The Art Center leverages community investments to enrich visual arts in Memphis

When Cal Wilson and Charlie Cantrell left their corporate careers at Sears-Roebuck and Greenhorn and Rush, respectively, in 1974 to open the Art Center, the hope was the business would live up to its name.

Both artists for hire, they climbed the corporate ladder. Unfulfilled, their dream was to own their own business. At that time, a stored that catered to the needs of artists across mediums was unheard of in Memphis. Not only would their business keep artists in supplies, it would serve as a confluence where artists could connect.

Over forty years later, the store located at 1636 Union Ave. is still open. Now Wilson’s son, Tom, along with co-owner, Susan Steele, run the Midtown fixture. Susan Steele, a BFA graduate of the Memphis Academy of Arts, was hired as a sales clerk in 1983 and worked her way up to partner in 1997. Tom joined his father in 1990 and previously, worked in horticulture and ground maintenance at Dixon Gardens and Memorial Park Cemetery.

“Dad tapped me on the shoulder one day and asked if I wanted to come join him,” explained Wilson.

Most of the staff at the Art Center staff are working artists and have some form of advanced art education. (Kim Coleman)

As owners, Steele and Wilson focus on engaging people in the visual arts.

A recent example of Steele’s role in the community is the new mural off Lamar Ave. next to AlTown skate park. Working with PaintMemphis, the Art Center donated the materials to the project.
“But our greatest single investment is the RiverArtsFest because that’s where we can actively engage people in the visual arts. We like to do things that make Memphis shine so we’re involved with the RiverArtsFest,” said Wilson.

The Art Center has been involved with RiverArtsFest and its predecessor, Arts in the Park, since 1991. The Art Center is a key organizer and sponsor of the weekend-long festival and juried art sale in Downtown Memphis.

Over the years, they’ve done several projects including airbrushing, stencils, marbleizing paper and resist silk hoops.
“Our philosophy is to show up with things people can do that allow them to vent their creativity,” said Wilson.

The 2017 Paint Memphis event brought together over 150 muralists and graffiti writers to create a sprawling mural on Lamar Avenue. The Art Center donated supplies and expertise. (Courtesy Paint Memphis)

This year, the Art Center's activity, Hands On Art, will lead demonstrations in monoprints, implied landscapes and will facilitate kids' activities at the popular Creative Critters station.

Art students from area high schools – usually Arlington High School and St. Mary’s Episcopal School – often turn out to volunteer for the festival. They help with the Creative Critters and the youngest artists. Many students earn community service credits.

The festival, which draws 25,000 attendees, is staffed entirely by over 300 volunteers. 
At Hands On Art, festival-goers have bona fide artists working with them to collectively create a piece of art that they can take home.

“We get the spectrum of participants from the toddler all the way up to 99 years old,” said Wilson. “Our activities are make it and take it, and we try to do things that are going to be guaranteed successful for participants.”

Wilson served as director of education for RiverArtsFest from 2014 to 2016.

“I passed on the torch to Angela Less this past year and she is wiz-bang good at it – way better than me,” he said.

RiverArtsFest is in its 11th year on South Main, opening Friday, October 27 and running through Sunday, October 29. The festival will feature juried fine art for sale, live music, food and beverages, art demonstrations, and hands-on activities.

Wilson, as a member of the RiverArtsFest education committee, has watched the event grow to the point of being able to distribute almost $60,000 annually in donations to various schools through grants and admissions.

“We give scholarships, around $12,500, to some of the local universities. And those are usually given out in $1,000 increments,” said Wilson.

A young artist at the Art Center-led kids section at RiverArtsFest. (Courtesy RiverArtsFest)

RiverArtsFest also gives out Special Resource Grants that total $12,000 to help bring unique educational projects to life. Projects are chosen by merit.

"If a teacher has a special project they want to create, they can come to us and apply for this grant which is parceled out in increments of $400 to $750,” said Wilson.

The third prong of the education committee's focus is the “Art in the Making” program, which is funded by First Tennessee Bank's ArtsFirst grant. This program places working artists in a school’s classroom to teach the students various mediums. Shelby County, charter and municipal schools have taken advantage of the program.

“As a result, thousands of students get to benefit from our connection with the artists and working with the art educators. From my vision, this is really cool," Wilson said.

Although the store changed hands decades ago, Steele and Wilson remain faithful to founding partner’s vision for the store.

“It’s really a gathering spot for artists. A community where folks know each other and spend time in the aisles talking to each other about what they’re creating, what materials they are working with,” said Wilson.

The staff is knowledgeable. Most are working artists with some form of advanced art education.

“We want to make it when they come to our door and there are people here who can help them. Each of our folks has their own specialty. I have folks who are multimedia experts, painters and illustrators.”

Store manager Jimmy Sanders is one of those learned employees. A local artist, Sanders has a long relationship with the Art Center as a customer and employee that dates back to the late 1980s.

Artists can choose from a wide selection of acrylic, watercolor, or oil paints along with supplemental mediums and brushes. (Kim Coleman)

“I’ve been back at the Art Center for a little over three years. I worked here originally from 1987 to 1993. Then moved to Florence, Italy to study painting and lived there for 14 years,” said Sanders.

When he returned to Memphis, it was like he never left.

“I immediately ran into people here that I had known in the '80s that were artists and still here. A lot of the people that shop here were shopping here well before I left. They have longtime, loyal customers who have been shopping here for 30 to 40 plus years,” said Sanders.

One thing that has changed is the size of the store.

“When my father started, there was only one bay 20 feet wide with less than 2,000 square feet and now we have the whole building, about 10,000 square feet,” said Wilson.

Under Steele's guidance, the extra space accommodates a wider variety of supplies – roughly 14,000 units of art materials. There are over 350 varieties of paper, 128 types of notebooks, plus a large assortment of stretched canvas and other surfaces. 

Artists can choose from a wide selection of acrylic, watercolor, or oil paints along with supplemental mediums and brushes galore for their application. 

The sales floor houses pencils, pens, pastels, and markers for all drawing needs. A full-service frame shop and kids' area complement the Midtown shop's offerings. 

“If you’re an artist and walk into the store, you will salivate over the thousands and thousands of SKUs [stock keeping units] of art materials. They say to me all the time ‘what a wonderful job you have’ and yes, it is. I get to work with great customers and staff. I’m not an artist myself but I get joy out of looking at what people create and talking the language of artists," Wilson said. 

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Read more articles by Kim and Jim Coleman.

Kim Coleman is a journalist with over 20 years of experience in newsrooms as a reporter, editor and graphic designer, including ten years with The Commercial Appeal as Design Director/Senior Editor and Print Planning Editor. 


Jim Coleman is a freelance writer, covering a variety of topics from high school sports, community news and small business. He has written for different news organizations over the past 20 years, including The Commercial Appeal, Community Weeklies, Lexington Herald-Leader and The Albuquerque Journal.