PINE BLUFF -- When the artist Henri Linton first came here in 1969 to teach at Arkansas AM&N College -- which became the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff -- he figured he'd stick around a few years then head west.
"I'd always had thoughts of going other places," he says. "I thought I wanted to go to California -- San Francisco, the Bay area."
Things didn't work out that way.
Sure, he left in 1972 to get a Master's Degree in Fine Art from the University of Cincinnati but was back two years later.
He's been here ever since.
This is where he and his wife, UAPB professor Hazel McKinney Linton, raised their son, Henri, Jr. It's where the elder Linton built a career teaching and creating art, where he developed his unique, colorful, aerial-view landscapes; passed along his knowledge of art to countless students and left his imprint on the UAPB campus and community.
On March 17 Linton, who retired from UAPB last year, will receive the 2020 Governor's Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Arkansas Arts Council during a luncheon at the Governor's Mansion.
It's a sunny Monday morning in early January, and Linton is at his West Sixth Street studio in Pine Bluff.
"I'm busier now than I was before I retired," says Linton, who is tall and whose unlined face makes him look younger than his 75 years.
The brick building is chock-full of stuff -- paintings, frames, paint, brushes, books, magazines, American Indian artifacts -- yet everything has its place and doesn't seem cluttered.
His current work-in-progress, a sprawling, vivid landscape broken up by geometric patterns and swirling symbols, rests against a wall. The painting is a commission for the new Saracen Casino Resort in Pine Bluff. To reach the higher spots, he uses a sturdy, rolling, wooden stand he built himself.
He was born in Lewiston, a small farming community in Greene County, Ala., the sixth of Readus and Christine Linton's seven children.
"We had a good life," he says. "We didn't have a lot of money, but we had family love."
Art came early.
"I've been making art ever since I can remember," he says. "In the second grade, I remember a young lady telling the teacher: 'Henri's back here drawing.' The teacher said: 'Leave him alone. One day he may become an artist.' I didn't even know what an artist was."
In December 1953, when he was 9, their home burned and the family moved to Tuscaloosa.
"There were better schools there. Tuscaloosa offered a lot of advantages that we didn't have."
He started painting in junior high. He was washing windows for a department store in downtown Tuscaloosa when he first saw some oil paints.
"I asked the owner of the store if I could buy some art supplies and they could take it out of my check."
The owner said no, but he did open an account for Linton at an art supply store.
In high school, he worked as a sign painter, learning how to paint letters and numbers. Some jobs had him dangling from the sides of barges as he applied numbers on their hulls.
"I've been a hustler all my life," he says. "I always worked."
Schools were segregated, and Linton attended Druid High School.
"My high school was very competitive," he says. "We'd stay up all night, working to make the best drawing. Other students in the class were very good."
By junior year, Linton knew he wanted to go to art school. He was awarded a scholarship to the Columbus College of Art & Design in Ohio after winning a contest sponsored by the school.
Which was great, until he learned that he was would need money for things like food and a place to live.
The superintendent of Tuscaloosa's black schools, McDonald Hughes, an early mentor of Linton's, connected him with Buford Boone, the Pulitzer Prize-winning publisher of the Tuscaloosa News who had established a scholarship for local students.
Linton wrote a letter to Boone explaining his situation. The newspaperman gave him $300 and promised him $75 a month for the time Linton was in school to help cover his living expenses.
All these years later, he fights back tears at the memory of the kindness of Hughes and Boone.
"That's how I was able to go away to school. People took care of me. I've been blessed."
He enrolled at the College of Art & Design in 1962, worked odd jobs to help with expenses and got busy making art.
Linton's paintings gained attention during the annual Columbus Art League May Show, a juried competition where his work was shown along with professional artists from the Midwest.
He studied influential artists like Charles White and John T. Biggers, and he and his friends traveled to New York to visit museums like the Guggenheim to soak up works by Picasso, Matisse and others.
