Smithfield, NC's Visual Arts

The Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield includes Louis Orr etchings featuring North Carolina landmarks.
The Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield includes Louis Orr etchings featuring North Carolina landmarks.

While one expects a variety of fine arts in large cities, comparatively small Johnston County communities offer some exceptional collections, from art classes in small venues to diverse, large art collections to a glamorous museum dedicated to a Golden Age Hollywood star.

The Louis Orr Collection

The Public Library of Johnston County and Smithfield showcases a stunning collection of original etchings by the renowned Louis Orr, who created 51 works between 1939 and 1951 depicting the state’s finest landmarks. The library’s complete collection had been carefully stored for decades, since it acquired the works for $3,000 in the early 1960s. The collection, now valued at some $60,000, inspired a recent effort to raise the necessary $9,000-plus to frame the etchings using conservation techniques and make them available for public viewing. 

"The public is astonished at the beauty of Orr's work," says the library's Margaret Marshall. "But I think what might put people over the edge is to understand what's involved in the incredibly complex craft of etching."

She says the entire collection has not yet been hung, and some may be lent to Johnston Community College and other government buildings for short shows before being hung completely at the library.

Paintings of Ava Gardner

The Ava Gardner Museum in Smithfield houses a rich selection of artifacts of the late actress, who grew up in Johnston County. The biggest draw might be her beautiful screen costumes, especially a black evening dress from the film The Great Sinner, according to curator Todd Johnson. An intriguing part of the overall collection is the many portraits of her created by Dutch artist Bert Pfeiffer.

“He began painting Ava Gardner from movie stills as a very young man in 1948,” says Johnson. “He never met her, but he continued to paint her portrait for more than 50 years, using publicity photos and other images.”

Gardner herself appreciated Pfeiffer's work, as three of his portraits hung in her London home prior to her death in 1990.

Arts in Higher Education

The Frank Creech Gallery at Johnston Community College takes its name from a former faculty member, and exhibits the works of local and regional artists as well as student creations. Bill Gregory, art faculty member, says they recruit artists through connections and friendships between the college staff and students, and regional artists. The last show of each semester highlights the work of students, including 2- and 3D work, ceramics, sculpture and installations.

“The neat thing is, we’re right there with the classroom, and it’s all open. Visitors can walk right in and find a way to participate if they want to,” says Gregory. “If you’re interested in painting, come for the day – maybe you’ll decide to take a class.”

Wood, Glass, and More

Several small galleries show and sell the work of artists. Barbara A. Keen Studio in Four Oaks shares the artist’s wonderful stained glasswork and paintings. Boon Hill Gallery in Princeton charms with chainsaw art, from adorable bears to fine Native American images and more, with prices based on the complexity of the work. 

Those wishing to take classes or buy from local artists can depend on River City Arts in Smithfield, Eye of the Eagle Art Center in Clayton (set in a circa 1856 home and now offering student work for sale), and Janet Lowry’s Right Angles Framing and Art (with a selection of work by local North Carolina artists available for purchase).

Reader Comments