For the past 30 years, Becky Witsell has dedicated her life to preserving and restoring historic homes and structures throughout the state. It’s been a tedious and calculated process, but one that’s also brought her great joy and recognition.
Among other awards, she was honored by the Historic Preservation Alliance of Arkansas in 2004 with the prestigious Parker Westbrook Award for Lifetime Achievement. The alliance is the only statewide nonprofit organization focused on preserving Arkansas’ architectural and cultural resources; the organization’s mission is to educate, advocate and assist preservation efforts across the state.
According to Executive Director Vanessa Norton McKuin, this year’s awards ceremony, which will be held January 14 at Chenal Country Club, is special because it kicks off the alliance’s 30th anniversary. “Each year, we honor exemplary preservation projects and programs and the people who make them happen,” she said. The alliance will honor 15 recipients with awards in 13 categories; the recipient of the Lifetime Achievement Award will be Theodosia Nolan, a founding board member of the alliance who has contributed to the restoration of the John Newton House in El Dorado, Pioneer Washington in Hempstead County, the Pike-Fletcher-Terry Mansion in Little Rock and many more.
You can bet Witsell will be there to give Nolan a round of applause. Born and raised in Little Rock, Witsell attended Washington University in St. Louis, as did her husband, Charles. She studied art; he pursued architecture. They made their way back to Little Rock after college. “Charles had a mentor that he came here to work for, Ed Cromwell, one of the frontrunners in preservation,” said Becky. “We had been involved in some preservation in St. Louis, and we wanted to be involved here.”
As Witsell tells it, she and Charles, who is now a retired architect for Witsell Evans Rasco, “jumped into the whole thing with both feet.” When the alliance formed 30 years ago, they were already knee deep in local preservation efforts. “Charles is a founding board member,” she said. “He was, at that time, an adviser to the national trust.”
After renting a couple of different places, the Witsells bought the Frederick Hangar House on Scott Street and began the long restoration process. “We bought a house that essentially had no working bathrooms, second-floor termites, rotten wood everywhere…it was a great adventure,” she laughed.
During that time, Witsell was working at the Arkansas Arts Center, teaching printmaking and eventually becoming the director of education. “We had a gallery there called the Yellow Space Place, where I created exhibits around a theme and children could come there and talk about the art. And then there was a workspace where they got to make things and bring them home. Those were good years, and it was a wonderful, wonderful time.
Buying an old house is how I transitioned from being a fine artist into doing that [restoration] because a lot of the skills required, especially stenciling, are related to silkscreen printing,” she said. Witsell began stenciling when she removed wallpaper in the Hangar House and discovered Victorian stenciling beneath it. “I had to learn from exposing and studying the work of the man who did it the first time,” she explained, “and to be true to that when it was being recreated, I felt like I had to put myself into his discipline as much as I could. The challenge was to learn to master new techniques that I didn’t know, like graining and marbleizing.”
But master them she did. Since that first stenciling discovery years ago, Witsell has spoken at national events, co-authored a book of stencils and worked on many more historically significant projects through her historic decorative-painting company, Studio Werk. The list is far too long to include in its entirety, but her projects include courthouses all across the state, numerous homes in Little Rock, the Lafayette Building lobby, the State Capitol, Lakeport plantation in Lake Village, the Little Rock Zoo carousel horses, the Old State House, St. Edward Catholic Church, The Cathedral of St. Andrew, Trinity Episcopal Cathedral and more.
In 2005, an endowment was created in the Witsells’ name from donations made to the alliance in their honor. Named “The Becky and Charles Witsell Endowment for Preservation Education and Training,” Witsell said the monies will support the alliance by providing learning opportunities in the preservation field and furthering preservation in Arkansas.
“Examples of areas where this learning program might apply could include workshops on new methods and materials and specialty training for craftspersons on handling hazardous historic building materials and acquiring historic building skills and techniques,” said Witsell. “This program is a way to continue to deepen the understanding of preservation issues and encourage professional development; both will help quality in Arkansas preservation for the future.”
While preservation is still one of Witsell’s top priorities, she’s found herself at a turning point in her career. The phone’s unplugged at Studio Werk, and Witsell is ready to begin creating fine art again. “I guess the last time I exhibited was in 1980. I’ve had 30 years now to incubate, and I feel like there’s an explosion going on inside me,” she said. “Next week, I’m going to use my studio on Scott Street [in a small Victorian cottage] and prep a bunch of paper and pages and things for starting. I think I’ll stay with oils, and I have new ways of handling oil paint that I want to experiment with. I don’t have any rules now…that’s the great thing. I mean, it’s the most exciting place to be.”