Five more inducted into the Blair County Arts Hall of Fame
Hot rods inspired local muralist
Michael Allison vaguely remembers taping paper together so he could draw poster-size dinosaurs while growing up in Altoona. It was the earliest of many “little signposts along the way” that he would become an artist, he said.
For nearly five decades, Allison has advocated for and created art, including prominent public and private murals and the historically acurate restoration of rooms in the Baker Mansion. For his efforts, he is being inducted into the Blair County Arts Hall of Fame this year in the category of public art/architecture.
This year’s class also includes Ann and Bill Benzel for arts leadership/arts patron, the late Ruth Barnes for performing arts, the late Kenneth Kuhn for visual arts and the Altoona Mirror for literary arts.
The Blair County Arts Foundation created the Arts HOF in 2003 and conducted annual inductions for three years before going to a biennial event, said executive director Kate Shaffer. With this year’s ninth class, total membership will be at 45, she said.
The HOF’s mission, she said, is to “honor the talent, leadership and dedication of individuals who have enriched the quality of life in our region. It is also the hope that by honoring their artistic achievements we can create an awareness of the wealth of creativity rooted in Blair County, as well as inspire and encourage others to follow in their footsteps.”
When first created, a BCAF committee developed a comprehensive list of people and organizations to honor, but it also accepts new nominations for the five categories that don’t change, Shaffer said.
This year’s honorees will be recognized at a dinner on Wednesday at The Casino at Lakemont Park. The $50 tickets are available by calling the BCAF at (814) 949-2787.
“It will give me the opportunity to thank a whole lot of people who have been very supportive over the years,” Allison said. “I don’t think a lot of people realize how difficult having an art career in a region like this is — and there are a lot of regions like this — and how much support it takes. That’s an important factor.”
He was surprised but honored to learn of his induction.
“I’m not the kind of person who goes looking for this kind of thing,” Allison added. “That said, I’m really honored. I’m really touched they selected me.”
Allison was the first full-time curator at the Southern Alleghenies Museum of Art (SAMA), overseeing 30 exhibitions during his tenure. His commercial art and designs can be found in a number of area businesses, and “his fine art, both in painting and sculpture, is in collections throughout the country,” according to the HOF program.
His murals are in private homes and public locations, including the Lincoln Highway Heritage Corridor, Hollidaysburg and Johnstown.
Other than doing “paint-by-numbers” pictures with his mother when he was a child, Allison said there was “very little art in the home.” His obsession with dinosaurs prompted suggestions that he would grow up to be a paleontologist, not an artist. “I didn’t know what that was,” he said.
Allison said he came to realize in retrospect that his mechanic father’s fascination with automobiles — and his subscription to the popular “Hot Rod” magazine — had a lot to do with his love of art. The youngster realized that those customized cars “were sculpted into … works of art.” Plus, regular advertisements in the magazine by Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, a California-based artist and custom-car designer, included cartoons drawn by young artists just out of art school who went on to produce the psychedelic rock concert posters of the late ’60s for bands like the Grateful Dead.
After Allison graduated from Bishop Guilfoyle High School in 1968, he attended the Art Institute of Pittsburgh, and he still regularly attends art seminars and classes.
He was a realist painter for a long time, and a classic example is the mural of the area’s historic canal basin on the OIP Pizza building in Hollidaysburg.
“My current paintings have a lot of abstract,” he said. “They have a lot of art edges and transitions and things like that and they’re full of color. Some of this is derived from things like the look of those hot-rod cars and the look of those early psychedelic posters.”
“Basically everything I do and everything I’ve learned gets plowed back into art.”
His next project is a mural in Oil City, which he will paint on metal signboard and have mounted on a wall there due to its distance.
Allison added that he likes “getting paid” for his artwork.
“There is this odd notion, which is particularly rampant in the world of academia, that people who only paint for themselves are nobler than the rest of us who have to go out there and work jobs, create artwork that we sell,” he said. “I’m painting all the time. Some of it is less challenging, but I’m constantly honing my craft.
“But all in all, I feel very lucky to make the living I’ve made doing what I love.”
* Kenneth Kuhn
Allison added that it is an honor to be inducted in the Hall of Fame the same year as Kuhn, who died in 1995.
Kuhn taught drawing, design and painting at Penn State Altoona for 26 years and was director of the Ivyside Gallery there. His own work has been shown and awarded widely, according to the Hall of Fame program. And it is in many permanent collections, including SAMA, the Hobson Pitman Collection, the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts and Westinghouse Electric Corp., as well as private collections throughout the country.
A 1954 graduate of Altoona High School and 1960 graduate of Penn State, Kuhn’s reputation “continues to enjoy abundant popularity for his art, for his teaching and for his jazz drumming but perhaps most importantly, his influence on so many artistic careers,” according to the HOF program.
* Ann and Bill Benzel
The Benzels have supported the arts for more than 40 years, as volunteers, board members, ticket holders, art purchasers and significant financial donors to the Blair County Arts Foundation, SAMA, the Altoona Community Theatre, the Altoona Symphony Orchestra and a number of arts groups and activities, as well as individual artists, according to the program.
“Their support has been instrumental in creating and maintaining a diverse and vibrant arts community,” it says.
For years, the couple has supported ACT’s Isaac Awards that recognizes high school theater. Bill Benzel also was actively involved in upgrading the Mishler Theatre’s heating and cooling project that allows the theater to operate year-round.
Ann Benzel led the Mishler restoration campaign in the 1990s and currently leads the campaign to replace the theater’s seating.
She also is one of two people to have chaired both the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts and the Pennsylvania Humanities Council, and she remains active with SAMA, the BCAF and other organizations.
* Ruth Barnes
Barnes’ first dancing experience took place in 1918 in the Mishler Theatre, a solo with the Altoona Gymnasium school. Later, she became director of that group, which became the Ruth Barnes School of Dance and flourished for more than 60 years.
“While she taught violin in her early days, it has been said that she is best known as the woman who taught Altoona to dance,” according to the BCAF.
A number of her students went on to fame, including Hollywood actress Janet Blair and choreographer Charles Dickson.
Barnes died in 1990 at the age of 94.
* The Altoona Mirror
Founded in 1874, the newspaper is the largest between Pittsburgh and Harrisburg and serves nearly 50,000 readers in Blair and surrounding counties through its print, online and digital services.
“It’s been a part of the fabric of the arts community since its inception and has a long history of supporting and promoting the arts,” Shaffer said. “We felt they were extremely deserving.”
Mirror Staff Writer Cherie Hicks is at 949-7030.
If you go
What: Blair County Arts Hall of Fame Awards Presentation
When: Reception starts at 6 p.m., dinner at 7 p.m. on Wednesday
Where: The Casino at Lakemont Park, Altoona
Admission: $50 each
Tickets/More info: Blair County Arts Foundation, 814-949-2787, www.mishlertheatre.org