History in my hand, art on my wall

Published 10:09 am Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Times are changing in the publishing business. Eleven-by-fifteen-inch proof of it fit nicely in the bottom of my carryon luggage after some meetings I attended recently at LifeWay headquarters in downtown Nashville. I just happily happened to be there when the Southern Baptist entity was conducting a silent auction of more than 900 pieces of art in preparation for a big move.

LifeWay (known in early years as Convention Press) began commissioning original paintings for their materials in the 1940s, based on their belief that visual aids can be effective tools for use in teaching the Bible. Of course, times changed and the new millennium eventually brought in all things digital. By 2012 LifeWay no longer sought out paintings on canvas or art board. Graphic specialists could do the job by computer instead.

Six decades of commissioned art work, however, was carefully tucked away in a climate-controlled vault in a basement of one of LIfeWay’s downtown buildings, a building located on a block of property slated for sale this year. That’s why LifeWay began the challenging process of archiving the more historical pieces last March, selling some through art dealers, and preparing others to be available for loan.

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“All the pieces will be digitized, and we’ll retain the rights,” Landry Holmes, head of the team working to preserve the art holdings, told me. “They represent a huge investment. They’re an asset, but we don’t think it’s good stewardship to keep a large collection of physical paintings that no one ever sees.”

The pieces up for silent auction to LifeWay employees and retirees represented about one-fifth of the vault’s contents, a religious art collection rumored to be the largest outside the Vatican. Organizers stressed that the value of the items offered for auction “was more sentimental (than monetary) because of the era they represent or the style of art used.”

So I guess it was sentimentality that drew me to the auction area in the huge conference room every time my schedule allowed it. And I wasn’t the only one. The event spanned three days, and I saw everyone from writers to cafeteria workers to the artists themselves cruising the aisles.

It was, after all, a picker’s paradise. The tables were covered with teaching pictures (Zachhaeus in the sycamore, the parting of the Red Sea) I remembered from my childhood. There was an original full-color drawing (Noah and the ark) from a children’s Bible I read to my own kids. There were watercolors depicting the Garden of Eden, sketches of Elisha and the widow, and large oils of the Wise Men. I thumbed my way through stacks of happy scenes lining the walls, an assortment of hand-drawn maps and a whole set of book illustrations. My editor was even kind enough to let me attend the final minutes of silent bidding, just in case I needed to pencil in an up to my ante.

As a result, I boarded a plane loaded with all the sentiment my suitcase could hold. That, and one prize find in particular: an oil rendering of Daughter No. 2’s biblical namesake, with the artist’s signature (Bill Hutchinson) on the back, as well as the date it was printed in Sunday School materials (1983). The cropping marks framing its edges are pretty cool, too.

Selma Wilson, vice-president of Organization Development at LifeWay, wrote that winning a bid was “much like owning a brick from an old downtown building that no longer stands.” I think I understand what she meant. And as the publishing business changes, at least I’ve got a piece of it to hold in my hands – and hang on my walls.


Wesson resident Kim Henderson is a freelance writer who writes for The Daily Leader. Contact her at kimhenderson319@gmail.com.