Jean Lake, Alice Thornton: Artists of ‘Note’

Published 11:00 pm Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Troy native Jean Lake and city transplant, Alice Thornton, are two of the deceased artists featured on the Troy Arts Council Auxiliary’s note card collection that will be on sale at TroyFest on April 27 and 28 on the square in downtown Troy.

The artwork of Lake and Thornton focused on the treasurers that lie among the souvenirs of memory, said Susan Berry, co-coordinator of the Auxiliary’s note card project.

Lake had no formal art training but was rather a student of her homeland and the people who inhabited it.

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“Jean Lake was schooled in the simple beauties of primitive life and those who lived close to the earth,” Berry said.

“Through her eyes, even the smallest details of the simple life were not overlooked, whether it was a child’s tire swing in the grassless shanty yard or the family in the big house.

“Jean didn’t think that she had to go elsewhere looking for things to paint. She stayed home and found things to paint that most often went unnoticed by others. Those paintings are a great contribution to the history of the rural South and that means so much to us.”

Berry said that many artists limit their focus but Lake painted across the board.

“She was as good a portrait artist as she was a landscape or still life artist,” she said.

Lake found a charm in the fast-fading scenes of the rural South. Her pictures are nostalgic reminders of an era how quickly passing.

During summers spent at the beach, Lake found raw beauty in primitive places that had not been overtaken by the modern world.

“She could just as easily capture the character of an old sea captain or child hunting shells on the sandy beach as she could of the character of family life in a rural shanty,” Berry said,

Sensitivity to a child saddened by the death of bird, respect for the good simple folk, the ephemeral light of a glow worm at evening showed Lake’s ability to mirror on canvas a wide range of activity and emotion.

“Her subjects were always treated with affection,” Berry said. “Those who are privileged to have an original Jean Lake painting have treasures in their homes.”

Lake’s painting of a rural shanty was chosen for the TAC Auxiliary’s note cards because it is representative of the scenes that she wanted to capture before they faded into the past.

Alice Thornton came to Troy to be an art professor at Troy State College. Her husband died at an early age and she became the sole breadwinner for her family. The story of Thornton traveling around Oklahoma with a cow tied to the bumper of her car so that she would have milk for her children carved the image of Thornton as a strong, fiercely independent woman.

“She was a well-trained artist and she had the skills to reproduce an image exactly as it was. But, she didn’t do that,” Berry said. “Her artwork was expressive of good times and hard times. She taught her students about art and how to express themselves through their art. But she also taught them about life and how to live it and how to cope when life throws you a curve. She spoke from experience.”

The painting that was selected as representative of Thornton’s artwork is a pen and ink and watercolor of a spinning wheel.

“For years, Alice was known at the Pike Pioneer Museum as the expert on spinning,” Berry said. “Not only is the painting a wonderful example of Alice’s remarkable talent, it’s also her.”

Thornton’s daughter, Pat Duke, said her mother was interested in spinning and weaving.

“My dad was an industrial arts professor and, one year, he made Mother a loom for her birthday but he died before her birthday,” Duke said.

“When we were moving from Oklahoma to Arkansas, mother found the loom in the attic. It was in a bundle but it was labeled. She put the loom together and that put her on the road to spinning and weaving.”

Duke chose her mother’s painting of the spinning wheel for the cover of the program at her funeral.

“The painting is a wonderful tribute to Alice and to all that she meant to the arts in Troy and far beyond,” Berry said.