Footloose Artists and Trappist Monks: Kindred Spirits?

monk at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

“Beside the Still Waters” – painting, 9″ x 12″

Footloose Artists and Trappist Monks: Kindred Spirits

My friend and fellow artist Marsha Savage called me on Monday night. She was headed for an outdoor “paint out” for artists, invitation only, at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit this week. They’d had a last minute cancellation. Was I interested?

I’m stuck.

Two thoughts immediately popped into my head and began doing battle. Yes: I have been wanting to visit this Catholic Monastery for years. It is well known for its bonsai collection and as a retreat on 2300 acres of bucolic land just east of Atlanta. I would love to see the monastery – of course.

No: I’m scared. I’m not a regular outdoors (plein air) painter. Plein air is French for “open air.” But painters who fit the term are no French salon sissies – they are the cowboys of the artist world. A rugged bunch, they paint and finish their work, usually in a few hours, entirely in the elements of the Great Outdoors. I, on the other hand, love to take my time inside the air conditioned comfort of my studio, massaging the edges of painted shapes until they melt into perfectly distilled space. I’d dabbled in plein air painting. But now I felt a nagging undercurrent of insecurity. Could I measure up?

Against my better judgment, I go with Yes.

My van packed with paint and blank canvases, I barreled down the highway through Atlanta and then east on I-20, slowing as I left the city and turned into the old farm roads. As the traffic thinned, I felt my heart and pulse slow. Reaching the Monastery entrance, I called Brother Callistus, the monk in charge of public relations for The Monastery. I found myself surprised – how could a monk be in “Public Relations?”

I knew that Brother Callistus had organized the “Paint Out,” inviting select artists to stay for seven days and paint. The resulting art works would be featured in an “Art Collectors Gala and Wet Paint Sale” at the end of the week, to benefit the Monastery. I could only stay for two days. I worried, Will I will be able to contribute something worthy?

Surprises

Brother Callistus drove up the wide green lawn in a golf cart. He is a tall slim man with bronze skin, and he wore traditional monk’s garb, hood pulled back. I would later discover that Brother Callistus, in his younger days, worked on Wall Street. But his first words of greeting revealed only his passion for the nature of monastic life. “I read your artist’s statement on your website. You are a true contemplative,” he enthused in a lilting Caribbean accent. “The words are beautiful.”

I was pleased and surprised. My artist’s statement is my raison d’etre. It’s held a quiet spot on my website since 2006, but since that time, to my knowledge, only one other person in the world has read or commented on it. Ironically, earlier in the week I had decided it was too “airy-fairy,” and had edited it out of the biography Brother Callistus had requested after I accepted Marsha’s invitation.

It was as thought I had been recognized by an old friend. And I was suddenly pierced with the feeling we experience too seldom:  I have come Home.

I’ve believed for quite some time that being an artist is not just a calling with a spiritual side, but that it’s a calling that is entirely spiritual. One thing an artist quickly learns  –  when people have money to spend, a couch wins out over a painting nine times out of ten.

I don’t blame anyone. I own a couch myself, my first purchase out of college, as a matter of fact. Money is for the needs of this world – and art has nothing to do with our worldly existence. Art does not feed the body. It does not clothe the body. It does not shelter the body. It does not carry the body around on four wheels with leather seats in an air conditioned box.

Money, money, money

So artists do not choose to paint because they want to get rich (although a few do). But if we agree on that, then what exactly so powerfully compels a sane person to desert the more logical vocational choices?

I’ve arrived just in time for lunch, and this is the question that Brother Callistus wants to talk about.  Because obviously monks, too, have a calling that is not about money.  Is there a common bond? Are these monks, constrained in their monastic lives to vows of obedience and stability – never leaving – akin to artists, famously footloose free spirits who often ascribe to no established religion at all?

Plein Air artists at The Monastery Paint-Out in the Guest House

Artists and Monks Share Wine and Fellowship

Brother Callistus and I take a seat at a table with a half dozen other artists. I’m pleased that somehow I know many of them – from various studio tours, or odd days painting together on informal outings. They range from mostly middle-aged to outright gray-haired. Maybe I will fit in, after all.

