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Picture Imperfect

It's almost noon on a hot Saturday morning in July, and the professional photographer who volunteered to teach Artist Thornton's photography workshop at the South Dallas Cultural Center is more than an hour late.

A roomful of about 20 eager youngsters, many clutching rolls of photographic negatives, stare expectantly at Thornton, a grandfatherly man in spectacles, white chinos, and a Panama hat. Checking his watch, Thornton decides he has to go on without a teacher.

"Who wants to develop a picture?" he asks to a round of cheers, appearing unfazed that he knows little about printing photographs. But he doesn't need to, because Thornton, a resourceful man, snags an unsuspecting Observer photographer assigned to cover the workshop for this story and asks her to share her expertise with the kids. Minutes later, class begins.

Artist Thornton is used to flying by the seat of his pants, making things work with volunteers and no money. At 51, Thornton has devoted almost half his life to bringing the arts to kids who might not otherwise be exposed to them. Twenty years ago, Thornton and his wife, Elaine, who are part-time actors and own their own advertising company, Metro Media Buyers Inc., personally lobbied the city to build four cultural centers--one each for North, South, East, and West Dallas. In 1981, the city renovated the Bath House Cultural Center at White Rock Lake, and a $1.5 million 1982 city bond issue was to provide for a comprehensive plan to build three more arts facilities. In 1986 the South Dallas Cultural Center was built. But with Dallas' real-estate bust in the late 1980s, the remaining two facilities were never built.

But the Thorntons just kept on going. In 1986, they created their own low-budget foundation (later renamed the Artist and Elaine Thornton Foundation for the Arts), with the primary goal of producing plays that provided good roles for black actors.

Several actors who participated in theThorntons' plays have gone on to become well-known. Irma P. Hall recently starred in the film A Family Thing, with Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones; young Dale Godboldo was "discovered" after he performed in the couple's 1990 production, Zooman and the Sign, a play about gang violence that was performed at the Majestic Theatre and the Tarrant County Convention Center. Godboldo later became the first black Mousketeer in the Disney remake of The Mickey Mouse Show, says Thornton.

Five years ago, the Thorntons inaugurated the Young Photographer's Workshop, much of which they say they have paid for out of their own pockets. According to the foundation's records, it received only $12,000 in donations in 1990. (No records were available for the years prior to 1990.) The Thorntons say they were forced to drop the program last year when they ran out of funds.

But 1996 may be the year they turn the foundation around: In June, the two hosted their first fund raiser, a small reception in the lobby of City Hall; actors Larry Hagman and Irma P. Hall flew in at their own expense for the occasion. Local businesswomen and arts supporters Bernice Washington and Niva Patel, who are active supporters of the arts, have pledged $10,000 for the foundation. Washington says she will also underwrite noted black photographer Gordon Parks' visit to Dallas on August 16 to speak to the photographer's workshop.

But it's not their good works that Artist Thornton is thinking about on this Saturday afternoon, after all the children from the photography workshop have gone; it's the lack of activity in the Cultural Center.

"It's still not doing all the things it should be doing. This is Saturday! This thing should be jumping! It shoulda' started jumping at 8 and it shouldn't stop until 8 tonight and shouldn't stop even then," he laments, looking out into the center's main hall, which houses sculptures and photographs by black artists. Except for a security guard, the entire center is empty. "Something should be happening, and it just hasn't happened." During the week, the center puts on a day camp for about 120 kids, but the Thorntons' two-hour workshop is the only thing going on Saturdays. The center's music recording studio has been locked for years because there hasn't been enough money to do anything with it, Thornton says.

In part, Thornton blames the city's budget cuts for the lack of programming for kids. And, the building itself, located on the corner of Robert B. Cullum Boulevard and Fitzhugh Avenue across from Fair Park, is partly to blame:Its dreary brown brick facade makes many people think it's a county clinic or a police substation. "Aesthetically it's not conveying the message it should be," he says. Kids from the neighborhood should be flocking to the center during the summer, he says. He remembers a young boy who stood at the center's main door recently asking if it was OK to come inside. "For some reason, when people see 'city owned and operated,' they think it's some strange entity from outer space. They don't realize that it means it's theirs."  

