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OPINION | TOM DILLARD: An extensive expansion of 'Arkansas Made'

by Tom Dillard | July 18, 2021 at 1:53 a.m.

Our knowledge of Arkansas history recently received a huge boost with the publication of a massive two-volume study titled "Arkansas Made." The subtitle explains that the books comprise "a survey of the decorative, mechanical, and fine arts produced in Arkansas through 1950."

These books, published by the University of Arkansas Press, demonstrate that Arkansas, from the earliest years, is far more complex than the stereotypes allow.

"Arkansas Made" is the second edition of two volumes by the same title published in 1990-91. While the original edition contained 447 pages, the new edition has 1,344 pages and more than 1,300 images. Elegantly printed and hardbound, together they weigh nearly 13 pounds.

The "Arkansas Made" project began in the 1970s under the leadership of Bill Worthen and Swannee Bennett, director and chief curator, respectively, at Historic Arkansas Museum in Little Rock. Worthen told me recently in an email that Bennett was really the mastermind behind the project.

Following graduate school at the University of Arkansas, Bennett, a Lawrence County native, worked at Colonial Williamsburg. He was asked by a senior curator if he was glad to "be out of the backwater," a slight which Bennett took to heart and helped motivate him to return to Arkansas and set about a lifelong investigation of the history of material culture in the state.

Bennett and Worthen documented the fine arts and collected vast amounts of information on mechanical and other creative arts such as gunsmithing, knife-making, quilting, and cabinetry. They also systematically searched out and acquired artifacts representing the creative spirit of Arkansans.

I was surprised to learn that among the early settlers of Arkansas were silversmiths. From the creation of Arkansas Territory in 1819 until 1870, Arkansas was home to more than 200 silversmiths, including some enslaved men.

Silas Toncray came to Arkansas in 1824 from Kentucky, which along with Tennessee was home to many thriving silversmiths. A Baptist minister, Toncray founded the first Baptist church in Little Rock not long after his arrival.

The Historic Arkansas Museum collection includes many pieces of Toncray silver, including a rare milliner's thimble ring. Also pictured are a set of monogrammed spoons made by an enslaved artisan named Joe Neal, the property of the Whitaker family of Dallas County.

A large section of "Arkansas Made" is titled "Lock, Stock, and Barrel," a revealing history of gunsmithing and knife-making in early Arkansas. Making guns was not a simple affair, as the authors note: "Metallurgy, engraving, machining, blacksmithing, woodworking, and a knowledge of ordnance and sometimes even silversmithing were required to make firearms."

An early Arkansas gunsmith was John Pearson, a native of England, who not long after arriving in America went to work for Samuel Colt and played a major role in developing the revolving pistol. He settled in Arkansas in 1837, moving to Van Buren then Fort Smith, where he worked for many years.

One of the finest gunsmiths in the state's history was August Edward Linzel, a native of Germany who came to America in 1853. He settled in St. Louis where he worked as a "master gunsmith," one of his rifles winning a silver award at a St. Louis fair in 1859.

Linzel migrated to Little Rock in 1869 and soon opened A.E. Linzel & Son on Markham Street. His business benefited greatly from a large local German shooting club, the Schuetzengilde.

In addition to its superb collections of guns and knives--including authentic Bowie knives--Historic Arkansas Museum has an impressive collection of Arkansas-made hunting horns. Made from cow horns, many are incised, or carved, or in one case, painted with a floral motif.

Fans of Arkansas-made pottery will find a well-illustrated discussion of potteries and potters in Volume One. The earliest pottery in Arkansas was that of William Bird in Dallas County, starting in the 1840s. Collectors of Niloak pottery, made in Benton in Saline County, will find color pictures of pieces ranging from punch bowls to candlesticks.

Space is given to documenting quilts and other textiles. Furniture and cabinetry get deserved attention. Two subjects are new to the second edition: the material culture of Arkansas Indians, written by State Archaeologist Ann Early, and the vernacular architecture of Arkansas by architect Tommy Jameson and historian and preservationist Joan Gould.

Volume Two deals with photography and fine arts. Jennifer Carman, a highly regarded independent art historian, contributed mightily to this volume and is listed as a co-author. According to Victoria Chandler, project researcher and team leader, Carman was able to document more than 1,000 artists not included in the first edition.

Portraiture was popular in antebellum Arkansas, and perhaps the most prominent portraitist was Henry Byrd, who worked in the state from 1840 to 1865. Though he lived in Batesville, much of his time was spent traveling across the state as he sought out the wealthy few who could afford a professional portrait.

An early and successful female artist was Jenny Eakin Delony, born at Washington in Hempstead County in 1866. Delony studied with well-known artists in the U.S. and Europe; in 1896 she was the first woman admitted to the prestigious Ecole des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Henry Jackson, born into slavery in Mississippi about 1837, was a naturally gifted artist who would become the nation's first Black political cartoonist. By 1872, Jackson was living and working as a laborer in Pine Bluff, using his spare time to do pencil sketches. He was good enough by 1882 that the Smithsonian Institution hired him to document prehistoric Indian mounds in the state.

No study of Arkansas art before 1950 would be complete without a discussion of remarkable Adrian Brewer of Little Rock. Brewer's father, Nicholas, was a well-recognized Minnesota artist who brought his family to Arkansas for commissioned work.

Adrian Brewer met his future wife while his father was working in Hot Springs. In 1933, Brewer opened a school of art in Little Rock. Before his death in 1956, he painted more than 300 portraits. He also won numerous awards and prizes. Brewer's portrait of Arkansas U.S. Sen. Joseph T. Robinson can be seen in the state Capitol.

"Arkansas Made" is encyclopedic, and I have merely skimmed the surface in this column. One of the best things about these books is the price of $39.95 per volume. Those who take the time to really savor them run the risk of losing their stereotypes about Arkansas.

Tom Dillard is a historian and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.td@gmail.com.

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