The 12-foot-by-16-foot canvas, to be the center of attention again this year at the school’s Grand Reunion (July 27 and 28) is the creation of Billie Hackney of Gadsden and Carlton Ward, head of the drama department at Jacksonville State University. To build it was Hackney’s dream, she said. Her husband, the late Frank Hackney, was in the AHS class of 1942. A retired elementary school teacher, Billie Hackney had been involved in decorations for the reunions for years. But in 1994, she was determined to create something on a grander scale; the reunion was moving from the old Downtowner Inn on Quintard Avenue to the City Auditorium on Gurnee Avenue, and a larger crowd would be coming.
The decision of exactly what to build came to her overnight during the summer of 1994. She immediately enlisted the help of Ward, who was designing sets then (and continues to do so), for the JSU productions. Her plan was ambitious: The painting was to stretch from floor to ceiling and from side to side on the auditorium stage. To complete the realistic image, it would include the brick walls and shrubbery to the side of the doors, which were on the Leighton Avenue side of the high school.
Hackney, who earned a minor in art at JSU, was energized by the challenge of such a display.
“I’m in my element when I’m creative,” she said. “But my friends had their doubts about it really happening.”
But she had no doubts. In her mind, she could imagine the portable mural in place on stage with the floodlights on it. The men and women would be gathering around it — and remembering their good times. She could imagine stories starting to flow, some of them true, and some of them embellished, as people gazed at the familiar sight.
“This was my dream for them,” she said. “I just wanted these graduates to feel that shining moment for their school. I wanted to take them back to the sound of that 8 o’clock bell, and dashing through the doors to class. Or maybe they recall sitting and talking on the steps beneath the arches, or graduation pictures being snapped there.”
Although time was getting short for the reunion event, Ward agreed to help. The university’s summer dinner theater closed on a Sunday, he recalls, and he set to work on Monday. First, he provided the canvas, paint and glaze (for the bricks). Then he worked tirelessly, using a photo in the school yearbook to do the layout. A special technique he used is known as “trompe l’oeil”, a French term meaning “to fool the eye.” The technique is used to make the two-dimensional work seem to be three-dimensional.
Ward sketched and Hackney painted for three days and three nights. They finished the piece the day before the 1994 reunion.
Then it was in the hands of an able-bodied crew that labored to install it on the stage. Finally, on the reunion night, the arch accomplished what Hackney wanted; it set an exhilarating tone for the event, and has continued to do so for every reunion since.
Faye Finney Pruett, class of 1957, admires the original arches, which now stand on Quintard Avenue in Veterans Park when she passes through town.
“Thankfully, they were saved during the demolition of the old school and now serve as a reminder of the happy and frenzied days in our past,” she wrote in the 2009 Alumni newsletter. “We didn’t give them a place of honor then. Such is youth. But now they give us something to point to as part of our background for our children, our grandchildren, and even our great-grandchildren.”
Heflin Dinner Theater
“A Brush With Death,” a mystery comedy written by Mike Stedham will be presented at the Heflin Arts Center at 7 p.m. Aug. 3 and 4. Directed by Shane Smith, it is a project of the Heflin Arts Council. Tickets, $30 per person, must be purchased by the end of July and can be purchased at Heflin’s W.M. Grocery and the Recreation Center.
CAST’s Holiday Show
“A Christmas Story” is CAST’s board of directors’ new choice for the theater’s holiday show. According to Kim Dobbs, artistic director, the theater has just been granted the rights to do the popular play after pursuing them for more than three years. The film is hugely popular, Dobbs said, and the show offers a lot of opportunities for children, especially boys. “A Christmas Story” will be offered in place of “A Christmas Carol” from Nov. 23 through Dec. 2.