Gift to Keep Giving as Part of KMA’s Permanent Collection
Dr. Louis Ball had a host of choices to make when he was downsizing his home last year. Among the items the Carson-Newman professor emeritus wanted to take good care of was a painting his late wife had given him some 30 years ago.
Rather than move it to his retirement facility apartment, the retired dean of Fine Arts had a better idea. He decided to simultaneously preserve and share the painting by donating it to the Knoxville Museum of Art (KMA).
The painting, Nolichucky, had hung on the living room wall of the Jefferson City home he had shared with Mary Charlotte, his wife, longtime music collaborator, and a C-N legend in her own right.
While motivated to make the donation for “several reasons,” Ball said one factor was his interest in securing recognition for the artist, C-N Artist in Residence William C. “Bill” Houston.
Ball made his case in a letter to the KMA’s Barbara W. and Bernard E. Bernstein Curator, Stephen Wicks.
“I wrote that I felt the museum not only should represent the world to Knoxville, but that it should also represent East Tennessee to the world… And that the inclusion of local artists is very important,” he said.
“Dr. Ball and Mary Charlotte were always very supportive of the art department and of me,” said Houston, who noted surprise and gratitude when he learned what his friend intended. Ball’s deep feeling for the work resonates with Houston, who clearly remembers when Mary Charlotte Ball approached him about buying it more than three decades ago.
“Their son David had seen me painting at (Jefferson County’s) high school and went home asking his parents why they didn’t have any original art,” he smiled. “That seemed to have started this whole thing.”
The organ professor bought the work and had Houston hang onto it until she could surprise her husband for what Louis Ball thinks was “either a birthday … or maybe a wedding anniversary.”
The painting, which Wicks has termed “early Houston,” is included in Liquid Light, an exhibition of watercolorists whose works are part of the museum’s holdings.
“The KMA is very grateful to Dr. Ball for his gift of William Houston’s painting, Nolichucky,” said Wicks. “It is a striking view by an East Tennessee artist who for years has applied his exacting technique to celebrating our region’s distinctive landscape. It is the first painting by Mr. Houston to enter the museum’s collection, and we appreciate the fact that it comes to us from an owner who is intimately acquainted with the artist’s work.”
A New Market native and 1973 C-N alumnus, Houston’s following has developed as has his vision, ability and technique. He has seen his work included in museums, galleries and collections across the country. His pieces can be found in Asheville’s Blue Spiral 1 gallery, as well as several noted corporate and private holdings, including those of Pilot Oil, Kemper Financial, IBM, Hollister Medical, Gaylord Opryland Hotel, and the Roy Acuff Estate.
The painter said the inspiration for Nolichucky came during a 1970s trip to Davy Crockett’s birthplace, a state park located near Limestone, Tennessee. The scene, about a quarter-of-a-mile from the birthplace, moved Houston.
“The painting became a distinct image of a distinct place, which is something that I rarely do,” said Houston. “Usually everything I do is usually made up.”
He accomplished the work by using watercolors and then applying acrylic paint over the watercolor. While his methods have changed over the years, the artist said he still works to “build up layers of color in order to obtain a degree of luminosity.” He then employs “unusual techniques” – including knives, sandpaper or other implements – “to wear away the lighter areas to adjust the color in order to best represent the sky and land of this part of the country.”
The KMA’s acceptance of Ball’s gift near the end of the year meant it “was just in time” for inclusion in the museum’s first exhibit of 2012. To celebrate the occasion, Houston and his wife, Krista Reese, arranged a recent Saturday outing with Ball and Carolyn Ellis, whose late husband, Dr. John Ellis, so liked the painting that he commissioned prints.
“Dr. Ellis was an amateur painter and quite gifted,” Houston said, noting his gratitude for the physician’s interest his work. “I am likewise grateful to (retired art department chair) Dr. Earl Cleveland who took the idea of purchasing prints to Dr. Ellis. They were both very fine supporters.”
Liquid Light: Watercolors from the KMA Collection runs through April 15. The museum, located adjacent to Knoxville’s World’s Fair Park, is open 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday and 1 p.m. until 5 p.m. Sunday.