Art in the Park turns 50: Lawrence’s outdoor show has supported artists since 1961

Paul Penny sits in his studio with a painting by his mother, Addie, who is in the picture he's holding. Addie was one of the first organizers of Art in the Park and Paul will be showing art this year at the event, which will be Sunday, May 1, in South Park.

It started simply, just a group of friends painting in the park on Sundays. Soon, people were stopping by to have a look at what art was being produced among the green at South Park in downtown Lawrence.

So, in 1961, those artists in the park decided to show their admirers exactly what they’d been up to. These artists picked a date and attached their works to cyclone fencing and called it curated.

“They decided, ‘Well, maybe we just ought to have an art show down there,'” says Paul Penny, 85, a painter whose mother, Addie, was one of the artists featured in that very first Art in the Park. “There was a group of people who did it, and she was one of them.”

It doesn’t sound like much, but it was, says Jen Unekis, artist and coordinator for Art in the Park.

“It’s separate art booths now and there’s this big, huge, sprawling thing, and back then it was just this cyclone fencing. But it was also a big deal. They printed up little catalogs of each of the pieces of art and what the price was and people were dressed in their fancy Sunday-best clothing,” says Unekis, who has paged through scrapbooks full of pictures and clippings from the event’s life span. “There’s one image of these two nuns in full habits that are looking at the art on the cyclone fencing. It just looks like it’s some fancy thing.”

This weekend, Art in the Park is still going to be a big deal — fancy dress optional. More than 150 local artists will show their work between 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. Sunday at South Park, with a rain date of May 8.

Unekis says that the variety of local art this year is off the charts and totally befitting the event’s 50th anniversary.

“We have potters and glass blowers and jewelers — some really nice jewelers this year — some amazing metalsmiths this year,” Unekis says. “And we have a guy who makes chicken-bone motorcycles. And they look really cool.”

Back before the era of chicken-bone motorcycles in 1961, Addie Penny was walking the dirt roads of Lawrence, teaching schoolchildren art as a roving public schoolteacher. She instilled her love of art in Paul, who took up painting at age 11 and who has been putting brush to canvas for more than 70 years now.

Penny plans on bringing a few dozen paintings with him to this year’s event. His specialization is in rolling landscapes, and recently he’s been doing a lot of art featuring bold blues, oranges and yellows as he’s been capturing everything from strong full moons to wildfires. He doesn’t expect to sell as many paintings as in years past — he’s lost track of the number of times he’s done the show — but he says he loves going because he gets to have such close contact with the people who love his art. The family tradition of it all is just a bonus.

“I like to meet the people down there, I meet so many people who have my paintings and they come by and look at them,” Penny says. “I enjoy doing that crazy stuff. It’s fun for me to do.”

The same goes for Celia Smith, an artist who has been coming to the show since 1968. That was her first-ever art show, and since then she hasn’t missed but one Art in the Park. She attends several art shows a year now but says there something unique and wonderful about the one on the emerald lawn at South Park.

“I have very faithful customers, yes. They come to chat and talk and see how things are, and that’s very pleasant,” Smith says. “During the summer, I go to shows, it’s a busy time for me. I go to about, during the year, about 12 or 13 shows. … This is the first one.

“But it’s a very blessed one because it’s so pretty in South Park.”