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Memories of Townsend

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WOLFE IN THE 1970S: At an Arkansas Times photo shoot with Danny Morris (left) and Betsy Bell.
  • WOLFE IN THE 1970S: At an Arkansas Times photo shoot with Danny Morris (left) and Betsy Bell.

Vernon Tucker, musician and former Arkansas Times writer, asked for The Observer space this week to remember Townsend Wolfe. Why not? What follows is memory of early days at the Arts Center.

 From my viewpoint as an inhabitant of today's Age of Simulation, I look back with wonder at an era of innovative synergy in Arkansas, especially in Little Rock.

The Greasy Greens were in the Art Farm; the Clintons were in the Governor's Mansion (when they weren't sneaking out to participate in a Greens gig); the students at LRU were energized by the civil rights struggle and the Vietnam war; Arkansas Times (nee Union Station Times) was in its infancy; and Townsend Wolfe was running the Arkansas Arts Center, where some of the state's most creative, and raucous, conspired to celebrate the psychedelic revolution while gasoline was 40 cents a gallon. Cheap thrills abounded.

The photograph of Townsend accompanying this Observer was a reject from an Arkansas Times cover shoot. It affords a tidy way of viewing the vortex of cultural forces that drove the arts during the second half of the last century in Little Rock. 

The guy with the beard is Eureka Springs School of Art Artist in Residence Danny Morris and the model is Betsy Bell (nee Allee) of the Greens, where she sang like an angel as Morris played bass like the devil. When the Greens weren't in New Orleans, Eureka Springs or trying to play their way into being the first hippie show band featured in Art in America, they lived and worked at the Art Farm in Little Rock, a commercial ad agency that provided a lot of affordable graphics to the Times, like the front cover that came out of this shoot. 

The Arts Center's artists rocked the MacArthur Park facility built by Arkansas's Rockefellers and made it as wild a place to create and enjoy art as any campus in the world — until the rare night Jeannette Rockefeller wandered in and saw what all those crazy hippies were up to. Maybe it was the night the theater students fired off smokebombs and black-lit the gift shop. Very energetic and visually entertaining. She was not amused.

Despite Townsend's best efforts, it was never the same after that night, and coincided with the end of my love affair with Little Rock. Back to Eureka Springs. Bye-bye, Arkansas Times.

Each year the Arts Center hosts its "Delta Exhibition," which judges the year's best work by Arkansas and regional artists. The chosen pieces are displayed in a grand fashion in the Arts Center's beautifully lit main gallery. As good as these shows are, some of us yearned to also see the pieces rejected by the jury and find out what our peers around the state were making. 

During a break in the Times' photo shoot, I asked Townsend how about staging a salon de refuse´ prior to the official opening of the Delta. "Throw it all up on the walls for just one day."

He declined by objecting that the pieces deserved formal display, and if all the pieces were included they'd be jammed in frame-to-frame, denying the art the space it deserved.

I asked him how he displayed art in his home. His reply: "Frame-to-frame."

A man of gentle contradictions, elegance and good humor, he was the right "indispensable, irresponsible" man for the right job at the right time. His enduring contribution to Arkansas's culture of the visual and performing arts continues to inspire me through the work my friends began at the Arkansas Arts Center.

Thanks, Townsend.

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