Artists create ambassadors of the best of the human spirit
by Margaret Dabbs
Aug 24, 2011 | 3275 views | 0 0 comments | 40 40 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Margaret Dabbs
Margaret Dabbs
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One of my North Highland neighbors is harboring two mules, allowing them to peacefully graze on the grounds of the meticulously restored 1920’s home at 800 West 7th Street. However, the neighborhood has not angrily erupted in outraged protest. Quite to the contrary, we have welcomed and embraced patriotic red, white, and blue “Uncle B,” and unique, locally relevant mixture of drawings “Willie,” who now are comfortably ensconced at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center.

These two fellows are members of the 50 Mule Team Public Art Project sponsored by the Walker County Arts Alliance and most of us are enthusiastic supporters of this organization’s mission to “bring the arts to Walker County.” But perhaps we support this particular project for more personal reasons. These mules are popping up all over Walker County, several more each week. As we inadvertently discover them in going about our daily routines, they bring a special touch of joy to our hearts and immediate smiles to our faces during days when the media swamps us with gloomy news and our politicians battle amongst themselves with negativity and pessimism.

Several of these 44-inch tall, essentially fiberglass mules, have already found homes all over Downtown Jasper. “Parker,” crafted by elementary school art teacher Justin Lyle, boasts a bright yellow school bus on his flank, crayons on his legs, and a paint brush tail.

He lives in front of the law offices on 3rd Avenue. Several doors down the street, “Justice,” created by Bill Young, III, displays the scales of justice, a United Mine Workers of America logo, and the logo of the sponsoring law firm. Dazzling blue “Hope-Breast Cancer Mule,” Kathy Stough’s contribution, greets courthouse visitors with her cheerful pink ribbons and collection of butterflies- including the one which adorns her eyes.

A block away, on the 18th Street lawn at First Bank of Jasper, Sandra Lawrence’s copper tinted “Penny,” decorated with her namesake coin, shines as she basks in the sunlight. Alabama Power Company offers “Molly, The Spotted Mule,” emblazoned with old photographs from the company’s archives, a joint collaboration of Dan Bynum, Dan Guffey, and other Alabama Power Company employees. A little further down the street at the After Hours Clinic, Tracy Waid’s and the Graham family’s green grass and blue sky, butterfly, and flower covered “Hattie” passes on the message, “We did not inherit the earth from our parents…We are merely borrowing it from our children.”

Approximately three dozen individual mule team artists were selected through an application process set up by the Walker County Arts Alliance Mules Review Committee. This process included submitting a one paragraph biography and three samples of artwork. Each artist who was selected submitted two or three “thumbnail mule design ideas” for the portfolio which would be reviewed by the sponsors when they selected the artist for their mule.

Artists Mosley and Lawrence: Cosmule,

Penny, and Rosie

The artists who designed and brought the 50 mules to life have backgrounds as diverse and varied as the mules themselves. The creator of Southern Orthopedics and Sports Medicine’s “Cosmule,” Dr. Jerry Mosley, grew up in Birmingham and graduated from Banks High School, Auburn University, and the University of Alabama School of Medicine. Hoping to live in a small town and after considering Cullman and Starkville, Miss., he ultimately chose to settle in Jasper in 1981 and to practice internal medicine with medical school classmates Dr. Steve Johnson and Dr. Buddy Cross.

While wanting to develop some background in art as a college student, Jerry found that the pre-med regimen did not leave room for those electives. Years later, after deciding to try the art of watercolor, he took a class from D.J. Brasfield. Jerry commented on this talented watercolorist’s expertise and gentlemanly manner by noting, “Watching him paint made it look easy.” He also participated in several classes with Carol Blell and then began reading and studying watercolor on his own.

Since watercolor set up and clean up is quick and simple, this medium allows Jerry to relax and paint for an hour or so after a hectic work day. “When I get in the mood, I’ll paint every night.”

