Who's in the painting? Library wants to know
by Denise Sinclair
SYLACAUGA - B.B. Comer Memorial Library is seeking the public’s help in identifying the people in the Crockwell paintings on exhibit.

The historic paintings were donated to the library as part of Avondale Mills’ legacy to the community.

Stephen Felker Sr., CEO of Avondale Mills, which closed in July 2006 presented the famous Douglass Crockwell collection to the library in 2008. The paintings detail important occasions in the lives of the families of many of the employees of Avondale Mills in the 1940s.

The paintings were commissioned by Avondale Mills for a national advertising campaign, which ran in the Saturday Evening Post from October 1947 to December 1948.

Twelve of the paintings were also selected for use in the 1948 company calendar.

In the paintings are families and employees from Sylacauga, Pell City, Alexander City and Birmingham. The paintings range from an Avondale chorus to a beach scene at the company’s vacation location, known as Camp Helen, to the birth of twins at the company hospital.

Crockwell was a famous American illustrator and did the paintings expressly for Avondale. According the company, the advertisements of the paintings were to reflect a better way of life sought by members of Avondale communities, as a normal part of the American experience.

Crockwell achieved fame for a skill for realism and expression with subjects from American life. His subjects ranged from war to illness to family reunions portrayed in a style similar to Norman Rockwell.

He referred to himself as the ‘poor man’s Norman Rockwell’.

Crockwell visited Alabama in 1947 for the paintings for the series of advertisements. He selected employees of the textile company and their children to model for 18 paintings. His paintings conveyed a sense of optimism, financial success and family strength that Avondale Mills, Alabama’s largest textile manufacturer at the time, wanted to communicate about the company and its 7,000 employees as the nation surged into prosperity following World War II.

The painting titles are telling: A Saving Wage, That Home of One’s Dream, An Enduring Partnership, Independence, America’s Sense of Beauty, The Fabric of America and The Fabric of Mankind.

The Fabric of Mankind is known to many as ‘The Christmas Tree Gathering.’

In the advertisement that ran in the Saturday Evening Post Dec. 18, 1948, it shows a family gathered underneath a Christmas tree wearing clothes made from Avondale chambrays and seersucker fabrics.

Christine Campbell Colvin is one of the children in the painting. She told her memories of the painting and Crockwell to Spears as she was gathering information on the paintings.

“My memory is that the artist used subjects who belonged to families of Avondale employees. The Christmas scene included me – Christine Campbell – the daughter of Robert and Nannie Campbell. We lived at 202 Pine Street in Walco and both of my parents worked for Avondale until they retired. I am the little girl holding the doll, and I remember being so attracted to the new doll that I was not paying much attention to anyone else, especially the artist.

“The boy playing with the train is Tommy Williams – son of Marvin ‘Preacher’ Williams and Melrose Williams. I think they lived on Alabama Avenue near ‘Busy Corner’. It was told that Mr. Williams got the name of ‘Preacher’ because he was one of the bosses at the mill and was always telling people how to do their jobs – ‘preaching.’ Melrose also worked at the mill.

“Tommy Williams and I attended kindergarten which was located in Walco. We were chosen along with many other classmates (who were in other paintings) when Mr. Crockwell came to our little school.

“Sometime after Mr. Crockwell made his visit, my mother received a phone call telling her to bring me to the Avondale office. At that time, I was outside playing the mud with a friend, and my mother had to give me a bath before we could leave. I was to wear pajamas, a housecoat and bedroom slippers. Since I did not have any slippers, I wore sandals.

“We gathered in a large room for the picture. However, there was no Christmas tree. The artist had us to pose as if we were gathered around a tree, and he later painted in the decorated tree.

“The biggest moment for my family was when the pictured appeared in an Avondale advertisement in the Saturday Evening Post magazine.”

When donating the paintings to the library, Felker said he had a strong desire to leave them in the community as part of Avondale’s legacy, where they could be displayed together and not separated.

Today, Spears said the paintings are on display in the history room at the library.

She has made an effort to name as many people in the paintings as possible, but there are still paintings with Avondale employees and family members she would like to identify.

She invites the public to come by, see the paintings and if they recognize anyone in them to let her know.

For more information on the paintings, contact the library, at 256-249-0961.

Contact Denise Sinclair at dsinclair@dailyhome.com.

© 2013