Brother Callistus speaks about the contemplative spirit that is the basis of monastic life. He says that in leaving behind the world, a monk learns to discern the spiritual nature that permeates all living things. He says that as you grow this perception, you learn to see beneath the surface of things to a spiritual truth. You look beyond the physical appearance of a person to their eternal nature. You are looking at the soul.

All the artists seem to speak up in agreement. Yes, creating art is like that. When you paint, you are not simply painting what you see on the surface. You are looking for – perceiving – the unique voice that inhabits each subject. Otherwise, you could simply take a snapshot and be done with it.

Brother Callistus nods and smiles. “Yes, perceiving the spiritual is the nature of a monk’s contemplative life. That is what we are all here for.”

As lunch ends, I head outside with the other artists. We acknowledge the challenges of the physical world with our umbrellas, our bottles of sunscreen and bug repellent. But we are full of hope – that we will see something Wonderful. That we may produce a painting that will capture – dimly, or miraculously, with glorious vividness – the Eternal Truth that inhabits every tree, stone, and human being her on earth.

 

paintings by Ann Litrel of the Monastery of the Holy Spirit

Two works from the Monastery, the Belltower and the Cloisters – “Lift Thine Eyes”, and “Morning Illumination”

 

Wearing a Hard Hat

Marguerite Cline, former superintendant of Cherokee County Schools

Life Perspective – oil on canvas, 14” x 11”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Former Cherokee Schools Superintendant Marguerite Cline Steered the County Through the First Years of Explosive Growth

 Marguerite Cline was Superintendant of Cherokee County Schools from 1984-1992, an explosive period of growth when the county’s population leaped from 62,000 to 101,000. In 1992, Cline was named Georgia School Superintendant of the Year by the Georgia Association of School Superintendants. Since then Cline has worked as a motivational speaker, columnist, TV producer and host, and has served on multiple boards of directors and won numerous awards. She was the first woman Chairperson of Cherokee Chamber, and the first woman mayor of Waleska, serving seven successive terms.

This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. 

___________________

“I spent a lot of time at construction sites wearing a hard hat.’”

Marguerite Cline is referring to the challenges of leading the county’s public school system during her two terms as Superintendant. One of the first things I notice about Marguerite is that she doesn’t rush to blurt out responses. She is warm, but she has the composure of one who is used to the public spotlight.

You started your professional life as an elementary school teacher. How did you make the leap to Superintendant?

“After twenty years teaching, I moved to administration, and then to Assistant Superintendant. I found I enjoyed it very much. I like people. I enjoyed participating in the planning, helping to select the curriculum. Then the Superintendant unexpectedly decided to step down.

“I realized, ‘This is the only time I’ll be able to run for that job without campaigning against my boss.’

“Before I decided to run, I placed calls to twenty men who were leaders in the county. I said, “I am not asking for your vote – yet. My question to you is, ‘Do you believe I have a chance of being elected Superintendant?’ Eighteen said ‘yes.’ One of the other two said, ‘yes,’ but that he didn’t want to see people writing bad things about me in the paper.” She smiles. “And the other told me ‘no.’ He said, ‘No woman can be expected to oversee that many employees or manage that much money.’

“I decided to run. Three weeks before the election that one ‘no’ called me back. He said, ‘I was wrong. You’re going to win by a landslide – and I want to help you do it.’” She chuckles. “He sent me a $50 campaign contribution.”

How did you know to reach out and make those calls?

”The people around you are usually going to tell you ’yes,’ And you can get this feeling that the whole world is, without realizing it’s the same fifteen people every day. I needed a perspective from outside my group.

“I won 74% of the vote.”

What were the challenges of the job?

“The major challenge was space. The student population in the county was always larger than the available classroom space – even though the entire time I was in office we had a new school under construction  – one every one or two years. I spent many hours in architect meetings looking at blueprints. I spent a lot of time at construction sites in a hard hat.

“Sex Ed was another challenge. We had to let parents know it was going to be more than, ‘Chickens lay eggs and they hatch.’ We decided to implement the program with an RN. Rita Anderson went with me to every community, inviting parents and staff to see the teaching materials we planned to use. Rita was a very flexible person. If parents had objections, she would say, ‘This has to be taught. How can we do this?’

