American realist painter Bo Bartlett was the center of attention Monday morning as work on the final phase of an art center that will bear his name began on the Columbus State University downtown campus.
But instead of saying a short thank you, Bartlett, using words instead of paint and canvas, sketched a picture for the nearly 100 people who gathered behind the Corn Center for Visual Arts where the Bo Bartlett Center will be housed.
He talked about being a child sitting near the woods at the intersection of 13th Street and 13th Avenue before it was commercially developed.
“It was forest — the woods,” he said. “... I would sit there and watch the sun set on Alabama. That was my education.”
He blended stories about coming downtown to meet his childhood idol, actor Vic Morrow of the 1960s television series “Combat!” He told of being a paperboy and getting in trouble for sneaking out of the school auditorium.
“These are powerful and poignant memories that I get everywhere I go in Columbus,” Bartlett said. “These are the kinds of memories that inform my paintings.”
The Bo Bartlett Center has been a topic of conversation for about 15 years. It was announced in 2012 by then CSU President Tim Mescon and started with a gift from Bartlett and his wife, Betsy Eby, also an artist.
Bartlett’s sister, Sandy Scarborough, and her husband, Otis Scarborough, have donated their collection of 14 paintings to the center. Combined with Bartlett’s archives, the value of these gifts has been appraised at more than $10 million.
The Bartlett Center construction is about a $5 million project, all coming from private funds.
In addition to building out the second floor of the Corn Center to house the Bartlett Center, a new porch facade will be built on the west entrance of the Corn Center. That will face Phenix City and the river, being among the first things people crossing the Dillingham Street bridge into Columbus see.
Columbus State University President Chris Markwood spread around the credit for the project, calling it “a great day” for the university and the city.
“Credit goes to the previous leadership that dreamed this up and thought about it for many years,” Markwood said. “It also goes to the donors who saw the value in this and what it means to this university, this community and our students.”
Otis Scarborough called it an arts learning center.
“This is not a museum,” Scarborough said. “It is not something that we already have. This is something very special.”
And it is special because of how it will operate and those that it will reach, Scarborough said.
“We are going to reach into the community, touch the schools and even the homeless,” he said. “This isn’t a museum; it is bigger than that.”
The center is currently developing an art program, “Home is Where the Art is,” that operates out of SafeHouse Ministries, and is working with arts programs at South Columbus Elementary School, River Road Elementary School and Kendrick High School. That program will expand in the coming months, Bartlett said.
The Bartlett Center, which will officially open in late 2017, will also offer a master’s teaching program under Bartlett’s leadership.
Bartlett, who just returned to Columbus after spending the summer on Wheaton Island off the coast of Maine, seemed pleased Monday as the project reached a critical milestone.
“I can’t wait to sit on that porch,” he concluded, “and view the sun setting on Alabama.”