Mt Pleasant News

Wash Journal   Fairfield Ledger
Neighbors Growing Together | Aug 14, 2018

Fairfield’s Kessel and Johnston honored with  portrait

Aug 01, 2018

By Andy Hallman, Ledger news editor


Two of the “founding mothers” of the Fairfield Arts and Convention Center are now immortalized on canvas.

A portrait of Suzan Kessel and Sally Johnston was unveiled Friday at the “Coming Home – Coming Together” concert in the arts center. The arts center’s director Rustin Lippincott commissioned the painting and paid for it with his own money. Local artist and Carnegie Historical Museum curator Mark Shafer was tasked with crafting the masterpiece.

Lippincott has been the executive director of the arts center since 2009. He’s worked closely with Kessel from the beginning, and has collaborated with Johnston the last four years on the “Coming Home – Coming Together” concerts. Both women were instrumental in founding the center in 2007, and Lippincott didn’t want any more time to elapse without honoring them in a permanent way.

Wheels start turning

He initially considered framing one of Werner Elmker’s photos of the two and hanging that in the arts center. However, the more he thought about it, the more he realized that Kessel and Johnston deserved a portrait like those Mark Shafer had painted for the Fairfield Entrepreneur’s Association.

When the Lee T. Gobble II statue was dedicated in October 2017, Lippincott approached Shafer with his idea. Shafer said he’d like a trove of photographs of the two women smiling, so Lippincott enlisted Kessel and Johnston’s family members in the search.

Once a month, Shafer called Lippincott to report on the progress of the portrait. He finished it in May. Now they had to think of an event where they could present the masterpiece to Kessel and Johnston.

“I asked myself, ‘What event do we have that celebrates talent in town? The coming home concert!’” Lippincott said.

The presentation of the portrait was tacked onto the beginning of Friday’s concert. Lippincott asked Joneane Parker, a founding member of the arts center’s board of directors, and Bob Wiegert, the board’s chairman, to speak at the unveiling.

Lippincott said the portrait, titled “Founding Mothers,” is a fitting tribute to two people whose dedication to the arts has given the town a building it can be proud of.

“If it wasn’t for Suzan and Sally, I wouldn’t have the opportunity to come to work every day,” Lippincott said, adding that hundreds of thousands of people wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the center, either. “We can’t let people forget the impact Suzan and Sally had on the center.”

The portrait shows the two women standing on the south side of the arts center. The building’s Barhydt Chapel windows are visible in the background, as is the Jefferson County Courthouse across the street. Shafer said he was inspired to paint the picture from that vantage point after seeing a gorgeous photo from the same angle taken by Elmker.

In the painting, each woman is holding something of meaning: Kessel is holding a miniature replica of the Lee T. Gobble II statue, and Johnston is holding a program for the Evelyn Gamrath Summer Camp.

The program was fitting for Johnston because of her background in theater and because Gamrath was one of her mentors. Gamrath was a long-time junior high choir teacher and Presbyterian church choral director.

“Her daughter Nan Kocourek and I have been friends since we were 2,” Johnston said.

Kessel is holding the statue of Gobble in the painting because she was the one who suggested creating the life-size statue of him that now stands east of the center.

Shafer said it was fun to paint the two women because he’s been friends with them for many years. Johnston was a grade ahead of him at Lincoln Elementary School. He remembers that different grades were not supposed to play with each other at recess, nor were boys supposed to play with girls.

Kessel recalled that her first encounter with Shafer was when she had him as a judge during high school speech. Shafer gave her an award for her outstanding performance.

Shafer said he normally does his paintings free hand, though he admitted to doing a little bit of stenciling on this project because he wanted to get Kessel and Johnston’s features just right. He printed photos of them, then cut out the main features such as the eyes, nose, mouth and chin so he could trace them on the canvas.

“I can free-hand draw, but if the goal is to get a good likeness, that takes a long time,” Shafer said.

Kessel chimed in, “Mark has earned the right to do this.”

Shafer often starts the painting with colored pencils because he applies paints so thinly that the pencil’s colors can still be seen, and he likes that effect. He seals the sketch with a transparent glaze to prevent the paint from smearing.

Shafer needed to paint Kessel’s hands holding the Gobble statue, so he asked his wife Susan to model for him. He took a picture of Susan’s hands while holding a mason jar, and based Kessel’s hands on that image.

“Susan is my helping hand,” Shafer said. “I couldn’t do what I do without her.”

Kessel said, “It’s very appropriate that her hands are in this painting.”

Comments (0)
If you wish to comment, please login.