is a window into history, says collector, museum founder Jack Warner
By Patrice Stewart
DAILY Staff Writer
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TUSCALOOSA — Art brings history to life in the Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art, with the help of its friend, founder and curator Jack Warner.
It's not hard to pick him out in the museum. Warner is the knowledgeable 87-year-old who can give the history of each piece of art and the political climate of its era — and he frequently does that, attracting a following as he moves from one gallery to another with his laser pointer.
Jack Warner, who served 40 years as chief executive officer of Gulf States Paper Co., is founder and curator of Westervelt-Warner Museum of American Art in Tuscaloosa.
During his 40 years as chief executive officer of Gulf States Paper Corp., he selected the art. The company was founded in 1884 by his grandfather, Herbert E. Westervelt, who invented the stand-up brown paper bag. While Warner has passed management of the company to his son, he continues to guide the Jack Warner Foundation, which operates the museum.
This artwork from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries was scattered around for years, but in 2003 Warner turned a rustic former hunting lodge into a top-quality museum on Lake Tuscaloosa. He grouped the art by painters, topics and periods so visiting public, groups and students on tours can learn about the past by looking at its art.
You'll see more than 500 pieces of art from 1775 on depicting scenes from the War for Independence; Civil War and other battles; plantation and slave times; emerging West, with Native Americans, buffalo and covered wagons; steamboats and industrialization, with plenty of portraits and landscapes; and even a totem pole or two.
In colorful rooms of furnishings, accessories and paintings, you can see a silver teapot made by Paul Revere, a rosewood cellarette thought to be Duncan Phyfe's work, and a Philadelphia secretary with an Argentine history.
Warner thinks of art as windows to history and points out a painting of a covered wagon like the one his relatives rode in to the Dakotas. But the World War II veteran who served in Burma also is partial to paintings reflecting the pain of battle, such as Constant Mayer's 1865 "Recognition." In landscapes, he points out the use of light and shadow, noting "That's God up there."
One long hall, called "The Sharecroppers," is lined with William Aiken Walker's paintings of African-Americans harvesting cotton, hanging out the wash and eating watermelon. Industrialization and the smoke of progress takes over in one room, while another features a steamboat in "The Magnolia Loading Cotton at Midnight." The 20th-century section boasts large Impressionist-style paintings.
But whatever the period or the artist, Warner knows the background, where the painter studied, when he went to Europe and how his style changed.
A touch of patriotism comes out as he surveys his collection, which includes several eagles and bronze sculptures, and a large number of portraits of George Washington, as well as work featuring Thomas Jefferson, John Hancock, Benjamin Franklin, and signers of the Declaration of Independence.
"They want my Robert Edge Pine painting of George Washington bad for Mount Vernon," said Warner, a Washington and Lee University graduate. He is concerned that some students today don't understand Washington's role in history, and he tries to remedy that when addressing tour groups. "They have no knowledge of their roots; it's really shocking," he said.
Susan Austin, executive director of the museum, wants to book more school groups for tours. A tour for the public is given by docents at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday, and special ones can be arranged for civic and garden clubs, church and other groups.
"When Jack has a school group come in, his knowledge of history brings the paintings alive. Art is his love and his passion, and his other interest is his garden," she said. "He's a man of incredible energy."
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