces from a sleek, elegant Egyptian king fashioned from pine found in Haiti. That sculpture—The King—won Best of Show for Marika Bordes this year. Marika sees her sculptures as “poets celebrating life’s passion and nobility.” After a childhood in Haiti and long periods in Canada and New York, Marika now lives in Seguin.

If you equate gourd art with quaint, rustic birdhouses, the Southwest Gourd Fine Art Show will astound you. Artists from several states descend upon the KACC with gourds that have been painted, glazed, bronzed, or etched, and embellished with basketry, stones, jewels, feathers, ropes, pine-needle weaving, and more. This year, a turtle shell inspired the design for Marsha Mefferd’s Lil’s Turtle, which won Best of Show. After applying a black leather dye, she inlaid pieces of turtle shell on the surface of the gourd and carved the remainder of it to mimic an actual shell.

Marsha also makes it a point to go to the Chocolate Fantasy, a fundraiser held each February. “Your ticket allows you to simply graze your way into a chocolate coma,” she says. Judges give awards to area cooks in four categories: cookies, brownies, candies, and cakes/pies/tortes.

Speaking of awards, the Ferris wheel that the Hill Country Turners entered in the 1999 national competition took home a second-place ribbon, and the group was commended for “raising the bar” for future contests. In similar fashion, KACC has become a shining example among small-town public-art venues. Last year it was one of only seven sites across the country, and the only one in Texas, selected to host the traveling exhibition of the prestigious American Watercolor Society. From historic post office to contemporary creative space, KACC has achieved blue-ribbon status of its own.

The Kerr Arts & Cultural Center is at 228 Earl Garrett St. (across from the Kerr County Courthouse) in downtown Kerrville. Call 830/895-2911; Hours: Tue-Sat, 10-4; Sun 1-4. (During the Texas Furniture Makers Show, which begins this month, the center will also open Mon 10-4.) Admission is free for all exhibits and shows (some fees for special events, including the Chocolate Fantasy).

Upcoming Events

Art Quilts and Fiber Arts, Sep. 27-Oct. 21, 2007.

8th annual Texas Furniture Makers Show, Oct. 25-Dec. 1, 2007.

Wild Mustangs, Mountains, and Musings (photography by Kathy Weigand and paintings by Allen Turk), Dec. 6-Dec. 30, 2007.

PhotoQuest 2007 (9th annual Hill Country Camera Club Show and Sale), Dec. 6, 2007-Jan. 6, 2008.

4th annual Chocolate Fantasy, Feb. 10, 2008.

The Southwest Gourd Fine Art Show and the KACC members’ exhibition, Images, will take place next summer (May 22-July 6 and June 5-July 27, 2008, respectively).

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