Posted on January 23, 2018
For Carol Felton, the portraits mounted inside the South Arkansas Arts Center fit together like puzzle pieces, portraying what she loves best about her city.
In El Dorado, Felton explained, “You know each other.” Families are close in the Union County town, she said.
An oil painting of Felton’s mother is one of the signature pieces in an exhibit called “Portraits: A Painted History of El Dorado, 1852-2016.”
Put on by the center and the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society, the exhibit runs through Jan. 31.
On display are 74 different works that span 164 years of El Dorado’s history. For many longtime residents, like Felton, the faces on the walls are instantly recognizable.
“A lot of the older ladies in town have said, ‘Oh, I knew every single portrait,’” she said.
The show was the brainchild of Mac Shepperson. For years, he’d been snapping iPhone photos of artwork around town, said co-curator Ann Trimble. For the show, Shepperson and Trimble tracked down portraits in private collections that they knew about, and word spread from family to family.
Artwork was scrounged from attics, from studies, from living and dining rooms across El Dorado, a town of about 18,400. The collection is an array of different mediums: charcoal, oil and pencil.
Some pieces were loaned from public buildings. A portrait of Daisy Bates, the famed Arkansas newspaper publisher, journalist and civil-rights activist, usually hangs in the local courthouse.
But most of the works were contributed by about 30 different families, Trimble said, including her own. That’s part of the appeal.
“You never really stop and realize all these gorgeous portraits are in different homes of people in our community,” she said.
In a prominent oil painting, a bow-tied Charles Haywood Murphy Jr. smiles softly with a pair of glasses in one hand and a cigar in the other.
Murphy, born in 1920, became the head of the family enterprise at age 21. For the next 53 years, minus a three-year stint in the U.S. Army during World War II, he built up the publicly traded natural resources company, Murphy Oil Corp., headquartered in El Dorado.
Murphy served on various boards including for the Smithsonian Institution, and he established the Murphy Institute of Political Economy at Tulane University in New Orleans. He died in 2002.
The portrait, done by artist J. Anthony Wills, was lent to the center by Murphy’s son. It hangs in a gilded gold frame against a dark wall in the gallery. Another piece portrays the calm faces of Nile and Marzell Smith. Completed in 1988, the charcoal sketch is a tribute to the two educators who worked to preserve black history in El Dorado.
The collection “captures a lot of people in El Dorado that are responsible for shaping El Dorado into what it does today,” said Jack Wilson, business manager of the South Arkansas Historical Preservation Society.
El Dorado was founded in the 1840s but became a destination in the early 1920s when Dr. Samuel T. Busey, a physician and oil speculator, struck oil near the outskirts of town.
The population swelled more quickly than homes could be built. Though the oil business went through booms and busts, it remained a part of the town’s legacy.
El Dorado’s downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. The city, which sits near the Ouachita River, continues to have ties to the oil, chemical and timber industries and recently embarked on a $100 million effort to become an arts and entertainment destination.
Several portraits feature prominent local industry leaders, but the exhibit also features artwork of and by people who escaped the public eye.
“We’re a lot more than just the oil and timber industries,” Wilson said. The collection is “a good cross section of who El Dorado is.”
Trimble said they wanted to showcase local artistic talent, as well.
One of those El Dorado artists, Dinah Van Hook, has two paintings in the exhibit. One is of Charles A. Hays Sr., who founded Systems Contracting Corp. and American Steel & Systems Spray-Cool Equipment Co.
The other is of two brothers dressed in their tennis whites. In the rendering, William and Andrew James sit side by side. One boy leans on a propped-up knee while the other sits slightly hunched over.
Hook has been drawing, sketching and painting people since age 11. To get to know a subject, she talks to them.
“I try to get to know the personality, the character,” Hook said.
The portrait of Felton’s mother, a woman named Uarda Rosamond Garrett Sample Coley, greets visitors to the center when they walk inside.
It’s a “very energized” portrait, Felton said, which fits, because her mother was “absolutely charming.” Coley, who grew up in El Dorado, got a college degree, survived a marriage to an alcoholic husband, remarried and was the first woman ever elected to the local school board, Felton said.
Her mother taught Sunday School and acted in local theater productions, always maintaining a “very dry wit,” she said.
In the portrait, painted by Igor Pantuhoff, Coley has red lips, strong eyebrows, flushed cheeks and swoops of brown hair pushed behind her shoulders. She wears a plunging red gown. A wedding ring reflects light on her finger.
Pantuhoff was famed for his “wide-eyed” style and was collected by Frank Sinatra, Howard Hughes and Jackie Kennedy, according to the center’s artist biography.
He was also known for giving women, including Coley, a slim frame like Scarlett O’Hara, Felton said. Pantuhoff “gave everybody that teeny tiny waist,” she said. “So he was very popular.”