The Tom Peyton Memorial Arts Festival celebrates its 50th anniversary this April. Hosted at First United Methodist Church in Alexandria, the festival strives to reach out to the community and encourage use and understanding of visual, dramatic and architectural arts as a means of healthy expression. “For fifty years, the Arts Festival has been a gift God has given to the people of Central Louisiana through the congregation of First United Methodist Church,” said Donnie Wilkinson, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church. “It’s a gift that draws the community together to celebrate the talent of local and regional artists.”
The first festival presented introduced juried art competition to Central Louisiana, and over the years, has presented a variety of programs of music, film, literature and drama. The professional exhibit has earned the respect of artists throughout the region. “When I moved to Alexandria in 1983 to work for the AMoA, I was impressed that the Tom Peyton Art festival existed,” said local artist Leslie Elliottsmith. “It had a professionally run juried exhibit with an out-of-state, well known juror and great award monies. The community participation and the purchase of art from the exhibit made the show a wonderful venue for artists. In 1984, Tom Peyton was the first juried show that Michael, my husband, entered and he was accepted. Over the years, we have both received awards from Tom Peyton and sold work from the show. When digital imagery and online exhibit applications became more prevalent, it was our pleasure, as committee members, to help the Tom Peyton Juried Art Exhibit move toward an online application.”
In 1967, the first art show was displayed at the First Methodist Church at the corner of Seventh and Jackson. The second annual festival was held the following year in the fellowship hall of the new church at 2727 Jackson Street—even though the sanctuary was still under construction.
The festival, a brainchild of Ben Oliphint, was intended to serve several purposes. Oliphint, senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in the late 1960s, wanted to integrate works of art into the new sanctuary and fill the walls of the new church. The late Fran Davis, a longtime church member and member of the festival committee, once remarked that Oliphint “was convinced that, with the introduction of television, we would become a society that would teach and worship through visual means as well as through reading and speaking. This has certainly come to pass.” Oliphint also believed that the human creativity involved in creating works of art is an extension of God’s creativity in the world. The annual festival provided a way to celebrate that creativity.
In 1980, the Annual Arts Festival was renamed to honor the memory of the late Rev. Tom Peyton III, an associate minster at First United Methodist Church from 1971 to 1976. Peyton died at the age of 33 after battling cancer. His contribution to the arts and educational efforts throughout the entire community was especially significant. In addition to serving numerous civic organizations, Tom played dramatic roles in the Matinee Music Club operas and served on the boards of the Rapides Symphony and Rapides Arts Council. He served on the reading committee for the Central Louisiana Community Theater and as dean of Central Louisiana’s chapter of the American Guild of Organists. At a time when the arts in Central Louisiana truly began to flourish, Tom helped lead the way.
Stories abound of how Tom endeared himself to all who knew him. After leaving First United Methodist Church, he moved to Dallas to continue working in ministry while earning a master’s degree from Southern Methodist University. He remained active until only a few weeks before his death. Hope Norman, church member and co-chair of the First Annual Arts Festival in 1967 remembers, “When the final diagnosis of his illness came, he met every stage with unparalleled courage and grace, still extending his outreach to others throughout congregation and community.”
Reba Harrington, a member of First United Methodist Church, recounts a story of this outreach in remembering her mother-in-law, Kathern. “During the middle 1970’s, Dale’s mother, Kathern, was battling cancer in an experimental program with Dr. John Stehlin at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Houston, Texas. Working with the Sisters of Charity, Dr. Stehlin was responsible for creating the “Living Room”, the first healing environment designed to provide patients and families with art, music, and emotional support. It was in the Living Room that Kathern witnessed another cancer patient playing the piano for those patients and family members who were gathered. She would often express to us how wonderful he was and how much peace his music brought to her during her time in the hospital…and how beautifully he played. In time, as they talked about what they did and where they were from, they came to realize that they had an Alexandria connection. The patient who played the piano and brought so much joy to others was Tom Peyton. As always, Tom took his creativity and talent wherever he went and touched the lives of so many people. He was certainly a blessing to our beloved Kathern.”
