If you want an accurate birds-eye view of the East Tennessee State University campus, it’s just a click away. If you’re planning the quickest route between classes or scoping out parking for a concert, by all means, turn to Google maps or your GPS. What could be handier if you want dead-on detail?
But if you want the feel, the flavor, the spirit of the campus — a much more personal and ephemeral prospect — you want an artist who has lived and breathed campus life for a good part of his life. You’re going to want Billy Bledsoe and “The Centennial Painting.”
“With the exception of my hometown, the ETSU campus is where I’ve spent the most time,” the renowned Jonesborough painter said. “I met my wife there, I was an art student there. It’s a huge part of my life.”
The idea of capturing the ETSU essence for the school’s centennial had been in Bledsoe’s mind throughout the year-long anniversary. He wanted to give it his perspective, which is much more evocative than realistic.
But like many creative people, Bledsoe has more ideas than he knows what to do with. Enter friend, fellow alumnus and event planner Susan Lachmann, who is much more driven by deadlines. Sure, Bledsoe can meet a deadline when it’s imposed by a client or some other outside force. But when the deadline is of his making, well, not so much.
“It became obvious that I was going to have to set the deadline if this was going to get done,” Lachmann joked. “I encouraged him because I love Bill’s style — the bold color, big lines, approximations, really, suggestions of a place through color and shape. He has a true signature style. You know when it’s a Bledsoe.”
When Bledsoe got to work putting oil, acrylic, watercolor and even Sharpie to canvas, the work was finished in about a month.
The painting that resulted wasn’t part of the official ETSU centennial celebration — which ended in October on the school’s 100th anniversary — for a couple of reasons. First, the painting wasn’t commissioned by the university (or anyone else) and second, Lachmann, knowing a thing or two about staging an event, didn’t want the work to be lost in the flurry of a hundred other campus observances. Plus a commission comes with client input and Bledsoe had a personal vision that no steering committee could share.
Bledsoe set his ETSU vision in the fall partly because of the school’s history, but mostly because of how beautiful the campus is in autumn and because so many of his memories of the school are from the fall.
“I love that the painting takes you straight down the center of campus with the columns and the bell tower and the smoke stack with the old ETSC lettering,” Lachmann said. “I never got the whole sort of grand feel of campus until I saw it through Bill’s eyes, the artist’s eye. I’ve been on and off this campus for 20-plus years and I have only this moment come to see it in this broader birds-eye view and I love the design of it, how the entire landscape is presented.”
Probably because of his artistic bent, Bledsoe the student felt the campus was missing something. “When I was in school, I always thought there should be a clock tower, (as students) we were begging for a clock tower like every other campus I’ve ever been on has,” Bledsoe said. “I really glad that I didn’t have to invent one for the painting.”
Lachmann, on the other hand, wasn’t a fan of the carillon, which has been part of campus since 2005. “But this painting is changing that for me, I see how it fits.”
Bledsoe’s artistic liberties — in addition to his skilled technique — make the painting almost whimsical. The WETS-FM transmitter tower has never been on campus — broadcast signals like high places like Holston Mountain — but as Lachmann points out, WETS is a huge part of the campus experience so the towers fit perfectly into Bledsoe’s world.
“‘The WETS lettering and the towers bring back the good old days and memories of a lot of fine music,” she said. “It reminds me of the little house on Maple Street and mighty local, original programming.”
The campus radio station is where she and Bledsoe first crossed paths when Lachman, a longtime WETS host, interviewed Bledsoe about his art.
In the real world, the Memorial Center — aka the Mini-Dome — is better known for its functionality than for its aesthetic charm. In Bledsoe’s world, instead of resembling a colossal half-buried beer can, the dome’s slope mingles charmingly with the blue mountains and rolling clouds of the background.
So, if you’re looking for the best parking for tonight’s Percussion Ensemble Concert in Mathes Hall, the real world is definitely where you want to be. But if you’re hoping to relive that kiss under the moonlit amphitheater, Bledsoe’s world may be just the ticket.
Bledsoe will offer 100 signed and numbered prints of “The Centennial Painting” (for $50) during a reception at Nelson Fine Art in downtown Johnson City, Tuesday, Dec. 13, from 4 to 7 p.m. He also plans to produce 10 debossed, hand-painted prints (for $150). You can contact him at BillBledsoe2011@yahoo.com.