From cotton picker to painter: Eureka Springs artist has landmark year, is No. 7 story of year
The year 2012 did not start out auspiciously for Zeek Taylor. He didn't stay up until midnight on New Year's Eve or do anything special on New Year's Day. Then in January, he received word that 'Arkansas Life' magazine wanted to do a full-page story illustrated with his art work for the May issue.
From then on, the recognition snowballed, culminating in October with Gov. Mike Beebe presenting Taylor with the Arkansas Arts Council Governor's Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement. It is appropriate honor for the Eureka Springs artist, who grew up picking cotton in a Delta town but knew what he wanted to do with his life.
"I always knew that I wanted to be an artist, even though there were no art classes in school," he said. "I took my first art class in college."
Taylor, 66, has lived almost all of his life in Arkansas. He was born and raised in Marmaduke, which at that time had 650 residents and two cotton gins. Taylor's father was the postmaster. His mother was a hairdresser. Named after a Dutch great-grandfather whose last name was Zeek, Taylor was five years old when his grandmother first took him to pick cotton.
"Everybody did it," he said.
Because of the harvest, the first semester of school was split-term -- students went to school in July and August, then were out for two months. Taylor picked cotton every season through high school, earning three cents a pound along with a life lesson: the harder you work, the more you make.
"I could pick between 300 and 400 pounds a day when I was a teenager," Taylor said. "I made $9 to $12 a day. When I was 12, I bought a little pony. When I was 14, I bought a little motorcycle. When I was 16, I bought a car for $300 -- a 1953 Ford."
The Marmaduke schools had no art classes, no music classes, no band program and one sport, basketball, because everybody was in the fields during football season. Taylor took his first art class when he entered Arkansas State University in Jonesboro in 1964, where he majored in art and journalism. Graduating at the age of 21, he taught art in public schools in Mountain Grove, Mo., and a suburb of St. Louis before deciding to return to school to study art. He enrolled in the Memphis College of Arts in 1970, where he was in the same class as Eureka Springs artists Mary Springer, John Weller, and David Hussey. Tthe teacher he said influenced him the most: Veda Reed, who taught color theory.
"I consider myself a colorist," Taylor said. "I like the interplay of different colors and how they react with each other on the paper. They can create vibrations, great contrast or a muted effect. The interplay of color can create different moods in a painting."
Taylor paints with water colors on clayboard, using a dry-brush technique that allows him to paint fine details. One of his iconic images -- chimpanzees -- started with a design he created for a decorative pillow company. The chimps became so popular, people collected them, he said. Another big break came in the late 1980s when the Franklin Co. of Chicago picked up his work and started distributing limited editions prints. But Taylor never doubted that his life's work was to create art, even when he worked in a Lockheed factory, sold flowers on street corners or supported himself as a hairdresser for 40 years.
"I have been so obsessed with painting, there was never a moment when I though about stopping," he said. "I never considered giving up an option."
One of Taylor's shadow boxes was featured on the cover of the "What's Up" section of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in June. That's when he learned he was receiving the Governor's Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement. Taylor had previously had one of his images, of a iris, selected to be in the Governor's Mansion Association Calendar, and did several book signings with Arkansas First Lady Ginger Beebe. Then she and the mansion director requested an iris painting for the mansion, Taylor said. When he learned that he was receiving the Governor Arts Award, Taylor said he cried.
"It seemed like a goal I never would reach," Taylor said. "It wasn't in my realm of dreams."
His parents, who were always encouraging of his career, had passed away, but the ceremony, held at the Peabody Hotel in Little Rock, was attended by friends and supporters from Eureka Springs. He was introduced by Karin Boudet Ford, who said that Taylor had 45 years of leadership in the arts community, including arts promotion and advocacy. He served on the Eureka Springs Mayor's Arts Council and the Eureka Springs-Crystal Bridges Joint Committee, curates the annual Artigras show during Eureka's Mardi Gras festivities, and is known for mentoring other artists and providing food and art supplies for people in need, Ford said.
Taylor said he was touched that so many people, including people from the Chamber of Commerce, the City Advertising and Promotion Commission and the Eureka Springs Arts Council came to see him accept the award.
"I stopped and realized what great friends I have and what great support I have received from this town," Taylor said. "Living in Eureka Springs has made everything happen for me."
He was also chosen to be the grand marshal of the Ozarks Festival parade and was named Man of the Year by the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce in November. When asked to give a Ted Talk in Bentonville on the theme "Becoming," Taylor talked about how he became an artist.
"It was very scary, and is one of the more rewarding things I've ever done," he said of making the speech. "I made a lot of friends and a lot of contacts."
Taylor was also chosen to paint a pig for the Ozark Literacy Council's Pigshibition fundraiser. He currently has a carrousel in the 2012 International Toys Designed by Artists, a juried show at the Arkansas Arts Center. He also received honorable mention in the 2012 Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center.
The increased recognition has brought increased sales, Taylor said, both online and in galleries that carry his work: Out on Main, Iris at the Basin Park and Eurekan Art in Eureka Springs, and the Norberta Philbrook Gallery in Bentonville. Taylor just finished a three-year term on the Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, which held a local reception for him to celebrate the Governor's Award. The former editor of "IonART" magazine, Taylor puts his journalism training to use as editor of the Eureka Springs Artists Registry.
"On a volunteer basis he maintains a platform for advocacy of the arts and all of the artists in their careers," Ford said in her speech preceding the presentation of the Governor's Award.
Taylor is not predicting what 2013 will hold, but has a lot to look back on.
"I didn't expect this to happen," he said of the Governor's Award, "so I will wait and see how things unfold. I'm an optimist, so I think things are going to be good."
The Governor's Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement started in 1993, and has been given annually since 2000. Susan Morrison is the only other Eureka Springs artist to receive the award.
For more information about Taylor's art, go to www.zeektaylor.com.