Tom often spoke of the relationship between the arts and theology. In 1975, he stated, “The arts are about people…persons responding to other persons’ creative spirits. Art brings life to life. It is a celebration of the commonplace. We are all artists in the sense that our lives are an expression of ideas, feelings and images which we project through our work, our speech, our actions, our play. As men and women made in the image of God, we must acknowledge the ‘creator’ that is part of us. To affirm life is to be part of the creative process.”
Tom loved the arts and made them a core part of his ministry. In the epic vision described in Revelation, God says, “Behold! I make all things new.” For Peyton, this declaration expressed the freshness, boldness and surprise of God’s touch on our lives—and of the artist upon creative material.
Susan Peyton, Tom’s widow, recalls that while the couple lived in Alexandria, the Arts Festival was one of Tom’s favorite times during the church year. She remains active in the planning of the annual festival, as do their son Jonathan Peyton and his wife, Kellie. “Working with the show has been incredibly rewarding,” said Jonathan. “Our reach continues to grow, and each year it seems like the show just gets better. Helping to assemble artwork for delivery to the juror is an exciting task. A few years back, we gave the artists an opportunity to add a short narrative to describe the work–I would say that maybe 80% of the entries include these statements and it definitely helps connect the viewer with the artwork and interpretation.” The festival is one way that Tom’s ministry and love of the arts continues today in Central Louisiana. “Our family is proud to contribute to the show,” says Jonathan. “We appreciate its significance to the local art community and look forward to preserving this legacy.”
This year, with a theme of “Beginnings and Beyond”, the Tom Peyton Memorial Arts Festival celebrates its golden anniversary by looking back with appreciation at the vision of its founders, reflecting on its impact on the regional arts scene, and surveying its prospects for growth that continues long into the future. Here in Central Louisiana, the Peyton Arts Festival enables a space and an occasion for the public to stage, display, encounter, and enjoy quality art. Activities take place not only within the physical walls of the church but on the streets and in the neighborhood beyond, extending outreach into local schools and the community. “The Tom Peyton festival is still one of the best exhibits for artists to enter whether local or national,” said Elliottsmith. “It has consistently kept the prize monies high, cost of entering low, and recognized the artists who are exhibiting. As two artists who enter many national juried exhibits each year, Michael and I can say they do it right! We want to congratulate the United Methodist Church and the Tom Peyton Arts Festival committee, some who have given of their time year after year, on the 50th anniversary.”
Looking back with gratitude for the last five decades and forward to its next half-century of service and influence, the festival recommits itself to the dynamic, uplifting power of art to recreate and make new. The festival kicks off with an opening reception on Friday, April 8th. The competitive exhibit showcases works from regional artists. The reception features the presentation of merit awards and a gallery talk by juror Michael Mallard. Mallard is an assistant professor of art at Darton State College in Albany, Georgia. His degrees include a Bachelor of Fine Art from the University of Georgia, Athens and Master of Fine Arts from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana. Mallard’s art appears in numerous solo museum and gallery exhibitions, as part of more than 30 international, national and regional juried exhibitions, and in numerous private collections.
In addition to the competitive show and the School Art exhibit, which displays art by local students and their teachers, a special exhibit entitled “Memorable Places” features landscape paintings by Bill Bryant. Following a 29-year career with Northwestern State University Art Department, Bryant retired in 2005. A veteran of numerous Peyton Festival projects, the list grows with this year’s dedication of a bronze wall hanging depicting “Nails”, the festival logo he designed in 1969. “I had discovered a can of badly rusted nails and had them in my office/studio at school,” Bryant recalls. “It seemed a perfect symbol if I could figure out a way to present them. I had just started using a process for doing photo silk screen, so I put the nails in a circle and used a piece of the film to make a transfer positive for a ‘circle of life’ with a cutout. Simple, but I thought effective.” The sculpture will be unveiled and dedicated during the opening reception.