“At the churches, Rita and I had a rule: We would not use the word ‘sex’ or ‘intercourse’ until someone in the congregation said it first. After that, it was fine for us to say it.

Cline mentions the controversial splitting of the middle schools from the elementary schools as another difficult challenge, a move which divided the county’s popular elementary school basketball teams.  But when I ask her the accomplishment she’s most proud of, she surprises me.

“I became a widow when my three children were very young,” she begins. She stayed in Waleska, continued teaching, and employed a housekeeper. “I couldn’t have done it without my husband’s family and the church. And If God had said to me, ’You’re going to be a young widow,’ I couldn’t have chosen a better grandmother for my children than Grandma Cline.

“My children and their accomplishments are the thing I’m most proud of. And we are all Christians. That’s a real joy, too.”

Marguerite Cline has a wall full of awards – and a lifetime of perspective.

Street Names and History Books

Juanita Hughes color corrected

The Story Teller – pastel on board, 11” x 14”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Woodstock’s Official Historian Searches the Past For Her Father While She Unearths the Family Tree For an Entire Community

Juanita Hughes is an author of multiple books, columnist with the Cherokee Tribune, and retired Branch Manager of the Woodstock Library, where she worked for twenty years. Named Woodstock’s official historian in 2006, her ongoing influence pervades the town, including the collections of the Woodstock Visitors Center, a dozen new street names, and in collaborations like Elm Street’s recent theater production, “Mizz Edna Drives on Main.”

This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. An edited version of this story appeared in the March issue of the AroundAbout magazines.  The setting of Juanita’s portrait shows her among the collections at the Woodstock Visitors Center.

_____

“Can we make the interview Thursday?” she says when I call. “I strongly resemble Albert Einstein until after my Wednesday appointments at the hairdresser.”

Juanita Hughes defies the stereotypes of humorless, gray-haired librarians. Her blue eyes twinkling, she dives into our interview with a question connected to the biggest mystery of her past. “Are you going to ask me things I know the answer to?” I answer yes. “Well, let me tell you a story,” she says. “Years ago I did an interview on a local Canton TV station with Marguerite Cline. I wasn’t too nervous about it – because I knew nobody in Woodstock would be able to watch it. Marguerite promised she wouldn’t ask anything I didn’t know.

“So her first question was, ‘Tell me about your mother and father.’ Well. My father left our family when I was two. Back then when people asked about my father, my pat answer was, ‘We didn’t have no daddy, ‘cause we was too poor.’ But this didn’t seem like the right thing to say for TV, so I stammered and stuttered on my very first interview question. Marguerite was embarrassed. She apologized afterward for asking me a question she thought anybody would be able to answer.”

Juanita relates she’s made three trips to her father’s birthplace in Pennsylvania looking for more information about him, a journey she’s shared with readers in her weekly column. “There were so many things we hadn’t known. He had another wife and a family.  When I was little, he had sent me a few penny postcards with a few stories and drawings. That’s all I had from him growing up. It makes me wonder what will happen to this generation. They only have electronic notes. Those get erased – and then there’s nothing.”

I’m surprised to find out Woodstock’s historian wasn’t born here. “I was born in Denver and grew up in Dalton, my mother’s hometown. Homer [Juanita’s husband] and I moved thirteen times before we settled down here in 1965 for his job. When we came, Woodstock had a population of 750. You knew everyone. You could walk to the grocery store, to the library with your children. It was just a perfect little town – ‘nobody here but us chickens,’” she quips.

Juanita tells the story of one particular night when there was a community sing.

“There was a full moon that night. Back then the moon explorations were going on, and the news said our astronauts were orbiting the back side of the moon. They were up there. We were all gathered outside together singing together in the moonlight. The moon was so bright. I remember we were all looking up, knowing there was someone up there – and it was just spine-tingling. It was magical.”

But Juanita doesn’t linger on the memory. She hastens to say there are plenty of nice new people too, which make Woodstock still a nice place to live, and who have “made Woodstock what it is today.” She comments that she likes the studio space where we are conducting the interview, and that the shop below us, now Outspokin’ Bicycles, was once the town’s grocery store.