Center officials recognized back in 1989 that the center had an identity problem. A design competition to improve the look of the facility was launched, aided by a $20,000 federal community development black grant, but nothing ever came of the project, says Marjorie Reese, assistant director of events facilities with the Office of Cultural Affairs, which oversees the center.

The city should be doing more, says Thornton, to help provide programs for kids, but it's the people, especially, who need to be doing more, he says. "You can't just drop it all on the city, 'cause when you look at it realistically, the building belongs to the people. People have to understand that."

The Thorntons have been turned down twice for grants from the city, and Reese says another $15,000 grant from the Office of Cultural Affairs is currently on the table. Reese says she doesn't know why the Thorntons have not received grant money in the past, but says competition is stiff:Each year she gets about five times as many applicants as there is money for.

In the end, Thornton believes, it is really up to local musicians and visual artists to donate their time and talent to kids for the programs to work. But many artists, he says, won't participate without getting paid: "It was kind of a downer for me because my whole deal was to get the community involved. That was a rude awakening."

For several years, The Dallas Morning News has helped sponsor the photographer's workshops by providing staff photographers to teach. Sometimes, when the photographer is called away on assignment, there is no one to teach the class, Thornton says.

Thornton says he also has had little luck interesting local companies in donating supplies like photographic paper, and that he often asks for donations from outside of Dallas where the response is more generous.

Artist Thornton, who grew up in Fort Worth, joined the Navy at 17 and was shipped to Vietnam. At 19 years old in 1965, Thornton returned to his station in Long Beach to find much of Los Angeles on fire from riots after Martin Luther King's assassination. He was discharged, and he used his GI Bill to attend classes at Columbia College in Hollywood and Pepperdine in Malibu, where he started writing poetry and reading poems by Langston Hughes. He says he used poetry and books to escape the violence of the riots and to try to suppress the anger he felt after returning from Vietnam.

"I can remember coming back from Vietnam and being angry that I couldn't find a job," he says. "But poetry kinda soothes you. With poetry, you can say, 'This is what's happening to me. This is what's going on.' It's best to do it in that way instead of just blowing up and shooting everybody in sight."

A friend who heard Thornton read poetry at a gathering suggested he go to Studio Watts, a makeshift arts studio crafted out of a burned-out storefront on 103rd Street in the Watts district of Los Angeles. Well-known actors and other performing artists such as Bill Cosby and Larry Hagman donated their talent and time to kids in Watts, hoping to offer an alternative to violence. There, Thornton met Hagman, who taught theater interaction classes twice a week.

Hagman, who spoke by phone from California, says he arranged a bit part for Thornton on an episode of I Dream of Jeannie. Hagman, who is also from Fort Worth, reunited with Thornton a couple of years ago when Hagman was in town filming a TV-movie version of Dallas in which Thornton had a small role. Hagman donated his time and transportation costs to fly out for Thornton's fund raiser in June. He also visited the South Dallas Cultural Center during the trip.

"I think he's doing some good for the community out there," Hagman says, "besides being a hell of a nice guy." Hagman says it makes him feel good to see Thornton continue on with the idea that Hagman helped foster at Studio Watts of providing art to inner-city kids.

Artist's wife, Elaine, who grew up on the edge of Watts, used to stop by Studio Watts to watch classes. It was there that the couple met, when Elaine used to listen to Artist read poetry. Elaine, who is almost as tall as Artist, is serene with the kind of features that make her a sought-after model.  

The two married and moved to Texas in early 1970. After a job in Waco with the Texas Highway Department, they moved to Dallas where Artist worked for an insurance company. Artist and Elaine began acting in Dallas but found very few parts were available for black actors. They signed with the then-fledgling Kim Dawson Agency in 1971 as models and actors.

"Artist and Elaine are some of the most successful talents we have in the agency," says Dawson. Artist has appeared in dozens of movies, theatrical productions, and commercials. "What they're doing is very important," adds Dawson, who supports the Thorntons' foundation. "Their hearts are obviously in the right place."

