WILMINGTON — Before Wilmington theater icon Tony Rivenbark became the steward of Thalian Hall, the actor was an assistant to Dorothy Gillespie in her New York studio.
“It was really cool to find some of the posters, photographs and flyers he saved during that time and throughout the years,” Art in Bloom Gallery owner Amy Grant said Wednesday.
Over the last week, Grant and Andrew McDowell — friend and caretaker of Rivenbark, who passed away July 18 — were working through pricing Rivenbark’s art collection, now on sale to the public by appointment through the weekend.
“He had this really cool photo he had taken of the ravioli cans that Dorothy Gillespie used for her paint,” Grant said. “And he had another photo framed of the very first show they worked on together in 1977. It was for her new art: the 3D rolled paper.”
An American artist and sculptor, Gillespie’s painted ribbons — bright enamel on aluminum — are a signature that have been on display in local, national and international museums. In the Thalian Hall lobby, Gillespie’s 40-foot tall “Colorfall” still is a welcoming attraction, as is “Hanging Starburst” in Wilson Center’s lobby.
In Rivenbark’s condo on the riverfront — where he moved in the final months of his life — Gillespie’s work speckles the walls and shelves. Multiple standalone ribbon sculptures sit among painted woodblocks, and a large, rare abstract painting consisting of blue squares on canvas, created in 1976, towers over the living area.
Nearby is a deep ochre-yellow robe that once belonged to Rivenbark’s dear friend, Wilmington painter Claude Howell. Howell taught at Wilmington College (now UNCW) when Rivebark attended the school and took one of his classes.
“Claude was famous for wearing that when he received guests at his home at Carolina Apartments,” explained Ray Kennedy, a local director and friend of Rivenbark’s. “That’s been in Tony’s collection ever since Claude passed in the mid-’90s.”
There are multiple Howell paintings and drawings — and not the expected pastel marine life and seascapes the artist has become so revered for (though a few of those exist, too, but were inherited by others close to Rivenbark).
Hand-drawn scenes of Wilmington are framed, one showing off the historic Carolina Apartments and fountain at 5th Avenue and Market Street. They would in turn become Howell’s Christmas cards.
“Claude used to draw the original and then, for lack of a better word, would ‘mimeograph’ them and send them to people all over Wilmington, some who now have Claude Howell Christmas card collections. But these are originals.”
Numerous self-portraits of a young and old Howell also are on display, beside portraits and caricatures of Rivenbark, created by other artists.
Easily over 100 pieces are showcased.
“When Tony moved into Pier 33, he said he probably had more artwork in his apartment than was hanging in the entire complex,” Kennedy said.
Among the canvases from well-known old-schoolers are newer artworks as well. That’s what impressed Grant most about Rivenbark.
“He showed up to Nathan Verwey’s show at Art in Bloom years ago,” Grant detailed. “I believe he bought a mask. He wanted to put a red dot up for Nathan; it was so sweet. Tony supported all artists, the emerging ones especially.”
The Verwey mask Rivenbark purchased that night is for sale, alongside pieces by Wilmington artists Fritzi Huber (paper), Mark Weber (mixed-media, painter), Nick Mijak (watercolor), and Michael Van Hout (sculptor, wire).
Grant was tasked with researching the paintings, sculptures, woodblocks, fiber art and other media. She loved finding a Huber piece from the artist’s earlier days — “older, handmade paper and mixed media.”
“I’d love to see an early piece of Fritzi’s, like Tony had, in a body of work in a museum. A lot of this work should be,” Grant said. “Elizabeth Darrow, for instance — though her work is already in museums — has a piece, ‘Casting Spells,’ in Tony’s collection that is fantastic.”
Over the last week, Grant said she has relived her own memories of Rivenbark while immersed in his belongings — like the time he showed up at her gallery during the Christmas season. Art in Bloom was offering discounts for anyone who would recite a poem or do a piece of performance art.
“Tony did the monologue from ‘The Oldest Living Confederate Widow’ — it was just amazing,” Grant said (he ended up buying original arts gifts for all of his family that holiday).