“Back then the library was in a storefront – where LKT Sports is now. When I started working there, we were only open 15 hours a week, and people stayed mad with us all the time. Everybody in Woodstock came from somewhere else – where the libraries were perfect,” Juanita says dryly. “That was in the 1980s, when my different interests kind of came together – the history, the library, and also the writing.” She mentions her first newspaper column, and authoring the history of First Baptist Church Woodstock, Set Apart, which she describes as an almost overwhelming task.

“You know, I never had a formal education. I learned to write by reading.

“The project was huge – it was really too big for me. But I strongly felt the presence of the Holy Spirit as I worked on it, because things would happen – like, a person would show up at the library with an article about the exact thing I was looking for – a piece I needed about a certain family. It happened again and again.

“Somebody said I lived a ‘charmed life.’ I became known as ‘lucky’ because things seemed to fall into my lap – like when we did programming for the library. One time I had Jeff Foxworthy’s father, who had written a cookbook. I had a lot of good people like that. But there was no charm to it. What I learned at the library was that when you want something, all you have to do is ask.

“In 1995, with the Woodstock Centennial approaching, a group of us thought we should do something about that. I wasn’t in charge, but I was the person they asked to go in front of City Council to make the request – for a big city celebration. Smith Johnston, Jr., was actually the person instrumental in getting us started – he commissioned a book on the City’s history. The city celebration included a Gala, and parade with fireworks. They commissioned the mural, too.”

When did you get connected with the Woodstock Visitors Center?

“I began collecting history files at home when I was working on Set Apart. Later they went to the Visitors Center. The City named me ‘Woodstock’s Official Historian,’ ” she laughs, “because they got tired of not knowing answers to people’s questions. They just sent them to me.”

She waves her hand in the direction of the large new buildings of Woodstock Downtown. “When the new development was going on, I started thinking about those generic street names they use like ‘Oak’ or ‘Magnolia.’ The section they were developing was where the black community used to live, ‘way back when. It seemed a shame for that to be gone and for us to have no memory of what was there before.

“So I just e-mailed the developer, Pam Sessions, and said, can we have some input into what you name the streets?  She came and met with me right away – for two hours.  She was an amazing person. I showed her my list of Woodstock people and why they were important. ‘Evelyn Chambers was the first and only female Mayor. Bailey was the first black Councilman….’”

I nod as she speaks, but she looks at me and utters with the certainty of one who has seen much of life:

“The longer you live, the more interested you will be.”

Whether it’s the history of her father or her adopted hometown, Juanita tells the stories – and keeps asking the questions.

Midwinter Visitors

Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers

The Tufted Titmouse is one in a flock of midwinter foragers.

Today as ice fell from the white-gray sky, I remembered a bitter day a decade ago. The February morning was cold, and my two sons Tyler and Joseph and I stayed inside. Subdued in our post-holiday routines, the hours passed slowly. But around midmorning, an unfamiliar sound outside became noticeable. Barely audible at first, it grew, seeming to draw nearer, until it became a distinct twittering and chirping, a swelling of voices – birds singing!

“Mommy, come see!” My five-year old Joseph was pressed against the window. Tyler and I followed. The sky was alive – electrified – with birds. Flitting from tree to tree – birds, and more birds, circling tree trunks, probing bark, poking through the leaves.

Scores of chickadees and titmice filled the yard, along with birds I had never seen – small brisk woodpeckers, a nuthatch with a brown head, a little warbler with a flash of yellow at its tail. Tyler brought forth the bird guide, and we repeated each name for Joseph as we found it: Downy Woodpecker! Brown-headed Nuthatch! Yellow-rumped Warbler!

But our visitors moved on long before we tired of the show. The yard emptied like a sieve, leaking life and song. For hours the boys talked about the birds. Why had they come? Where had they gone? And they lamented – why did they leave so soon?

A field guide dispelled the mystery:  “…Continuing throughout fall and winter into early spring, mixed foraging flocks patrol forests and fields…mostly insectivorous species…A forest will appear empty of birds in winter, only to suddenly have the trees swarming with vocalizing chickadees, titmice, and other species.”