"Their name is synonymous with the arts in Dallas," says Bernice Washington, who met the Thorntons in mid-1970 when she was a member of the Cultural Affairs Commission. "They were some of the first African-Americans who were considered professional performers in Dallas. Art and Elaine had agents and were getting paid for performing long before it was in vogue in the African-American community."

In 1976, the Thorntons and some musicians and artists drove to Austin for the Southwest Black Arts Festival, which was held in a cultural center that reminded Artist of Studio Watts. On the way back, Artist announced to his friends in the car that he intended to build a similar facility in Dallas. "They all said, 'Good luck. You know they tried that before and it didn't work.'"

Artist says he and Elaine met with then-Mayor Starke Taylor and leaders in the black community, such as the late I.H. Clayborn, who were instrumental in helping bring the idea to fruition. Three city council administrations, three mayors, and two bond elections later, the South Dallas Cultural Center was finally built in 1986.

Artist Thornton has only one photograph of himself as a child, a badly exposed, thumb-sized snapshot taken in a photo booth in Fort Worth when he was 12. There were no cameras in his house when he was growing up, he says, and no pictures. "I had no way to document my childhood," he says. "A lot of families are like that."

It was this desire to help poor children create permanent records of their childhoods, as well as to help them find a creative alternative to gang violence--"We give them a camera to shoot instead of a gun," he says--that led to the Thorntons' summer photography workshop. "It's important for kids to have a way to tell their own stories," he says.

What started out as an eight-week workshop with one camera and a handful of kids from the neighborhood has grown by word-of-mouth into a 14-week session with 20 to 25 students each week. An anonymous donor provided 10 35-millimeter cameras to the workshop two years ago, but the class already needs more cameras.

On a recent Saturday morning, 13-year-old Joseph Randolph holds a strip of negatives up to a window and studies each frame intently; the strip curls at the toes of his white sneakers like a long black ribbon.

"This is a good one here because it's got the most contrast," he says with the assurance of a seasoned photographer, stopping at a shot of some paintings and sculptures inside the center. This is Randolph's third year coming to the workshop, and he thinks he might become a photojournalist one day.

"It changes the way you see everything," he says exciedly. "Everything I look at looks different now. If I take a picture of the Ferris wheel, I might take it from underneath. But next I might take it from the side or when I'm on it. I can do things to the picture--turn it upside down, twist it around, and cut it up and make a puzzle."

LaRobbye Washington was 13 years old and not sure she even liked photography when she first started coming to the workshops that she had heard about in the center's summer day camp. Washington, who is 15 now, quickly realized she had a talent for taking pictures. She says the Thorntons helped her get into a special humanities and communications magnet program at Lincoln High School that offered a photojournalism course last year. Washington, who chose teen-age pregnancy as a photo essay topic, put together an impressive portfolio with the Thorntons' help. She says the Thorntons provided her with a camera and film and helped her develop the pictures. Lincoln later dropped the photojournalism cluster, Washington says, but she has continued her photography at home and wants to be a crime photographer for a police department. "The Thorntons influenced my whole life," Washington says. "They gave me the only experience I had with a camera."

Demond Wilson, who met the Thorntons while performing in Zooman and the Sign when he was in the ninth grade, is now a senior at Southern Methodist University majoring in theater directing. Wilson credits the Thorntons for his success;he says he's one of only a handful of SMU students ever asked by the university to direct and produce a play. Wilson's production, Six Degrees of Separation, will open at SMU's Greer Garson Theater next February.  

"The main thing I got from [the Thorntons] is the sense that you always go for your dreams. They could have given up a long time ago, but they didn't."

Wilson is also teaching about 50 Plano high-school students speech and theater this summer. One of his students won a national competition championship recently. "I'm passing what I learned on," he says. "To me the knowledge isn't any good unless you continue it on."

But Artist Thornton doesn't need to be convinced that the work he and Elaine are doing with their small foundation can make a difference.

"When you look at it realistically, you know change can happen," he says. "For me it was 30 years ago in Watts. What I'm saying is it made a difference to me, so I'm sure what I'm doing is going to make a difference to somebody.


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