Artist Bill Bledsoe’s recent commission wasn’t the largest work he’s ever done, but it may be the most complicated.
When first lady of Tennessee Crissy Haslam decided she wanted a Christmas ornament representing every county in the state of Tennessee, her office called Bledsoe and asked if he would like to participate.
“Was I interested? Of course I would be,” he told them, then sent a suggestion of what should go on the ornament. It was an illustration for a children’s book he had done. Though the book hadn’t been published, Mrs. Haslam recognized the illustration and “she loved it,” her assistant told Bledsoe.
“For the Washington County ornament, I had to do two paintings. One side is Johnson City at Christmas, the other side is Jonesborough,” he said.
Bledsoe is deeply connected to both cities. “I grew up in Johnson City. I lived on Unaka Avenue until I was 10 years old,” he said. When what is now I-26 was built, bringing more traffic to Unaka, his family moved to Jonesborough.
Bledsoe vividly remembers the downtown Johnson City of his childhood, particularly the annual Christmas parade.
“My grandparents took me every year for as long as I could remember,” he said. “The parade used to come in the other direction — from Hands On! toward the train tracks. Sometimes the train would pull up there. Santa would get off the float and get on the train.
“When I was a kid in downtown Johnson City, it was like New York City to me. People were bustling all over the place, shopping at King’s, JCPenney, Masengill’s — it was magic when I was a kid.
“The move to Jonesborough was like going from New York City to Mayberry. Jonesborough had a different feel to it but it was just as romantic.”
Coming up with the images and feeling of the ornament wasn’t the problem. Transferring those images on to a 5-inch glass ornament was.
“The challenge to all of this was I’ve never painted on a Christmas ornament that much detail,” Bledsoe said. “I took the paintings and made black-and-white reproductions on cotton paper. I papier machéd them on to the ornament. I had to do it in puzzle pieces. The fact the ornament is rounded, you can’t just lay a square image on that. Then I had to paint it again. I just used it as a guide to paint. Every aspect of it is completely hand painted. So I’m actually painting on cotton paper instead of the glass so it won’t flake off.
“It took me forever to do it. I’m pretty game for anything, but that ornament was a bear. It was so frustrating. I would have to cut out the different little windows in the Fountain Square building and reglue them on the ornament. It was enough to make you want to cuss. I stuck with it, finally got the hang of it, and I’m going to go into the papier maché Christmas ornament business,” he said and laughed.
Bledsoe is pleased with the results. “The Johnson City image ... the colors are so vibrant. It bounces off the page. Jonesborough has a real softness to it, but the Johnson City one, man, it just pops off the page.”
The county ornaments will become part of the state’s permanent collection, and will be exhibited every year on the Christmas tree at the governor’s mansion. Bledsoe will not see his intense labor of love again.
He did, however, work with Mauk’s in Jonesborough to create 50 Johnson City ornaments and 50 Jonesborough ornaments, which are for sale at Mauk’s. “There’s only a handful of ornaments left,” he added. “The images are small, but they’re intimate little things.”
Despite the hard work, Bledsoe said, it was “an honor” to do the Washington County ornament. “Those two images really captured the personality of our county, the charm of it. Even though Jonesborough is the county seat, I didn’t want to leave out Johnson City. Johnson City has just as many charming nuances to it as Jonesborough does.”