While honing in on the artwork’s backstories, Grant said she also learned about artists she previously did not know from other decades in Wilmington — many of whom, inevitably, were good friends of Rivenbark’s. Jane Peterson was one.
“She was before my time,” Grant said, “but did some really cool watercolors.”
McDowell said a Peterson and Gillespie original, as well as a bust of Shakespeare, will be donated to Thalian Hall from Rivenbark’s collection. Peterson’s piece features a montage of some of Rivenbark’s favorite places — Thalian, Costello’s, Caprice Bistro, UNCW — and the image of a lifetime achievement award he received in 2004.
“Jane moved up to the Cape, but she’s no longer living,” Kennedy said. “When Tony visited P-town recently [before his death,] her daughter drove down to see him.”
For as many works and artists that Grant and McDowell could pinpoint, there were others that presented challenges. Rivenbark was known to travel frequently; he often would purchase art during his sojourns, colorful reminders of place and time.
“He went to Cuba three times,” Kennedy said, “before Cuba was even open for travel — he could be granted access through an artist visa.”
Photographs and paintings from the area hang, alongside architectural renderings of historic buildings from Eastern European trips.
A red circular oil painting caught Grant’s attention by surrealist painter Nate Seubert, of whom she had never heard. She learned he is living in L.A., often exhibits in Santa Fe, and has been included in private and public collections worldwide.
“Tony’s collection is a lot like him,” Grant said, “just very high quality items and beauty but from everywhere, from all over the place.”
But not every piece Grant investigated turned up answers; she’s still looking into two abstracts. One in particular was given to Tony in 1969, but Grant can’t decipher the artist signature, as well as an inscription on the back.
“It was gifted by a Mr. and Mrs. Robert, but I couldn’t read the last name,” she said. “It already has sold but it’s driving me crazy so I will continue looking into it.”
Other watercolor and acrylics on paper, one featuring images of sailboats, another landscapes and historic structures, were strewn on a table. The color palette was so light it almost seemed faded.
“They came from Tony’s personal files,” McDowell said. “We think they are actually his own artwork. He was asking for his paint supplies to keep him active even while he was sick.”
“He talked to me a little bit about painting,” Grant admitted, “but he would dismiss it and say, ‘I just do it for fun.’”
To go through the collection, Grant said, was emotional, a visceral representation of Rivenbark’s adoration for the arts. But it also reflected his scrapbook of life.
“Tony had so many connections, people just loved him,” she said. “So each piece he owned was alive — and will be attracted to the right buyer.”
As Kennedy perused the assortment Wednesday, he stopped upon a watercolor, “Summer Palace in Hawaii,” painted by Peggy Chung.
“Wait,” he said, “I used to do the entertainment for American Hawaii cruises and Peggy Chung was famous for her Hawaiian images.”
As he moved along through the paintings, a different memory sparked — especially when he stopped at the original framed posters of the first SRO Theater performance of “Waiting for Godot.” Rivenbark acted in SRO under the direction of Doug Swink at Wilmington College.
“That was the first theater that brought me here,” Kennedy said.
Hanging behind Kennedy was a signed work by Ivey Hayes, a Rocky Point artist who died in 2012, known for his exaggerated lines and bright colors. He frequently drew African-American images of the coastal and jazz-inspired South. This particular poster was signed and numbered for the first Blueberry Festival design Hayes was commissioned to do for the Town of Burgaw in 2004.
“I can’t bear not to have the blueberries in my house,” Kennedy said. “I have a friend who was the North Carolina Blueberry queen, so I just got to have it.”
To make an appointment to see work for sale from Tony Rivenbark’s collection, email Andrew McDowell at email@example.com. Appointments can be made through this weekend; the address will be revealed upon contact. Hours are Aug. 17-18, 2 p.m. – 7 p.m., and Aug. 19-20, noon – 5 p.m.
Rivenbark’s celebration of life will be held Aug. 27 at Thalian Hall, 5 p.m., with a procession led by a New Orleans Second Line band to Wilson Center thereafter.
Tips or comments? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.