All our feeders filled with seed, all the fruiting shrubs planted just for birds – and our visitors were after plain old insects. I couldn’t help but laugh.

The birds never returned. Yet they sang in my memory all winter long, a bright song in that dark season. And one day as I sadly looked upon my cold silent yard it came to me – their visit was not just a memory; it was a promise – a promise that even in the cold of winter, Life would endure, a promise that one spring morning the silence would end and we would hear the songs once more.

How do birds survive the winter? Many small birds have an average body temperature of 107 degrees, and can forage with no apparent discomfort. The typical chickadee has 2000 feathers, with muscular control over all of them. It “fluffs” these feathers to gain better insulation. Some species actually roost together in tree cavities to conserve heat. These include the Brown Creeper, the Winter Wren, the White-breasted Nuthatch, and the Eastern Bluebird.

Drawing birds closerTo attract foraging birds, you can try making a thin “pssh pssh” sound or kissing the back of your hand – sounds which mimic distress calls.

A good nature guide for reading: John Krichner’s Ecology of Eastern Forests, of the Peterson Field Guide series.

 

 

Digging Up Sweet Potatoes

Reinhardt Vice President JoEllen Wilson

Lit Up – oil on canvas, 11” x 14”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Reinhardt Fundraiser and Vice President JoEllen Wilson Cultivates the Surprising Touches That Win Hearts for this University

JoEllen Wilson is Vice President for Advancement at Cherokee County’s Reinhardt University, where for the past twenty years she has served in positions of increasing responsibility, eventually becoming the school’s first female Vice President. Beginning in 1997, Wilson became Special Assistant to the President, serving as the “familiar face” for many alumni and donors in a critical time of transition, as a succession of four men rotated through the office, culminating with Dr. Isherwood arriving in 2002. Currently she oversees donor relations, marketing and fundraising for the university.

 This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. When Ms. Wilson began working at Reinhardt, it was a two-year school which offered one Associate’s degree in Liberal Arts, serving 400 students. Reinhardt is now a post-graduate institution with 41 undergraduate degree programs and six Master’s degrees, with a student population of 1,200.

 Ms. Wilson is pictured here on the stage of the Falany Performing Arts Center. 

 _____

“I told the President, ‘If I have to plan one more Homecoming, I will DIE.’ ”

I suspect it’s an unusual statement for JoEllen Wilson. A half an hour into our interview, I have already mentally designated her as one of those rare people with inexhaustible reserves of energy and good will toward their fellow man.

Wilson is referring to her first job at Reinhardt, a part-time position in Alumni Relations. “I’m a people person, so that job was perfect for me. My sons had started high school, and I was ready to get back into the workforce.

“Fundraising and alumni relations aren’t about what people think; it’s not about asking people for money. It’s about the relationships. My job in Alumni Relations eventually became full-time, and I loved it! But after five years, there was a point when I felt like I just couldn’t plan another Alumni Weekend or Homecoming. I was burned out.” At this point, she confesses about her threat to “die” if she has to plan one more Homecoming. “I knew that might be the end of me working here,” Wilson adds.

“But fortunately, the president had another job for me.

“Dr. Falany had just found out he would need to retire, for health reasons. To prepare for this change, he brought me on as Special Assistant to the President. I would be helping to transition him out of the office, and the next President transition in. I would make introductions, maintain relationships with donors and alumni, and staff. As it happened, two more presidents came through before Dr. Isherwood arrived in 2002. It was an amazing opportunity and growing time for me. I learned something new from every one of those men, almost every day.”

I ask Ms. Wilson how she first made the connection with Reinhardt.

“Since I was a girl!’ she exclaims. “My grandmother was a house mother and a nurse on campus. I used to visit Big Mama here, and I always thought I would come here so I could become a teacher. While I was earning my two-year degree, I met my husband John here, and we married. We had twin sons, and THEY both came here, and met THEIR wives here. That happens at a lot of schools. But there’s a saying we have at Reinhardt about our students and their spouses: We’re like a shoe factory – we put people out in pairs. ”

What part of your story do you think people relate to most? The smile disappears for a rare moment as she pauses thoughtfully. “I think it’s when people hear I finished my college degree and my masters’ while I went back to work here. People will tell me they were encouraged when they hear that, and they think, ‘Maybe I can do that, too.’