In 1966, he won the Award for Best Portrait or Figure in Oil and the Award for Best Print in the prestigious Annual Exhibition of Paintings, Sculptures and Prints by Negro Artists at Atlanta University. He won again for Best Portrait or Figure in Oil in 1968 for the painting Alone, a somber piece that shows a seated man, his head resting on his hands.
Artist Kevin Cole, who grew up in Pine Bluff and graduated from UAPB in 1982 with a degree in art education, was a Linton student. When he moved to Atlanta after graduate school, he came across his former professor's award-winning work at Atlanta University.
"I was looking through the university's archives, and there's Henri Linton," Cole says from Atlanta. "That was my professor! It made me so proud."
Linton graduated from Columbus College of Art & Design in 1966 and returned home to attend the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, one of just 16 black students on campus. It was during this time that he met Hazel, a nursing student.
A year later, he accepted a scholarship to study painting at Boston University. Hazel joined him and they were soon married. He received his Bachelor of Fine Arts in Painting in 1968. And in 1969, he came to teach at Arkansas AM&N at the urging of art department head John Howard.
Linton's friends and fellow artists Tarrence Corbin and Earnest Davidson would later became part of the art department. In 1980, Linton took over as chairman of the art department from Howard.
Karen DeJarnette is a former Linton student and current interim chairman of UAPB's Department of Art and Design.
Talking about the influence of Linton, Corbin, Howard and Davidson, she says: "They were all practicing artists, so there was this expectation that you're not just getting an art degree but that you are becoming a professional artist. It was a very high standard, but because it's a small department, it's very much like a family."
Mary Benjamin, retired Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs at UAPB, worked closely with Linton after she came to the school in 1992. It would have been a much different place without his influence, she says.
"Mr. Linton is a quiet person, very professional in his demeanor, but he is a very creative person. He's not going to sit still and take things as they are if he sees a route that would move the program to a different level. He was always willing to put in the extra effort."
Spend most of 50 years at one place and you are bound to make an impression, especially if you're as creative and driven as Linton.
For 34 years, he was a professor and chairman of the UAPB art department. He was the yearbook adviser and started the annual Chancellor's Benefit for the Arts, which helped fund the art department and Linton-curated exhibits of work by sculptor Isaac S. Hathaway, Arkansas photographers Geleve Grice and Rogerline Johnson, journalist and Little Rock Nine mentor Daisy Bates, jazz musician Clark Terry and others.
He was instrumental in the UAPB art department becoming accredited by the National Association for Schools of Art and Design in 2000 and was inducted into the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame in 2001 (he also designed the Hall's permanent exhibition located in the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock). In 2004, he founded the school's University Museum and Cultural Center with pieces from his own extensive collection of UAPB and black history artifacts.
Linton was the kind of professor and department head who went "over and above" what was in his job description, says former UAPB Chancellor Lawrence Davis.
"He was so dedicated and worked long hours ... without him, we would not have many of the things we have now. Certainly, we would not have the University Museum and Cultural Center; we would not have had all of those exhibits he has done, and the campus wouldn't look as well as it does. I always depended on him to help me with the ambience and the decorations around the buildings.
"I'll tell you something else," Davis adds. "He's a heckuva cook."
The University Museum and Cultural Center has roots in a 1994 exhibit Linton curated called "Keepers of the Spirit," which documented the history of UAPB.
He was determined to have a permanent space on campus that told the story of the school.
"It really bothers me that people do not keep up with their history," Linton says in his office at his studio, which is filled with books, art, magazines, newspapers and items detailing his family's legacy. "It's important to know your history, starting with your own family ... We always have to remember that we are standing on other people's shoulders. We didn't start anything."
In keeping with his hands-on approach and customary attention to detail, Linton built the display cases in the museum himself, and DeJarnette recalls seeing him on a ladder changing light bulbs in the facility.
This is a man, it should be noted, who has two art scholarship endowments in his name at UAPB.
