BOWLING GREEN—An artist who traveled the United States in a Model T Ford during the Depression and painted watercolor scenes would have been proud on Sept. 26.
Dignitaries, elected officials and artists gathered for a ribbon-cutting and dedication of the Sidney E. King Arts Center along North Main Street in Bowling Green. Located in the south wing of the old courthouse, it features 13 of King’s original paintings, along with the work of local artists.
King died at 95 in 2002 after spending much of his life in Caroline County. The paintings hanging in Bowling Green were commissioned by the National Park Service 30 years ago and were on display at battlefields around Fredericksburg. A 14th painting hangs in the Caroline County Visitor’s Center in Carmel Church.
King painted nearly 200 historic murals in national parks across the eastern United States. He painted six days a week into his 90s, painting landscapes, people, animals, flowers, still lifes, religious and historical subjects. He taught art in Caroline County, Warsaw and Tappahannock.
Those who spoke at the dedication were Lucy Lawliss, superintendent of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park; Bowling Green Mayor David W. Storke; John W. Stoddard, a member of the Caroline Industrial Development Authority (IDA); Floyd W. Thomas, chairman of the Caroline County Board of Supervisors; and Jeff M. Sili, a member of the Board of Supervisors representing the Bowling Green District of the board.
Stoddard has been a preservation specialist at the National Military Park for 30 years and he worked with King on repair of the paintings when they were damaged by vandals.
“Over the years, I have repaired, polished, installed and moved these paintings,” he told the crowd gathered on the courthouse lawn. “I have watched them weather hurricanes, major snow storms, falling trees, insect damage and vandalism.”
Stoddard noted that getting to know King “was one of the great privileges and high points of working with the National Park Service. On numerous occasions I would have to remove one of the paintings due to vandalism or some other damage and take it to Sidney at his studio for repairs. While he was working on the repairs, we would sit and talk about this and that or take a walk down to his pond to drown a few worms in hopes of catching” a fish.
Eventually, the park service took down King’s paintings at the battlefield sites to make way for new interpretive signs. “Every time I moved one of the paintings and put it in storage at Chatham Manor, I couldn’t help but feel that we were all losing a bit of local lore, a bit of something special.”
Stoddard contacted Gary Wilson, Caroline’s director of economic development and tourism, and asked if Caroline had a place that would allow them “to bring these paintings home.” Wilson called a few days later and said he had found “the perfect venue.”
Stoddard noted that a stipulation of the park service’s chief historian, John Hennessey, was that the paintings be “housed in a controlled environment that was secure and open to the public.”
The IDA provided $5,000 for installation of a security system to meet requirements of the park service because the paintings are valued at $3,000 each. IDA provided another $1,800 for installation of the paintings.
The county partnered with the Bowling Green Arts Commission, Bowling Green Town Council and the Caroline Historical Society to create an arts center. The county will continue to maintain the utilities of the building, wireless connection, insurance and landscaping. The center’s development also involved Kathy Beard and Patrick DeCrane, chairperson of the arts commission, and Bernard Collins, president of the historical society.
Museums and arts centers “are colorful threads in the tapestry of communities” that “will bring tourists who seek out these special places, in turn bolstering the local economy through tax revenues from meals, sales and lodging,” Stoddard said.
“I feel that Sidney King would be very pleased to know that his talents and legacy will be honored in such a grand fashion,” Stoddard noted.
Lawliss told the gathering that King’s work was also on display in Jamestown, Manassas, the Wilderness, Kennesaw Mountain in George, the Blue Ridge Parkway, Pea Ridge in Missouri, Fort Raleigh and Petersburg.
“Probably 40 million people have laid eyes on Sidney King’s illustrations in the national parks alone, including queens and presidents,” she noted. He also painted a 200-foot long mural for the 1964 Word’s Fair in New York, which was seen by 30 million. He did a 400-foot long mural in the rotunda of the Mormon Information Center in Utah.
“Certainly more than 100 million people have seen the original works of Sidney King—this kind, gentle man who married a Caroline County girl and spent most of his life here,” Lawliss said.
“His great joy came from his illustrations of history and historic places. Therein lies the key to a very happy match between Sidney King and the National Park Service.” He “pioneered the idea of creating art specifically to be placed at a specific place.”
His first great project was 40 paintings for Jamestown and Yorktown in 1957 for the 350th anniversary of the founding of Jamestown. He researched details, such as uniforms, flags and tack. He also worked with DuPont Company to develop special paints that would withstand 100 degree variations in temperature and summertime sun.
Several paintings for the park included the faces of staff members, Lawliss noted.
“Sidney King was an unpretentious man who worked at his home,” she said. He even created the 200-foot long mural for the World’s Fair in his 16-foot garage, doubling back on the mural over and over. He didn’t see the entire painting until it was on display in New York.
“He was a rare man whose work became far more famous than his name,” she noted. “One of the great ironies of the art of Sidney King that was created in Caroline County is that most of it ended up in faraway places. That’s what makes this opening, this exhibit special. Sidney King’s work is now where Sidney King lived—in a community where for over 40 years, he taught young artists in the hundreds.”
The mayor said the Board of Supervisors and the Town Council joined together for a project that would bring to the citizens “an educational and artistic experience that has not before been available.” He thanked the IDA and Union First Market Bank for “generous gifts” to make the project a reality. He acknowledged Paul Keeler, the stepson of King, and Collins, in the audience.
The mayor thanked Chris Flora for framing and mounting the King paintings in a way that prevents “a single nail or screw or hole” from being in any of the paintings. Greg Woodward donated his electrical services to modify the electrical system of the building. A&M Home Center and G&G Hardware donated some materials and provided others at cost. Jim Thomas of Thomas’ Art & Sign Shop in Tappahannock created the signs for the arts center.
Thomas was the “last male student” of King and he studied under King from 1985 to 1991, Thomas said.
“Mr. King was a beloved local personality as well as artist and I am lucky to have at least one of his works in each room of my home as well as an original pen and ink drawing of my wife as a child,” Sili told the gathering. “As you can see, I am a big fan of Mr. King.”
Collectors of Sidney King’s work will also loan paintings to the center on a rotating basis and local artists will display their work to “ensure that visitors and residents alike return to see what’s new on a regular basis,” Sili noted.
King traveled the United States in a Model T Ford and painted scenes in watercolor after he lost his Boston studio during the Depression. He wound up almost penniless and stranded in Fredericksburg in 1939, and painted signs and drew newspaper advertisements. He worked at Quantico during World War II and camouflaged combat planes, and designed aircraft insignia and recruiting posters.
He married Peggy Taylor and they lived in Caroline County in her ancestral home, “The Willows,” near Bowling Green. She became his assistant and handled the business part of his career. He worked in a shed-like studio that he built near their home. He died at The Willows, survived by his second wife, Mary Keeler King, a sister and two step children.
The center will be open from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday.
The arts commission will begin offering children’s art classes at the center in mid October on Saturday. The classes are geared for children ages 5 and up and will meet for three to five weeks. The initial classes will be for children’s drawing, batik, multicultural crafts, color pencil techniques and paper Mache masks. Registration forms can be obtained at the Bowling Green Town Hall or at the arts center.