By Sharon Semanie
For the Piqua Daily Call
If walls had ears, imagine the tantalizing tales told by an eclectic group of luminaries gracing the interior of the Horace Rollin Gallery at the Piqua Public Library.
The subjects are all works of art prominently displayed in a new exhibit entitled “People in Portraits” opening this month on the library’s second floor and continuing through next spring 2016. The gallery is currently open six days a week during normal hours.
A 40-piece collection, the exhibit introduces art aficionados to many local personalities portrayed in mediums ranging from oil to digital photography. Local as well as regional artists -including several Europeans-have captured the likenesses of subjects ranging from celebrated local military heroes, a quarter-century WLW radio personality and innocent faces of children to well-known Piqua industrialists and businessmen and a visual memory of Jesus Christ created as performance art during Piqua’s tenth anniversary remembrance of Sept. 11, 2001.
Librarian and Piqua Historian James Oda says the newest collection represents some 160-170 fabulous art pieces which are part of the library‘s permanent art collection focusing on local and regional artists. While many pieces are donated by artists or individuals wishing to “downsize,” Oda and his advisory committee acquire additional artwork at the Piqua Art Council‘s annual show. This month’s unveiling follows the recent Ohio Watercolor Society exhibit which stopped in Piqua as part of its statewide tour.
While the Dayton Art Institute is a stone‘s throw away from its northern neighbor, the Piqua Public Library art collection rivals area art museums and, best of all, is open to the public free of charge.
During a tour of the newest exhibit contained in the Horace Rollin Gallery, Oda wasted no time identifying the artwork, artist and brief background only occasionally glancing at a “cheat sheet” to ensure his facts were accurate. Among the many notables introduced were:
• An oil painting of Captain Sam Pearson of Piqua, who was killed in Iraq in 2007. The painting was donated by his family who commissioned artist Anita Miller of Westerville, to create his likeness;
• A life-size oil portrait of former Piqua resident and WLW radio celebrity Minabelle Hutchins who died in 1951. According to Oda, the formal painting of Mrs. Hutchins in an upswept hairdo and stylish purple gown was created by artist Edward Fern of Cincinnati from an autographed photo card taken of the Piqua resident in the late 1930s or early ’40s;
• An oil painting of a young African-American girl titled “Makeeda” by renowned artist Linda Hamilton of Piqua who has several paintings featured in the exhibit. This particular work was featured as a 2005 PAC award winner and purchased by the Piqua Library Foundation for its permanent collection;
• A 73-inch high facsimile of Captain Don Gentile of Piqua-later promoted to major — which was part of a four-part mural featuring standing figures of a Native American, Civil War and Revolutionary War veterans. Captain Gentile is shown smiling, wearing a Mae West inflatable vest, while holding his helmet in one hand and flashing a “V” victory sign in the other. The mural, commissioned by the former Citizens National Bank in 1954, was created by artist Penrhyn Stanlows of Scotland.
• A folk art painting of a young man of 1950s-60s era strumming a Fender telecaster electric guitar with adoring fan/girlfriend standing alongside and bold psychedelic colors in background. Oda explains the painting was done by Betty Klauer in a studio within the Koverman-Staley-Dickerson building and was later displayed in a Piqua bar for a number of years.
• An ornate gold frame surrounds the subdued and “staunch” portrait of Leo M. Flesh founder of the Atlas Underwear Company and president of Citizens National Bank. His likeness was created by Penrhyn Stanlows in the late 1940s-early ’50s. According to Oda, in the midst of a bank robbery, Flesh was and told to get down on the floor and replied “I certainly will not” and subsequently was pistol whipped by the robber. The painting was donated by the family to the Flesh Public Library which Leo Flesh founded.
• A 1909 decorative mirror shows the colonial image of President George Washington playing a flute alongside wife, Martha. As youngsters pass alongside the exhibit, they can look into the mirror and see themselves as “people in portraits”.
• Furniture manufacturer Lucius Cohen Cron is featured in a portrait gilded in gold over plaster on wood. The distinguished gentlemen, who served in the 110th regiment as a drummer boy during the Civil War, returned to Piqua to become mayor of Huntersville (Shawnee) in the late 1800’s. In addition to the Cron Furniture Company he later opened a store later made coffins. Subsequently, the Cron Funeral Home was born. And, coincidentally, a portrait of Lucius’ grandson, John Clifford Cron, appears on an opposite wall.
• Separate oil portraits-dating back to the 1850’s-feature Mary and Gabriel Natchez, the latter a mill wright. The paintings are not signed; however, as Oda explains, the artist assigned apprentices to paint various portions of the couple (i.e. lace collar on Mary’s dress or eyebrows which appear uneven). Natchez, sporting muttonchops, is seen in a heavily starched white shirt, and whose hands are not as proportionately well drawn/painted as his face.
Other notable portraits, too many to mention, include the late Andre H. Burner who was formerly employed in research and sales at the French Oil Machinery Co and later killed in an airplane crash.; an acrylic of young children by Emmy award-winning singer and composer Barbara Bailey Hutchinson; separate oil paintings of James and Mary Hamilton from the 1860s, an artistic rendering entitled “In Thought” by Lindsay Cooper who created a portrait of her sister-in-law; a portrait of Jacob Godfrey Schmidlapp, formerly of Piqua, a prominent Cincinnati banker whose bank merger became Fifth Third Bank, and who later founded the Schmidlapp Free School Library and impressive portrait of Jim and Connie Brown, formerly of Piqua, who served as “strong supporters of the library during the restoration.”
Additional information explaining the origins of the paintings is available at the gallery.