Linton's approach to teaching paralleled his precise approach to his art, DeJarnette says.
"He is the utmost perfectionist. That could wear some students out, you know: 'Do it over,' 'do it over.' But then you look at his art. He works in layers ... and he moves paint in ways I have not seen other painters do. But he is such a perfectionist, he will do it over and over until it is exactly what his vision is."
Says former student Cole: "He was an excellent teacher. He can make a brushstroke look like a figure with just one stroke ... And he passed all of that down to us. He knew what to say and when to say it. And he instilled discipline in us."
In his studio, Linton stands in front of the large Delta aerial view landscape commissioned by the casino. It looks nearly finished, but it's not.
"This is just the first coat," he says. "I have to go back and paint over all of this. I'm just roughing it in now. I've got to go back and do the trees and highlights in the water."
He is a fast painter, working mostly in acrylics, and says half of the process is "stopping, looking, analyzing, studying what you like and don't like and being willing to change."
His early work was figurative. He wouldn't start fully exploring landscapes until the late '70s and, like artists Wayne Thiebaud and Richard Diebenkorn, he takes viewers up to the sky to experience vast spaces of ground below.
The aerial views were inspired in part by airplane trips he took to see Hazel, who was attending graduate school at Ohio State University. He would later hire pilots around Pine Bluff to take him up in their planes.
"Looking at the world from above offers you a different perspective," he says.
Linton also started dividing his aerial landscapes with patterns and grids.
"It's how we see the world and how we move through time and space," he says. "Like the experience of being in this room, you look here you see one thing, you turn your head and see another. We think of the landscape as a single image, as if the world stands still. But we are constantly moving, and nature is in a constant state of flux."
Little Rock art dealer Greg Thompson has represented Linton for more than 20 years. The first work he saw by Linton was a small landscape on paper in acrylic.
"I was struck by the composition of the aerial view, and the colors were very vibrant and not typical of a landscape. He had a lot of pinks and purples and oranges and chartreuse. As soon as I saw it, it popped off the wall and I said, 'Wow. Who is that?'"
Thompson started calling Linton regularly and after a few months his persistence paid off. Linton told him he was bringing some paintings over and showed up with more than 30 pieces. Thompson bought two highway scenes for himself and promptly sold the rest.
Linton's art is in the collections of the Arkansas Arts Center, the Rockefeller Foundation and the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. His figurative mural Pillars of the Community and the Walls of Respect at the Positive Atmosphere Reaches Kids center in Little Rock is a massive, 12-foot-by-74-foot work, his largest to date.
ARTIST, EDUCATOR, CURATOR
Patrick Ralston, Director of the Arkansas Arts Council, says that Linton is being recognized for his work as an artist, educator and curator.
"He is both a purveyor and an interpreter. It really gives him a three-dimensional role in the arts in Arkansas. Not only is he creating these vibrant landscapes that are panoramic and have incredible depth, but he is also teaching his craft, curating and helping to interpret the art of the Delta."
The award wasn't expected, says Linton, who has done his share of paying tribute to others through exhibits he has curated and the annual Chancellor's Benefit for the Arts fundraiser.
"There are a lot of people who have done great things for the university ... I was surprised to get the Governor's Award for Lifetime Achievement and I'm honored."
Driving from his studio to the Museum and Cultural Center, Linton points out historical markers he had placed around the campus. He was also instrumental in having campus buildings named for distinguished alumni and school supporters.
He is talking about the time he was interviewed by a reporter when he was at the University of Alabama. Even then, he says, he wanted to go to California and told the reporter of his dreams.
"I'd never been there," he says. "I was just a country boy from Alabama."
Instead, he landed in Arkansas, which has worked out just fine.
"I've made a lot of friends here," he says. "I've enjoyed working at the university, and I've been allowed to do a lot of the things I wanted to do. It's been good."
Style on 02/09/2020
Print Headline: Disciplined hands