“This is a people-oriented place, and even though we’ve grown, we haven’t lost that. I’m so pleased that even after adding a football team, we still have a culture of caring and respect. Those young men have been trained by our excellent coach to be ambassadors for the university. We’re a people place.

“I’ll tell you something funny. Dr. Falany and I once visited a longtime supporter who was extremely wealthy – she probably could afford whatever she wanted, anything. But what she really wanted was sweet potatoes from Dr. Falany’s garden. So whenever we went to visit her, we first had to drive over to Dr. Falany’s garden and dig up those sweet potatoes, so she could have some!

“I think that the personal attention at Reinhardt can’t be contained in 600 acres. It goes out into the community.”

The same could be said for JoEllen Wilson.

 

The Mile High View

George McClure portrait by Ann Litrel

The Mile High View – pastel on board, 12” x 9”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Pilot and Developer George McClure Looks at the Teamwork That Built a Regional Airport

George McClure is a former Chairman of the Cherokee County Airport Authority, and has served on the Authority board since the mid 1980’s. As one of the original developers of Towne Lake and also a Cherokee County native, he has seen the airport runway grow from 3,400 feet to its current 5,000 feet, accommodating the aviation community and a growing number of corporate jets. The Cherokee County Airport is located on Airport Drive at 575 and Exit 24.  

 This story is part of a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community. 

__________

“I drag-raced on the runway as a teenager. I knew it was here, you see.”

George McClure smiles as he shares this rare snapshot from his past. He’s seated in the second-story conference room at Cherokee County’s regional airport terminal. Wall-to-wall windows showcase a spectacular view of the runway under blue October skies. McClure shifts often in his chair, his tall form constantly in motion. I ask him to talk about his connection to the airport. But he is not interested in telling his personal story. He has shown up with a thick file of notes: he wants to make sure we recognize the many people who built the airport, and how it’s grown.

“This airport is here because of a whole team of people,” he says. “It was the Canton Jaycees that got it built, in 1966. Norman Sosebee was part of that group.” He looks through his file for the names. “Also Bud Chambers, Lee Winn, and N.J. Wilbanks – Wilbanks’ dad actually gave some of the land. They built the first hangar and the runway. In 1968 the Airport Authority Board was created – Norman Sosebee served on the board for forty years.”

Knowing McClure is a County native, I ask if he got interested in flying when he saw the airport being built. He smiles and mentions his drag-racing on the runway as a teen. He also confides that he and a buddy dreamed of owning a plane. “Flying was always on my bucket list.”

He leapfrogs over large chunks of his past to get back to the airport story. “But I went to school and studied accounting. I worked in the corporate world for a while, and I rose to the VP position. When I left, I got into building, as a developer. In the mid-1980’s I was doing a project off Bells Ferry. That’s when Gene Hobgood – the County Chairman – re-activated the Airport Authority Board. The airport hadn’t changed too much since the 60’s.

“I was a pilot by that time, so I knew the aviation side.”

McClure glosses over this to focus on the players. “I understood how to do big projects, how to push dirt. Gene asked me and Don Stevens to serve on the board. Don’s also a developer. Also Bill Johnson, an Atlanta commercial developer, and Homer Gold – ‘Nugget,’  a Canton physician. He was the Chairman then. I was Chairman for years after that, and Don Stevens is the current one.

“We’ve all played a part, you see,” he looks at me to emphasize the point. “But it was Bill Johnson who had the vision. I want to say that.

“Bill had the idea of putting together a business plan. We had been getting funding from the FAA in small doses, $100,000 here, $200,000 there. Bill had us go to the FAA with a business plan for a 5,000 foot runway and this new terminal. The County would put up half the money if the FAA would put up the other half.

“It was a paradigm shift from how we were operating.”

I ask if this work on the airport has been a paid position. “No,” he says emphatically. “The airport authority is prohibited from making money. It’s part of the charter.

