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After his own art

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Like many octogenarians, Pete Ballard is getting rid of his possessions.

His, however, aren't going to children and grandchildren; instead, they're headed to museums and art galleries across the country.

On Wednesday, the executive director of the Butler Institute of American Art drove from Youngstown, Ohio, to Monroe County to pick up paintings by Ballard as well as a dozen fashion dolls he created.

"Your paintings are exceptional and will be a fine addition to the Butler collection, which also has one of the most celebrated collections of American Still Life painting," Louis Zona wrote in a December letter to Ballard.

The Butler collection contains works by John Singer Sargent, William Merritt Chase, Thomas Eakins, Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, Jackson Pollock and Andrew Wyeth. It owns the famous Winslow Homer painting "Snap the Whip" of schoolboys playing outside a one-room schoolhouse.

An Edward Hopper painting had just returned from being on loan to the Tate Gallery in London, when Zona spoke by phone last month about the museum and the new acquisitions.

Jack Grand Butler, owner of Youngstown Sheet and Tube Co., established the museum in 1919. "He was one of the earliest collectors of American art," Zona said. "While his contemporaries were going to Europe to buy Monets, he was busy buying William Merritt Chase. He was a visionary, and we are reaping the benefits."

For the Butler's permanent collection, Zona selected three of Ballard's paintings: one of lilacs, another of rhododendron and a still life of oranges.

He took several other paintings donated by Ballard that the Butler can auction off to raise money. "It was very generous of Pete," Zona said.

He also left Peterstown with perhaps the last fashion dolls that Ballard will make. The 3-foot-tall papier-mâché dolls are lavishly dressed in historically accurate costumes from the 19th century.

"The doll collection is a new venture for us," Zona said.

Several other regional museums, including the West Virginia State Museum, already have fashion dolls or hat dolls Ballard painstakingly created over the decades.

Among his favorites are those he based on the outfits worn by his friend Vivien Leigh when she played Scarlett O'Hara in the 1939 movie "Gone With the Wind."

Last summer, he loaned six Scarlett dolls and one Mammy doll to the North Carolina History Museum in Raleigh when it displayed the extensive Tumblin Collection of "Gone With the Wind" memorabilia.

At the end of the show, Ballard gave Tumblin (whose collection is valued at $66 million) the dolls, and insisted that one more was needed. Scarlett's costumes were all glamorous ones, and Ballard thought he needed to make the threadbare dress the heroine wore through half of the Civil War.

He found a pink print material and bleached it, stained it and beat it with a rock. He collected locust tree thorns to hold the hairnet in place -- just as Scarlett would have done during the lean years. He went to a local junk shop looking for metal to make the gun Scarlett shot the Yankee with; owner Bill Bailey carved a wooden weapon instead.

For the other dolls, Ballard sewed outfits based on fashion plates from 19th-century magazines such as Harper's Bazaar.

In his Peterstown apartment, he pointed to one doll headed to the Butler museum. The doll is dressed in an all-white dress with four layers trimmed in scalloped lace. He copied it from a drawing in a fashion book. The caption reads, "Morning dress, suited to a watering-place breakfast table." Presumably, it was a White Sulphur Springs-caliber watering hole.

Ballard has given much of his collection of fashion books to Concord University and to West Virginia University.

He also gave two Monroe County landscapes to the West Virginia and Regional Library Center at WVU.

To Westminster College, in Fulton, Mo., he has donated personal items relating to his close friendship with Sarah Churchill, such as the pen-and-ink drawing she did of her famous father, Winston, driving a convertible.

He and Churchill were good friends with the painter Lobo Nocho, and the works by him that Ballard owned have gone to the North Carolina Central University in Durham, N.C.

A portrait of Ballard by Joe King, a North Carolina artist, has passed on to Elon College, which has an extensive collection of King's paintings.

"I've spent the past two years giving it away," Ballard said of his possessions, although with every wall covered with paintings and photographs, it was hard to tell (some are copies of what has already been donated). "I just want to find a place for them where people will enjoy them."

On the advice of a friend, he contacted the Butler Institute about donating two landscapes by James M. Hart of the Hudson River school of artists. He sent them photographs, and in the background his own work was visible, and Zona inquired about them.

"I'm like a plucked chicken," Ballard joked.

Ballard said he has never sold any of his collection, and has an income that is sufficient for his convenient, low-cost lifestyle in Peterstown, where he retired to 17 years ago.

Before that, the 82-year-old Welch native had an eclectic career as a painter, teacher and costume designer and curator, living in such locales as Saudi Arabia and Vietnam.

"Everything I've done in museums and in the arts has been as a volunteer or donor. I've never been paid," he said.

Reach Rosalie Earle at earle@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5115.


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