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OPINION | REX NELSON: City of the arts

by Rex Nelson | November 7, 2021 at 12:02 a.m.

I began communicating with Doug Stowe two years ago after having written a column about Eureka Springs. Stowe, a nationally known woodworker, is also a deep thinker. In 1977, he founded the Eureka Springs Guild of Artists and Craftspeople. In 1995, he started writing books and articles about woodworking.

In 1998, Stowe was one of three founders of the Eureka Springs School of the Arts. Three years later, he started the Wisdom of the Hands program at Clear Spring School, an independent school at Eureka Springs, in an attempt to prove the importance of hands-on learning. He continues to teach woodworking at the school, works each day in his own shop, and teaches adult woodworking classes for schools and clubs across the country.

In 2009, the Arkansas Arts Council named Stowe an Arkansas Living Treasure. Stowe loves Eureka Springs and is truly an ambassador for the town.

The arts in Arkansas has experienced a renaissance in the past decade with the establishment of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art and the Momentary at Bentonville, ongoing expansion of the Arkansas Museum of Fine Arts at Little Rock and Walton family gifts to significantly expand arts offerings at the University of Arkansas. Add in arts-related gifts across the state from the Windgate Foundation, and this is the most exciting time for the arts in the history of our state.

No Arkansas town can make a better claim to being a "city of the arts" than little Eureka Springs. It has the highest per capita percentage of artists. People here talk about the arts like folks in other Arkansas towns talk about college football.

"I've always felt that others might learn a few things from Eureka, and in some cases they have," Stowe wrote to me in that first email. "We had one of the first historic districts in Arkansas, and we've gone a long ways to show how historic preservation can assist communities in being livable, walkable and authentic.

"If the story of Eureka Springs arts is ever told, it will help communities understand how one generation of artists can foster and encourage the next, bringing vibrancy to community life. I don't know if others would be willing to learn what we have to share. We're seen as quirky. We admit to being where misfits fit. There are many who feel we wouldn't want investment by outsiders who would come only to make a profit from our quirkiness and authenticity, and not fit themselves into the fabric of community life."

Stowe invited me to spend a day with him in Eureka Springs.

"I teach woodworking at Clear Spring School, which deserves recognition and support, as well as emulation as a role model," he wrote. "You can come on a Wednesday morning when I have the kindergarten group in my wood shop and then stay for recess, which is a glory unto itself. I also want to introduce you to Eureka Springs School of the Arts. Both ESSA and Clear Spring School are worthy of national attention.

"A parent may hope to transform the life of a child, but transformation takes place in both directions. The world at large would be a better place if a bit of Eureka and what it teaches us about community and life was shared in all directions."

Plans were made for a visit, but the pandemic began. I was off the road for 13 months until I could get my whole family vaccinated.

Finally, I'm walking the ESSA campus with Stowe. The school is still basking in the glow of a $10 million endowment created by the Windgate Foundation in 2019. The endowment is expected to produce $400,000 annually in operating support.

At the time the gift was announced, ESSA executive director Kelly McDonough said: "With this support we can expect ESSA to mature into national prominence on par with blue-chip schools such as Penland School of Craft in North Carolina, Arrowmont School of Arts and Crafts in Tennessee and Haystack Mountain School of Crafts in Maine. This support further establishes northwest Arkansas as an art and artists' mecca, not just a destination for viewing and experiencing great art but also for making it."

ESSA and Windgate have been collaborating for 15 years.

"Years ago, we were pleased to hear that several artists were determined to establish a school to teach the arts," Robyn Horn, who chaired the Windgate board, said at the time of the announcement. "We were impressed with the tenacity of the ESSA founders, the professionalism and dedication of its staff and the range of opportunities the school has for students to come and learn how to make art.

"Our hope is to guarantee ESSA's future and inspire others to join us in supporting an organization that has such a dynamic effect on artists. Our state is becoming one that supports the arts, realizing that its impact is economic as well as inspirational."

Stowe founded the school in 1998 along with Mary Springer and Eleanor Lux. Springer, a sculptor and painter, graduated from Memphis College of Art. Lux, a studio artist, used weaving and beading techniques to create sculptures and wall pieces.

Stowe studied political science and sociology at Hastings College, a Presbyterian school in Nebraska, from 1966-70. He received conscientious objector status to the Vietnam War after graduation and moved to Memphis to fulfill an alternative service requirement at a children's home.

Stowe also studied pottery at what was then Memphis State University. It was there that visiting artist Jo Ann Kaminsky told him he should move to Arkansas, which was popular among those in the back-to-the-land movement. Stowe came to Eureka Springs in 1975.

"It was a place that was, much to the chagrin of some of the locals and to the satisfaction of others, kind of overrun with hippies," he told an interviewer in 2019. "There were a lot of people, longhairs you know, and we recognized each other on the streets, hugged and some, of course, were raising and smoking marijuana. Everybody was going to breakfast at the same places, and they would all talk about whether they were writing or not.

"There were people here who really encouraged us as young artists. Louis and Elsie Freund were senior artists who were just so welcoming. There were people who had real credentials in the arts. . . . Even though we may not have had much artistic talent at the time, that didn't deter their willingness to foster our growth."

Stowe started a pottery studio but later moved to woodworking after getting a job creating furniture out of old barn wood for Arkansas Primitives. When the company went out of business, he bought tools and began working on his own.

"Most artists wonder at some time or another how their work will be regarded in future generations," he says. "Those of us who have been involved in ESSA have been carried to a mountaintop and can now see a very long way ahead. We also realize that the trust placed in us gives us greater responsibility. There is so much more to do."

The school is on 55 acres just west of town. For the first few years, ESSA had no campus. The first building was completed in 2004. There are now 10 structures. Four cottages with two bedrooms each house visitors and resident artists. An older house that was already on the grounds is used for group events.

We visit a class that Springer is teaching. She also benefited from the mentorship of Elsie and Louis Freund.

"One day in the late 1990s, Doug looked at me with my graying hair and said, 'If we're going to do this, we had better do it now,'" Springer says. "So we did. With the help of Eleanor Lux, we formed a board and became incorporated."

"Eureka Springs was the perfect place for a school of this kind," Stowe says. "Knowing that we were a well-established art community and that all the major art schools were at great distance from us, we knew we had the whole of the Midwest needing what the artists of Eureka Springs had to offer. It seemed logical that we have an art school to serve our community and the region."

Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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