Louise Campbell turned the key, one of several on a keychain, then felt for the small catch mechanism that would open the glass entrance doors. “Now, where is that thing?” she asked of no one in particular. Once inside, there were light switches to locate, to bathe the artwork in the brand new gallery with subtle illumination.
The unfamiliar lock and light panels are happy symptoms. Call it “new home syndrome,” that familiarization process that has to happen in fresh surroundings, when everything is still a bit novel. Before long, the new environment will feel as known as an old coat, but the getting-acquainted phase is a time to savor, ripe with the possibilities ahead.
West Point and the West Point/Clay County Arts Council (WPCCAC) are getting acquainted with the Louise Campbell Center for the Arts. It will be the first permanent home for the arts council. After years of dreaming, planning and then renovation of the McClure Building at the corner of Commerce and Broad Streets, the center was dedicated in a Sept. 21 ceremony, and a community paid tribute to the arts pioneer it is named for.
“I really don’t know how to say what I feel. It is the greatest honor,” said Campbell, looking across the new gallery’s polished concrete floor, to the gleaming interior and artfully exposed brick — all a far cry from the long-empty furniture store this space once was.
“I think it became real for Louise when the letters went up on the building,” said Scott Reed, president of the WPCCAC, smiling at Campbell. They sat at a small conference table off the gallery, chatting about how an idea becomes an arts center, when everyone pulls in the same direction.
The completed project is a partnership of the City of West Point, the arts council and the West Point-Clay County Growth Alliance, funded in large part by approximately $500,000 in tourism tax collections and contributions. But it began as an arts council vision about seven years ago when, said Reed and Campbell, Valeda Carmichael approached the Bill McClure family about donating their former store for a community cause. With the building secured, next came the serious business of planning a transformation, and paying for it.
“Even though all the desire was there, the ball really got rolling when Lee Stafford came on board,” recalled Reed. Stafford had been an organizer of West Point’s annual Prairie Arts Festival, an event Campbell helped start 36 years ago. An early donation of approximately $175,000 from the festival “really made the goal seem more attainable,” Reed noted. And it was Stafford who first recommended the center be named in Campbell’s honor.
“I went to the W and married a West Point boy,” said Campbell, who relocated from Jackson to attend what is now Mississippi University for Women in 1960. It wasn’t long before her influence was felt throughout the Clay County town. She taught art at Central School and later Oak Hill Academy, mentoring generations of young people. She helped develop not only the Prairie Arts Festival, but the arts council itself. And she was a driving force in the city’s community theater. Campbell helped build sets, wielded paint brushes and acted on stage. She was everywhere.
“I don’t remember anything she wasn’t involved in in the arts, and I’ve lived here 36 years,” said Reed, who was a fourth-grader in the community theater Follies when he first met her. “She deserves this.”
Getting the job done
With renovation designed by architect and West Point native Roger Pryor, a team including Henson Construction of West Point and the City of West Point turned the vacant two-story, 6,000-square-foot building into a home for exhibits by local and regional artists, live music, limited theater, workshops, receptions and lectures. The first major function is already on the calendar — an Oct. 25 Halloween gala, an arts council fundraiser.
The second floor, while unfinished, is prepped for electrical and plumbing, with an elevator shaft ready. It could one day be the home of the Howlin’ Wolf Museum.
Because the renovation process covered several years, more people than can be named played a role in making the center a reality, from city government to past arts council presidents and members.
“The project really became a community project,” said Reed. As examples, a bank donated furniture during a remodel; a local church donated a piano. “It kind of took all of us pulling together.”
Immediate tasks now include some essential basics, like acquiring a phone and computer and getting in office supplies. “Pencils, we need pencils,” chuckled Campbell, illustrating just how new the center really is. But the ideas are flowing.
“Since the opening last Sunday, I’ve been thinking, ‘Now we can do this and now we can do that,'” Campbell told Reed. “Now we have a home.”
At present, the Campbell Center will be open a minimum of 15 hours a week, manned by arts council volunteers. The WPCCAC foresees the eventual hiring of a director.
West Point Mayor Robbie Robinson remarked, “This is such a good addition to not only downtown, but to the entire community. Culturally, it adds another dimension. We want to be a community that promotes and supports the arts.”
Like mother …
It is fitting that the first exhibit in the new center is the latest work of Louise Campbell’s son, Critz Campbell. The associate professor in Mississippi State University’s College of Architecture, Art and Design is a graduate of the School of the Art Institute of Chicago and widely known for his art furniture design and his artistry in wood. His current Facing South exhibit employs low-relief marquetry techniques in large, dynamic works. Being beside his mother at the dedication held special meaning.
“It was really a touching moment, and it reminded me that of all the teachers I’ve had in my life, that it’s my mother that’s really instilled the arts and community involvement in me, for as long as I can remember. It really brought it home to me,” he said. “What I am comes from the education she gave me.”
As for Louise Campbell, always possessed of a dry wit, she’s happy to have been on hand to see the day finally come and the center’s doors open.
“I’m just glad they don’t have to say, ‘Oh, she would have loved to have seen this,'” she laughed.
“I promised her it would get done; I promised her she’d see it,” Reed responded.
As the arts center tour wound down and time neared to use Campbell’s keys once more, this time to lock up, Reed remarked, “We kept saying it won’t be real until they hand us the keys.”
Well, it’s real.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.
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