On Saturday, April 9th, The Tom Peyton Memorial Arts Festival will partner with The Alexandria Museum of Art to host Children’s Day. In keeping with the Buddy Ministries of First United Methodist Church, Children’s Day offers activities for children of all abilities. Under the direction of Nancy Noles, art educator at The Alexandria Museum of Art, activities will center on oriental culture including bamboo sculptural art forms as well as koi and dragon folklore. Children will work together to create two globe luminaries. Two sessions of Children’s Day will be offered for children of different ages. Registration is available online at www.fumca.org/artsfestival.
Later that day, Hope Norman Coulter will offer an interactive program centered around “The Wheel of Light: Poetry Reading and Discussion”. A native of Alexandria, Coulter attended First United Methodist Church and graduated from Alexandria Senior High. She earned her AB at Harvard University and her MFA at Queens University of Charlotte. She is an assistant professor of English at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas, where she also directs the Hendrix-Murphy Foundation Programs in Literature & Language. “The Wheel of Light” consists of 47 poems, 21 of which have been published in such journals as North American Review, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Yale Review. The opening poem of the book is an elegy for Gregor Goethals, who designed the mosaic in First United Methodist Church’s chapel and the wool wall hangings in the sanctuary and who was both a presenter and a juror for the Peyton Arts Festival. One poem in the book is about Herbie K’s, a restaurant that many in Alexandria may remember. Another contains a scene at the Peyton Festival itself, while in another poem, 100% of the words are taken from an Arkansas map.
In an additional effort to reach out to the community, Coulter will lead PoemPalooza at Rugg Elementary School. Age-appropriate works from poets such as Carl Sandburg, Gwendolyn Brooks, Walter de la Mare, Kevin Young, and Langston Hughes will provide a rich opportunity for exploration of associated sounds, rhythms, colors, figurative language, and feelings. Students will have the opportunity to discuss the poems and use those as a springboard for writing their own poem drafts. “We are excited to partner with Rugg Elementary to share the beauty of poetry with the students,” said Wilkinson. “First United Methodist has a long tradition of being a means by which God blesses this community. From our partnership with Top Spin Laundromat for Laundry Love ministry (free laundry for needy families once a month) to working with the city of Alexandria to offer the Mid-Week Market, we see our calling as being an asset and advocate to the quality of life in Central Louisiana.”
On Sunday, April 10th, Richard and Elise Eslinger from Dayton, Ohio are the guest leaders of the Sunday morning worship service. Richard Eslinger, a retired professor of worship and preaching, will be the guest minister. Elise Eslinger, a founding member of the Upper Room Academy for Spiritual Formation, will lead special musical programming. The couple frequently work together as worship and retreat leaders in myriad worship aspects, including preaching, music and spiritual formation.
Jazz on Jackson, a favorite for all ages, features the music of Smithfield Fair in an alfresco coffeehouse on Friday, April 15th. The band, featuring Dudley-Brian Smith, Jan Smith and Bob Smith, plays a unique mix of Celtic, gospel, jazz, sacred, classical, swing, blues and country music. Illuminated lanterns from Children’s Day will also be on display.
On Saturday evening, April 16th, a vocal recital featuring professional singers who are natives of Central Louisiana will be held in the sanctuary. Soprano Cara Waring currently teaches music in Baton Rouge and shares her vocal talent in numerous opera workshop and musical comedy appearances. Pineville native Kameryn Lueng is continuing her musical studies at The Juilliard School of Music in New York City. This spring, she will perform the Pamina role in Die Zauberflaute (“The Magic Flute”) with the Rapides Symphony Orchestra. Katelyn Sooter Parks, also a native of Pineville, now lives in Dallas, teaching private voice lessons and working as a choreographer. The vocalists will be accompanied by Mei-En Chou, an assistant professor in the Louisiana College music department and piano teacher at the Calvary Conservatory of Music.
All exhibits and events are held at First United Methodist Church, located at 2727 Jackson Street in Alexandria and are free and open to the public. Additional details, including registration forms for the Children’s Day events, are available online at www.fumca.org/artsfestival.