“I like the jazz of doing it – it’s the challenge. And the airport helps the whole community. It brings in business. The thing I’m proudest of is that we’ve had one hundred per cent support of every elected official since we started. We’re one hundred per cent transparent. I’m very proud of that.”

I ask him if there is a connection between flying and the other things he’s done in his life.

“Flying is real helpful when you’re a developer. Flying gives you the mile-high view – you get a whole different perspective at 5,000 feet.”

It’s the perspective McClure seems to keep, no matter his elevation.

The Art of Building Cities

Richard McLeod version 3 final

A Man of Vision – pastel on board, 20” x 16”

(For a custom portrait contact me, or visit my Etsy shop online for details.)

 

Artist and Dancer Richard McLeod Brings a Creative Touch To Community Development

Richard McLeod is the former Director of Community Development for the City of Woodstock. When McLeod began working for the city, Woodstock was a sleepy town with two or three blocks of aging retail stores along a state highway. During his tenure from 2002-2012, McLeod helped usher in the 26- acre development now known as “Woodstock Downtown,” a compact development of commercial retail space and restaurants, crowned by four stories of condo units over retail shops and backstopped with multiple “pocket parks” and tall urban-style homes.

This story is the first in a series featuring local leaders and visionaries, some behind the scenes, who have had an impact on the community.

__________

“I sometimes had to picture the Mayor and Council in their underwear.”

The eyebrow-raising statement comes from Richard McLeod as he compares the position of Community Development Director to his first career in his twenties, when he was, surprisingly, a professional dancer with the San Francisco Ballet. He says some elements from his career as a performer carried over into his job with the City in unexpected ways. He grins and explains.

“When you’re in Community Development, sometimes you’re going to do things that are unpopular. I was working with private developers to help get their projects done. So part of my job was being able to stand in front of a room full of people who were angry at me and not be afraid to keep communicating…Back when I was a dancer, one of the things they used to tell us was to picture the audience in their underwear, so we’d be less nervous.”

“Well, when I came to Woodstock, that just meant sometimes I had to picture Mayor Henriques or Bill Dewrell in their underwear when situations got tense.”

I ask McLeod to name the job description for “Director of Community Development.” He gestures toward the modern skyline of Downtown Woodstock behind him. White triangles of canvas shade the second-story patio at “PURE.” Private balconies hang from the brown brick face of the five story building. Shops line the street level, with its wide, tree-shaded sidewalks.

 “I didn’t build anything, I didn’t engineer, I didn’t make any laws. My job was just to make sure all the right people stayed in the room. The developer had a spectacular vision, but it didn’t go with what was being done in Cherokee County at the time. Everybody else was building subdivisions with cul-de-sacs, and multi-car garages.”

“This project needed a champion, and I guess I was that champion.”

The developer wanted one thing, the elected officials wanted another, Public Works wanted something else. It was my job to bring the artistic and regulatory sides together in a way that would allow a great creative project to happen. Part of my job description would have to include the word ‘artist.’ The dominant side to it has to be creative. So it’s recognizing the difference between a really good development and one that’s not so good.”

“Building good cities is a lost art.”

“Technically, some of what we did here went against the code. And it went against ‘Industry Standards.’ For example, we made the streets more narrow to slow down the cars. We took little things like the street drains, and used a type that didn’t give the appearance of being able to swallow small children. Some of what makes me different is that I am willing to dig into those kinds of items, that are normally handled on the Public Works side.”

“A great city is made of a million tiny details – where does the sun come from during certain times of the day? What is the color of the streetlights shining into the retail shops? I’ve been known to visit Savannah and walk around with a tape measure, measuring alleys and garages and houses and buildings. I’m always trying to figure out, What is the DNA that makes a city so distinctive?”

 

I ask McLeod if there are other connections between his career as a dancer and what he does now. He nods.

“When I was a dancer, we used to travel all over Europe, where the cities are hundreds, even thousands, of years old. Their cities are old and beautiful, and they still work. Over here, we’re lucky if our houses outlast our roofs. I would come back to Atlanta even then and think, Why can’t we build cities like that?”

 

It’s an art that Richard McLeod is apparently dedicated to reviving.