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front&center Charlotte Rierson

Watercolorist shares 'art spirit journey' with Fairfield Bay and beyond

By Elizabeth Sharp

This article was published May 31, 2009 at 1:42 a.m.

— In recent years, she has gained statewide and national acclaim for her richly painted watercolor landscapes. But Charlotte Rierson of Fairfield Bay has been submerged in almost every art form - voice, dance and visual art - her entire life.

Rierson was born in Searcy and raised in Jacksonville, where she lived with her parents, Clarence Bailey and Lola Powers Bailey Peal, and her two younger sisters, Debra and Lana. Rierson's paternal grandmother, Blanche Bailey, lived two houses down from her son and his family.

Blanche Bailey's husband, John Henry Bailey, died the year his granddaughter was born, but Rierson said that he was well-known around town for being the first mayor of Jacksonville.

Rierson said that as a young girl, she spent a lot of time at her Grandmother Bailey's house, admiring her antiques, poking around the rooms of her house - "each room was almost like a stage setting," Rierson said - and listening to stories of her grandmother's travels.

"It was like going into a fairy tale world with her," Rierson said.

Her maternal grandparents lived on what Rierson calls "an old-fashioned, stereotypical farm" in Perry County. She remembers taking the Toad Suck Ferryacross the Arkansas River when she visited them. Once she was there, Rierson spent her days with Grandmother Powers at Pleasant Valley Baptist Church in Bigelow, where the two of them gathered with a group of other ladies from the church to do arts and crafts: needlework, quilting, crocheting and knitting.

Grandmother Powers was the first person who encouraged her to paint, Rierson said.

"She thought everything I did was wonderful," Rierson said.

From an early age, an appreciation for aesthetics and beauty was abundant in Rierson's life. But she said the real driving force in fostering her creativity was her father.

"My father was like the backstage mother," Rierson said.

He spent his last dollar making sure that Rierson and her sisters were able to take lessons in voice, piano and dance. When Rierson took up baton-twirling, she said he was the one who soaked the fire batons in gasoline and polished her tennis shoes. And when he wasn't busy driving his daughters from lesson to lesson, Clarence Bailey enjoyed playing piano, dancing and singing.

"He was just so special," Rierson said.

By the time she was 12, Rierson was not only taking lessons but giving them as well. She rode the bus to study at the Dorothy Donaldson Dance Studio in downtown Little Rock, and after school and on weekends she taught baton-twirling and dancing in the band room at Jacksonville High School. When her sisters Debra and Lana were old enough, they became teaching assistants, and Rierson's group performed around town atcharity benefit shows, children's hospitals, nursing homes and USOshows. She had a marching group called the Charlettes, and as an eighth-grader, her baton-twirling expertise landed her a part in A Face in the Crowd (1957), filmed in Piggott and starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal and Lee Remick.

Her love for art continued to blossom, and when she graduated from Jacksonville High School in 1961, Rierson enrolled at University of Central Arkansas to study physical education. However, she said a few science classes convinced her that she was meant to go down "a different path," so she switched to art education.

Around that time, Rierson started her own family. She had two children, son Jim and daughter Rene, and spent the next several years devoting herself to being a mother, all the while staying deeply submerged in the arts and operating her dance school.

In 1982, she graduated from UCA with a bachelor's degree in art education. Shortly thereafter, Rierson transitioned from teaching dance to museum work, training and working as a docent at the High Museum in Atlanta. She then took a university-accredited course inmuseum management under Townsend Wolfe at the Arkansas Arts Center, where Rierson studied visual arts and arts appreciation.

In 1984, she met Don Rierson, an Air Force officer and fighter pilot at Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas. Rierson's mother had just married the hospital commander and invited her daughter to spend Thanksgiving with them - but she insisted that Rierson needed an escort for the Thanksgiving brunch at the Officers Club. Don Rierson's boss at the base asked him to do a favor for him, and before the Thanksgiving brunch, the couple met for their first date - on a T-83 flight simulator.

"I'd met my officer and gentleman," Rierson said, laughing.

The couple married just weeks after their first meeting, and Rierson moved to San Antonio. But the married life didn't detract Rierson from the arts - she continued to study at the San Antonio Art Institute, and when they relocated to Frankfurt, Germany, for Don Rierson's job, she danced with the Frankfurt Playhouse dance troupe and continued to paint. In the early '90s they went back to Jacksonville, where Don Rierson worked as squadron commander at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Little Rock Air Force Base. During that time, Charlotte worked with the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce's Cultural Affairs committee to assist the wives and families of her husband's squadron who were involved in Desert Storm.

In 1992, Rierson said they chose to retire to Fairfield Bay because it was close to her hometown of Jacksonville and there were plenty of activities there to keep them busy. When they arrived, Rierson was invited to a meeting of the North Central Arkansas Foundation for the Arts and Education.

"It had been organized probably a couple of years, and they immediately had me join and be a part of them," she said.

Before she knew it, Rierson was volunteering as executive director and getting the foundation's programs under way. Through her connections with other organizations, like the Arkansas Arts Center and the Arkansas Arts Council, she was able to build recognition throughout Cleburne, Stone and Van Buren counties of what the organization was trying to do - enhance and enrich arts in the schools.

"Fairfield Bay was unique because so many people from different places moved to the area," Rierson said.

And because of that, many superintendents were skeptical of the organization at first.

"I was able to talk to the superintendents and explain that I was an Arkansas native, that these people [in the North Central Arkansas Foundation for the Arts and Education] are educated and caring," she said. "We wanted to give the children a chance to know the classics and the fine arts and hopefully start them at a young age and continue with their love of the arts."

Some of her favorite activities within the organization have been working with children and setting up monthly activities - concerts, guest performers and more - in the area schools as well as in 1994 helping to establish the North Central Arkansas Art Gallery at the Indian HillsCountry Club.

In addition to receiving numerous awards and even having paintings selected for the Arkansas Artists Exhibit in Washington, D.C., and Arkansas Heritage Commission permanent collection, Rierson stays busy asthe Mid-Southern Watercolorists director of regional advisers and with the Arkansas Artists Registry, the North Central Arkansas Artists League and Arkansas Artists.

She's getting ready to have paintings on display during the production of Tommy at the Arkansas Repertory Theatre in Little Rock as well as have a one-woman exhibit beginning Thursday, July 2, at the Ozark Heritage Art Center and Museum in Leslie. This exhibit will feature what Rierson calls her "art spirit journey" - works from throughout her life, including finger paintings from when she was 4 years old.

Rierson plans to paint and advocate art "till I have no breath left in me."

"It's just so much a part of me," Rierson said. "It's like trading my dancing shoes in for an artist's brush. It's just an extension of what I've done my whole life." - esharp@ arkansasonline.commatter of fact

Hometown: Jacksonville

My family is: My husband, Don, and my children, Jim, Rene and Todd

Favorite food: Grilled salmon

Favorite movie: Top Gun

My favorite teacher was: My first-grade teacher, Mrs. Crutchfield; my home economics teacher, Mrs.

Fewell; and college art teachers Gene Hatfield and Helen Phillips

If I could meet anyone in history, it would be: Leonardo da Vinci, Einstein and John the Baptist

I can't live without: The love of God, my family and my country, and my involvement in the arts

Favorite quote: Love conquers all

The world would be a better place if: We were all patient, loving and caring

Most people don't know that I: Received an Honorary Pilot Certificate in 1986 from Randolph Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, or owned and operated my own dance school, Charlotte's School of Baton and Dance

Someday I will: Go to Israel and follow Paul's missionary journey

River Valley Ozark, Pages 148, 150 on 05/31/2009

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