Art Newton provided us with our most vivid visual memories of the last mid-century. His photographic work is quite familiar, as presented in the Pilot’s “Way It Was” collection as well as frequently in our weekly feature, but Art Newton was a man of many artistic parts, and it is so good that someone has brought together a collection of his paintings, illustrations and commercial work for the community to appreciate. It provides a colorful representation of the way we were, at least for a couple decades.
The someone who brought the work together in Southport’s Art Newton is Tommy Harrelson, who grew up here during the Art Newton era and knew the Newton family very well.
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Harrelson over the years accumulated a good deal of Newton’s art, and finally a friend suggested that he organize and catalogue it.
“I began with my small personal collection,” Harrelson writes, “and this, along with my deep appreciation for the artist’s creative genius, are what inspired me to take on this project.
“The body of work I uncovered makes it clear that Art was even more talented than I thought. ... Art’s love for the Cape Fear, the creeks, marshes, beaches and landmarks is vividly evident in his work.”
Indeed so. His graphic art and photographic work (which intersperses the book) has provided endings to sentences that begin, “I never knew that...” and “So that’s what....”
Harrelson traces Newton’s early life when he and his sister returned here as orphans, his upbringing by an aunt and uncle and memories of early artistic leanings by his contemporaries.
Classmate Son Carrier recalls that Newton was always doodling or drawing sketches and cartoons. There was no formal art training in school, Carrier remembers, only that Newton “had a God-given talent.”
His first recorded professional success was sale of a tugboat sketch to its skipper for 50 cents.
Upon graduation from high school Newton took the World War II tide as a Coast Guardsman, and after four years he commenced studies at art school in Cincinnati, and later in New York.
He worked for a printing company in the city, posed occasionally for other artists, but never lost touch with his hometown, and here for an art exhibition in 1946 he met and married Valli Bryant. They returned to New York, where he worked in the Avon Cosmetics art department and later with a publishing company, but with the birth of the first son the couple decided to come back home.
He told his wife, “I don’t know how we are going to make a living down there but I’m ready to try. I’ll paint anything from a house to a portrait, so maybe we can make it.”
Opening a shop on Moore Street the couple lived in the rear, while up front he was merchandising art supplies, photo equipment and hobby items, while teaching art classes and doing portrait photography and darkroom work. Art and Valli were counselors for the Methodist Youth Fellowship and he sang (and recited “The Cremation of Sam McGee”) in community entertainments.
Painting, photographing, and doing commercial work, producing photo postcards and pen-and-ink greeting cards—Newton worked every artistic angle to make his straight-forward dream come true.
It is the painting with which Southport’s Art Newton is mainly concerned, and the work shows our community as Newton saw it—the docks, the boats, the passing ships and the marshes; the wilds of Bald Head Island, the venerable architecture of the town.
He was particularly taken with shrimp boats that anchored the commercial fishing trade here during his time. Indeed the fourth annual Art Newton Exhibition in 1952 was “Trawlers—At Work and at Rest.” But there are pogie boats, charter boats and skiffs as well, and fishermen doing their work.
Southport’s Art Newton is really about Art Newton’s Southport, and Newton was always looking toward the river. It was there that he lived and there, in 1964, that the died.
This newspaper that July said, “It seems ironic that Art Newton lost his life on the river that he loved. ... Some of his happier moments had been spent there. It seems very trite that the Cape Fear and its environs had furnished the inspiration for most of the Art Newton paintings that had almost become a standard of excellence. This talented young man was a legend in his own time.”