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story.lead_photo.caption David and Betty Snellings stand on the deck of their home in Russellville. The couple are being honored with Lifetime Achievement Awards and inducted into the Beaux Arts Academy of the River Valley Arts Center at a banquet scheduled from 6-9 p.m. March 1 at Lake Point Conference Center. “They champion local artists in both the performing and visual arenas,” said Tanya Hendrix, executive director of the arts center. Betty is an artist and a retired art teacher. - Photo by William Harvey

Betty Snellings of Russellville has been an award-winning artist since she was 6 years old, so being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the River Valley Arts Center is no stretch.

Snellings, a retired art teacher, and her husband, David Snellings, an ardent supporter of the arts, will be presented with the award March 1 and inducted into the Beaux Arts Academy.

“Art has been my whole life. When I was 6 years old, I won the neighborhood art contest with older kids,” Betty said. It was a painting of a bird.

“That’s when I decided how much I loved art and tried to stay with it,” she said. “My mother should have been an artist. My parents had Niemeyer Feed Mills in Little Rock, which was started down on the Arkansas River with my great-grandfather. My mother went to work out there when I was in the ninth grade. She had done beautiful work before that.”

A former board member of the River Valley Arts Center, Betty said being honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Beaux Arts Academy was a surprise.

“We’re thrilled to death,” she said. “We were totally surprised; we did not expect it at all.”

River Valley Arts Center board member Mary Clark wasn’t surprised at all. Clark said Betty served with her on the Russellville Symphony Guild Board of Directors.

“She’s an accomplished artist,” Clark said. She said Betty donated her paintings for silent auctions through the guild.

“The Snellingses have been unwavering advocates for the arts since I have known them,” Clark said. “They champion local artists in both the performing and visual arenas. They support and encourage individual artists, as well as the organizations that promote the arts, by consistently attending events, exhibits and performances.”

The couple’s support of the arts center is “consistent,” Clark said. “It’s not a one-time thing.”

She said David and Betty “often help sponsor or underwrite local visual and performing-arts events, as they understand how important it is to financially support artists — not just the art.”

Clark said the couple paid to install a new pump for the pond in the River Valley Arts Center Memorial Garden. Whenever Betty is there, David is with her, Clark said.

“He’s always there and always helping out,” Clark said.

Betty said the garden pond was in “terrible shape. The fish couldn’t breathe; the water was really bad.”

River Valley Arts Center Executive Director Tanya Hendrix and former director Betty LaGrone were constantly cleaning out the pond “to keep the fish happy,” Betty Snellings said.

An anonymous donor paid for the pump, and David and Betty paid for the water line to be brought in and the pump installed, and for a garden center to clean up the vegetation.

“I plan to do that again this summer,” Betty said. “It’s not right for Tanya and Betty [LaGrone] to use their time off cleaning up the garden.”

Clark said the bestowing of the Beaux Arts Award “is a well-deserved honor for this special couple.”

David said they were “shocked, but very thankful for the award. You just cannot express how much thanks we have for that.”

He considers himself a patron of the arts.

“I am not an artist, and basically what I do is support [Betty] and her activities with the arts center,” David said. “We work together as a team. We’ve been married 57 years. For as long as we’ve been married, I’ve supported her activities and supported her art. I’m 100 percent in favor of it.”

David recalled that when they were first married, he would build frames to stretch the canvas for Betty’s art.

“We’d load the car up, and we’d take them to an exhibition,” he said.

“We’ve carried that through the arts center — she’s really been active in the arts center over the years, not necessarily in a confined … space,” he said, but through classes and exhibits. “We’re right there supporting it.”

And a city should have an arts center, David maintained.

“I think a community like Russellville, it needs the arts center — a place for people to, No. 1, learn art, and learn to appreciate art and how much work goes into art, and they should use it for enjoyment, self-satisfaction,” David said. “You know, you’re creating something. People need that opportunity to create.”

Betty said one of her favorite memories of the arts center is taking two pottery classes with arts center Artist-in-Residence Winston Taylor.

“I made a lot of little pots. … He is just wonderful to work with,” Betty said.

Taylor designed and created a blackware pottery piece for all the Beaux Arts Academy honorees, which also include Mary Ann Rollans, Patron of the Arts; Doyle Young, Visual Arts; and Ashley Miller Davis, Performing Arts.

Betty, who paints in oil and watercolor, said she had taught beginning pottery in public school.

She and David wore born two months apart in the same Little Rock hospital and even attended a dance together in ninth grade.

They connected again at Arkansas Tech University in Russellville and got married their junior year. Betty majored in art education, David in math and physics.

They’ve lived in Russellville three times — 35 years altogether. After graduating from Tech, he went straight into the Army as a second lieutenant, and they moved to Portsmouth, Virginia, where Betty started her teaching career in a small school.

“That was just wonderful,” she said.

After three years, they moved to Little Rock, where David got a job with the Arkansas Department of Health as a health physicist and later was named director of the division of radiological health.

“I was very fortunate because I was there a couple, three years, and I walked in one day, and my boss said, ‘Dave, we’d like for you to go to graduate school,’” David said. He earned a master’s degree in health-physics from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. After 14 years at the Department of Health, in 1979, he took a job at Arkansas Nuclear One, and they moved to Russellville and built a home.

Just 2 1/2 years later, David was sent to the corporate offices of Arkansas Power and Light Co., which at that time operated Arkansas Nuclear One. Back to Little Rock the couple went.

The people who were employed in the nuclear program at the time relocated to Russellville in 1990,” he said.

Betty said all the moves had their advantages.

“One thing I was very, very pleased about — I got to teach at the Arkansas Arts Center for three years after we came back from Virginia,” she said. “I taught adult workshops and children’s classes on Saturday for three years; then I went back to full-time teaching.

“I taught various places — Mabelvale, Cloverdale, Mills, Sheridan. I taught at Scranton.”

Betty taught a high-school class in painting styles in the Pulaski County School District while serving on one of three curriculum-guide committees.

“You start with realism and go from impressionism and expressionism … until you end up with nonobjective, which is no subject matter at all,” she said.

“[The students] loved it,” she said. “They truly are proud of what they’ve done when they come from realism to no subject at all.”

Betty’s last position was at Atkins Middle School, where she taught art and “basic-level math, and it was a joy to teach,” she said. She was 69 when she retired.

She got involved in the River Valley Arts Center many years ago, serving on the board of directors in 1996 and serving as chairwoman of the visual-arts committee. She served as a judge for high school and collegiate art shows there and had a one-woman exhibition in 2008 in the arts center.

“I have shown at Gallery 307 [in Russellville], and I have shown whenever I can,” she said.

Betty said she participates in the Russellville Downtown Art Walk, often at Joshua’s Jewelers.

“My work is more, I would say, abstracted. I try to make it free, and I really concentrate on design and the layout — and the design is very important — and the subject matter,” Betty said. “When I was doing things and winning things, like down in Little Rock — I won a Festival of Arts Purchase Prize from the Arkansas Arts Center — I was doing something more creative to the real look. But I’m going back to that; my latest one is this big waterfall. The three before it were nonobjective, which means they have no subject.”

In November, she created a large watercolor of a mandevilla plant.

The Snellingses are the kind of people who are reluctant to toot their own horns, by everyone’s account.

“To me, lifetime achievement is recognition for a variety of sustainable actions that encompass involvement, supporting, using, maintaining, promoting, participating in some measure to help better and improve an organization or activity over a period of time,” David said.

“That’s what I think we did.”

Senior writer Tammy Keith can be reached at (501) 327-0370 or tkeith@arkansasonline.com.

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