Graciously sharing his art, he returned the favor of a gift of flowers from a friend’s garden with a watercolor of the bouquet. Jerry attended the garden wedding of a friend’s daughter, made a photograph of the wedding party and the guests from the back of the garden during the ceremony, and later presented the family with a painting of the scene. While painting is his main art focus at this point, Jerry hopes to add carving to his art experience down the road.

Jerry’s “Cosmule” sponsors gave him free rein in deciding how to design the mule. He ultimately chose a celestial theme he describes as a “montage of the cosmos” which includes planets, a black hole, Earth, elliptical galaxies, and spiral galaxies. For three months “Cosmule” lived in the Mosley’s living room while Jerry painstakingly glued acrylic gems in a variety of colors onto the mule’s body, completely covering it. The resulting product is eye-catching, amusing yet thought-provoking, and the artist’s pleasure in his task is quite obvious.

Sandra Lawrence moved to Jasper in 1985 from Huntington, West Virginia, at the urging of her sister, Carol Blell. After being employed in a hospital setting for most of her career, she worked for Med-South in insurance billing for eleven years before she retired in 2001. Sandra enjoyed drawing all of her life, but had an almost genetic propensity for painting since both her sister and her father painted.

With art lessons in her background, Sandra has painted using watercolors and pastels for about 40 years. She belonged to an art club in Ohio and exhibited her award winning work in juried art shows in several surrounding states. Currently, her work is exhibited at The Lily Pond in Jasper and she had a show at Walker Baptist Medical Center in February. Sandra will participate in a similar show at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham next year.

Sandra’s paintings encourage a sense of comfort, peace, and quiet beauty while covering a vast range of subjects. They include Cahaba Lilies, zinnias, orchids, a soulful looking Boxer, her Dachshund Molly, and handsome portraits of horses. One of her favorites is a charming painting of a frog struggling with all his might to hang on to a grapevine.

When Jasper’s First Baptist Church celebrated its 125th anniversary, Sandra was asked to make drawings of the four church buildings dating from 1878 through 2003, and these were used on stationery, mugs, and other memorabilia. Her painting which hangs in the lobby of the Walker County Arts Alliance office has a special place in her heart. She painted it from a cover photograph on a United Mine Workers Journal her husband brought home. This painting depicts three miners emerging from a mine and Sandra changed the central figure’s face to represent her husband’s. One might question if the two other miners are smiling, but there is no question about her husband’s easy smile, as if he was anticipating coming home to her.

Sandra has two mules in the team. First Bank of Jasper provided her with a sketch of its idea for “Penny.” She worked with sponsor Beth Stukes on Beth’s idea of a “run for the roses” mule. “Rosie,” who lives at the Alabama Mining Museum in Dora, is the result of this partnership. She is painted black, has stocking feet like a race horse, and a winner’s blanket of roses is draped over her back. These girls were each completed in a couple of weeks.

Artists Cosmiano

and Woellhart: Jigsaw

and Starry, Starry Mule

Imagine Rebecca Nelson Cosmiano rolling out butcher paper on her kitchen floor and giving her two daughters, ages three and almost one, crayons to keep them happily busy while she painted her contribution to the team, “Jigsaw-Pieces of Childhood.” Painted as a jigsaw puzzle with brilliant colors, he has frequently been chosen as a spot for children’s photographs. Perfectly placed, this vibrant creature greets hundreds of people each day as he grazes in the grass just off the access road to Walmart.

Rebecca’s interest in art began at Maddox Middle School in Eddie Brown’s art class. Her interest expanded and her confidence grew at Walker High School with the encouragement and motivation provided first by art teacher Vanna Tucker and then by Bill Young, III. After earning a degree in studio art from Millsaps College, Rebecca taught art at Brandon Middle School in Brandon, Mississippi for several years.

The highlight of Rebecca’s teaching years was working with a broad spectrum of special needs students. She noted that those classes were especially fun because “Color is so magical to them.” Challenged by her wheelchair bound cerebral palsy students, art was offered to them in creative ways by using shaving cream and pudding rather than traditional materials.

