02/12/06 — Artists Zeno Spence honored

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Artists Zeno Spence honored

By Winkie Lee
Published in News on February 12, 2006 2:15 AM

"There's mine over there -- the barn."

Joyce Johnson motioned toward a painting that features a barn in the background and the land on which it rests as the dominant portion of the picture.

The fact that the soil is the focal point appealed to Ms. Johnson so much that she purchased the painting.

When she was asked to loan it for an exhibit and gala honoring Zeno Spence, she readily agreed.

It was one of about 75 of the Goldsboro artist's works that were on display. Ms. Johnson was one of close to 240 people attending the gala at the Arts Council of Wayne County Friday night.

Those in attendance looked at the paintings, pointing out ones that were theirs and ones they admired.

"He does the cleanest watercolors," said Martha Kornegay. "Too many people don't know how to use watercolor, so they overuse it."

Drawing attention to a painting entitled "Park House," she said that Spence "is so confident and good at what he does, he puts it (the paint) down and knows when to leave it alone."

Unlike many exhibits, these works appealed to the viewers on a very personal level. They captured in time people they loved. They featured places they knew. And they were the works of a man about whom they care a great deal.

The guest speakers made it clear that Spence is a special member of the Goldsboro community.

It was a sentiment shared by the crowd and mentioned many times during the social hour that preceded the program.

The point was made many times before Friday night ever arrived.

The Arts Council had long wanted to have an event honoring Spence. When a date was finally chosen and the word began to go out, the response was immediate.

People called, offering to loan the portraits Spence had done for them and the other paintings he had created which now adorned their walls.

They offered their time and talents, and told Arts Council Executive Director Alice Strickland how glad they were that such a program was to be held.

The volunteers who were key to the planning and execution of the program, exhibit, food and decorations were Dr. Bruce Berkeley, Bryan Sutton, Nancy Norwood, Anne McArthur, Hettie Grisette, Peggy Griswold and Scottie Bryan.

They were not lacking for assistance, Mrs. Griswold said.

"Everybody wanted to help," she said. "We had more people who wanted to help than room to accommodate them."

The program was to begin at 6 p.m. People began arriving early and, by 5:45, had filled much of the entrance area as they waited to be allowed in. About that time, the guest of honor arrived.

Dressed in an attractive dark suit, a bright red rose placed in his coat lapel, Spence had a smile on his face. He remained outside for a few minutes, talking with a couple of people, and then came in.

For much of the evening, he and wife, Patricia, were surrounded by well wishers, all wanting to speak to them.

The work on exhibit featured Spence's paintings from the 1940s to the present day. In addition to the portraits and Herman Park scenes for which he is well known, there were seascapes, barns and more. The works included a portrait of his children when they were young and a painting of a pine tree at sunset. The latter was done recently and pleased Spence because he felt he had finally captured, in paint, a sunset the way he wanted.

His paintings covered the walls and partitions in the Arts Council's large downstairs room.

In the center were tables covered with white cloths. Candles and floral arrangements added light and color.

Off to two sides of the room were large tables filled with food -- shrimp, fried chicken, crackers, cheese, asparagus and sweets.

Tom Casey played the piano. Later in the evening, Spence's neighbor, Henry McInnis, played some tunes.

At 7 p.m., the guest speakers, introduced by emcee Gene Price, regaled people with stories, drawings and a photograph, all sharing different things about Spence's life.

The speaker system made things complicated at first, but Price, Dr. Berkeley, Conway Rose, J.D. Pike and Mrs. Strickland did not let that deter them. They told their stories, often drawing laughter.

Price told of the time when Spence was working at the News-Argus and it was decided to have a picture made that showed photographers what type of photo to avoid taking. It was the "grip and grin," where people stare directly at the camera and flash unusually large smiles. To demonstrate what not to do, Spence and Price had posed in classic grip-and-grin fashion.

Price then showed the audience the picture. They laughed, flashing their own smiles as they saw the photo of the dark-haired young men looking right at the camera and smiling.

Price then recounted a conversation he and Spence had about how different the picture of the Marines and Navy corpsman raising the American flag at Iwo Jima would had been if the photographer taking it had specialized in grip and grins. He showed the audience a drawing Spence had done of such a possibility, and again the audience laughed.

Berkeley, who has known Spence since they were children, spoke of Spence's early drawings and the artwork he did as a student at Goldsboro High School. He told about the Goldsboro High School Swingsters, the band in which Spence played piano, and of the short-lived comedy routine he and Spence did.

Later in the evening, Spence encouraged Berkeley to share one of that team's jokes, about a pig named Bic. That's not a name for a pig, Berkeley responded. Of course not, Spence said, it's his pen name.

Berkeley told of Spence designing high school rings, playing the piano on WGBR and working for a publishing house.

And he spoke of Spence's art career, including his portraits and murals.

Rose has hired Spence, over the past 45 years, to do colored drawings used to promote commercial projects.

"I am confident that, without his art presentations, the basic public sale of the original ideas might never have cleared the ground," Rose said. "Zeno Spence, the artist, can capture the magnificence of the sky, the movement of water and the sparkle of an eye."

Pike told of the "Rat Pack of Evergreen Avenue" -- Cubby Culbertson, Donald Stone Pike, Paul Junior Edmundson, John Junior Thompson, Ray Bryan, Mike Pate, Berkeley, Spence and him. The group of friends spent a lot of time together, and Pike recalled the number of times he watched Spence draw.

"I wonder how many pictures in Goldsboro have Zeno's name on the bottom," he said.

He added that Spence has the ability to make people feel good.

"His cup is always half full," he said. "Did you ever have a conversation with Zeno where you didn't feel better?"

People applauded in response.

Mrs. Strickland spoke of his contributions to the former Arts Council Sunday in the Park program and his contributions to its current teacher and art student award program.

And then it was time for Spence to speak.

"It is said that everyone has their 15 minutes of fame," he said, smiling. "It took me 56 years to get here. Let me tell you, it was worth every minute."

He expressed joy over how far the arts have come in Wayne County, making special mention of the arts center, which he said is a perfect venue for the county.

"It's got the room, and it's got the possibilities," Spence said.

He then expressed his gratitude.

"I want you to know how much I appreciate you people taking the time and the expense to come and honor me this way," he said. "You're the greatest people in all the world, and I thank you."