After changing her profession from teaching to nursing, Rebecca tries to paint at least once a week. Her canvases are often quite large, her strokes are bold, and her colors are vivid. Even if juggling all the family’s schedules does not allow actual painting time, she consistently keeps a journal of painting ideas. Regularly providing her daughters with art projects at home is a priority for Rebecca as she sees those activities as a road to developing confidence with art rather than the fear of art she saw in so many of her students.

Alan Woellhart grew up in Gary, Indiana, and moved to Jasper in time to graduate from Walker High School. After working in Birmingham for many years as a chemical lab technician, he returned to Jasper about fifteen years ago with a passion for the theater and a goal in his heart to help those already energetically involved in bringing the arts to life in Walker County. Consistently active in local theater in every aspect, including directing and acting, Alan’s credits include, among others, My Fair Lady, The Little Foxes, Lend Me a Tenor, Hello/Goodbye Ada Who?, and Annie.

Alan’s devotion to the theater made it easy for him to pursue his love of history with a local focus on Tallulah Bankhead. He was instrumental in bringing her story, complete with personal items and memorabilia, home from various locations around the state and the community, and establishing them in a permanent collection at the Bankhead House and Heritage Center. Eight drawings he made of Tallulah in conjunction with the production of The Little Foxes are also part of that touching, yet honest collection.

Growing up in a family with very limited resources encouraged Alan and his siblings to develop their own talents as they found ways to spend their free time. He and one brother drew, his sister sewed “like a dream,” and his other brother found his niche working on cars. As he explained his beginnings in art, Alan pointed out, “I always drew…I was very good at drawing. I could do a portrait- it would look like a photograph.”

After developing arthritis in his hands, Alan moved on to painting in 1993 since it is not as hard on his hands as drawing.

Because he has vision issues that make it difficult for him to see subtle color, visitors to his home, where many of his paintings are displayed, are treated to paintings with big, splashy, intense colors as well as wonderful movement. Alan painted one of them in several hours to bring color to the enclosed front porch and this painting’s energetic and resting figures seem to enthusiastically invite guests into his home.

Influenced by the “richness and fluidity” of Van Gogh’s work, Alan painted amazingly similar copies of two of Van Gogh’s paintings.

Also drawn to angels as evidenced by his collection of paintings of angels, he has a striking painting of angels of different races floating over a simple patchwork quilt while being hailed by figures representing “all walks of life” — a couple, a single individual, and a family. One of his quieter paintings recalls Alan’s float trip down the Colorado River.

Perhaps the most attention-grabbing of all Alan’s works is the huge “Sticky Buns in a Neon Pool” where vibrantly colored cinnamon roll-like circles invite you to reflect on their joy, join their laughter, or simply smile. He painted several versions of this piece, shared them with friends, and one is displayed in a medical clinic at the University of Alabama in Birmingham.

When he was chosen to join the mule team artists, developing an idea around Van Gogh’s Starry Night easily came to Alan’s mind. “Starry Starry Mule,” one of eight members of the team which will be auctioned off to a new home in October, temporarily resides in the Jasper Mall. His back depicts the night sky swirls enhanced by variously colored acrylic gems and highlighted by different sizes of rhinestones scattered to collect and reflect light when seen outside at night. Sunflowers in Van Gogh’s characteristic colors adorn this mule’s legs and a few small ladybugs give him an “Alabama flavor” and express Alan’s wonderful sense of whimsy. A friend jokingly asked why he did not cut off one of the mule’s ears in following the Van Gogh theme. Alan responded with his usual quick wit by pointing out that there is a bug in the mule’s ear, therefore his ear is obviously bugging him.

In working to accomplish its mission by utilizing this delightful 50 Mule Team Public Art Project, the Walker County Arts Alliance has given us all an incredible gift — access to the richness and depth of talent which thrives right here at home. These artists come from a variety of backgrounds, have their own unique stories, and share their gifts in their own distinctive ways. Yet through their individuality, they have accomplished a common feat by offering us these mules as uplifting ambassadors of the best of the human spirit.