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are people, all the distinct lines and edges that define their faces. “It’s a matter of control of the soft and harsher


strokes of the pen to get just the right effect,” he said of his technique. “Tat is where the art comes in.” Prints of his originals, fine reproductions from


the Horton Brothers presses in North Little Rock, now hang in hundreds of homes and offices of politicians, bankers, lawyers, chief executive offi- cers and military brass. One is even in the collec- tion of the only U.S. president from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, who called DeSpain’s 1994 portrait of him in front of the Old State House “a wonderful likeness.” And that it is — down to his animated eyes, shock of wavy hair and approachable stance. Of course, hundreds of DeSpain prints also hang in ordinary kitchens, living rooms and of- fices across the state and beyond. For most of his 24-year administration, former North Little Rock Mayor Pat Hays handed out to visiting dignitaries one of DeSpain’s best sellers, a sketch of the Pugh Old Mill, the city’s most famous landmark that appeared in the opening scene of the 1939 movie “Gone With the Wind.” But the nerve center of the AAC, dedicated to


Opposite page: Artist Richard DeSpain has created approximately 2,000 pen and ink drawings of Arkansas landmarks over the course of his career. Above: AAC commissioned DeSpain to create a pen and ink drawing of the AAC building for former Executive Director Brenda Pruitt.


serving, representing and promoting this state’s 75 counties and their nearly 1,400 elected officials, seems like an especially ap- propriate backdrop for his Arkansas-centric art. Tat’s at least what Brenda Pruitt thought in the late 1980s, when she looked around at the empty walls of the association’s original West Tird Street headquarters from her desk, first as an administrative assistant, then as head of risk management services, and then as the association’s executive director. She says she started thinking about what kind of wall art would comple- ment the association’s mission when the AAC board decided in the mid-1990s to quadruple the size of its headquarters, adding 10,000 more square feet of office and meeting space. One day she admired two tiny pen and ink sketches of the historic town of Des Arc near one staffer’s desk. She asked about them and learned they were the work of a central Arkansas artist who did mostly larger pieces of some of the most significant buildings and destinations across the state. Instantly she was smit- ten and began combing local galleries for more DeSpain work. “I started collecting from one gallery [in Little Rock] and then did some research about him,” she said. “I liked the idea of art about Arkansas done by an Arkansas artist. It just seemed to fit [what we were about.]” By then she had three decades of DeSpain creations to choose


from, the originals all done in his spare time and made into prints. By day, to support his wife and two growing sons, he worked as a draftsman for the state Cooperative Extension Ser- vice, drawing blueprints for things like environmentally friendly hog and chicken pens that agents could show farmers how to build, he recalled. But in the evenings he would retreat to the studio he had built onto the back of their 1950s-style ranch house in Levy. Tere he would hop up on the bar stool in front of his drawing table and, working from an enlarged photograph, devote himself to master- ing an art form that leaves almost no room for error. “Once you get started you can’t go back,” he says, then stops mid-sentence to pick up a razor knife and tend to a nearly invis- ible speck in the upper left corner of the drawing in front of him. “Wait a minute, I have to get that little smudge off there.” He is a lean, quirky, bespectacled man with a buzz haircut, a


COUNTY LINES, FALL 2015


stubby white start of a beard and mustache, and an oddly easy- going manner for an artist so pedantic about the incline and strength of his every pen stroke Born in the tiny town of Marked Tree, the next to the young- est child in a family of seven kids raised by a no-nonsense single mom who moved her brood to wherever she could find work, he spent his teenaged years in Blytheville, where he took art les- sons at the local YMCA. In time he started drawing comic book characters, and, for extra money, sketches of houses around town to sell to their owners. But sibling rivalry was behind much of his ambition then, he admits. “My sisters and brothers were all more accomplished in school, and I had problems, probably dyslexia that just wasn’t diagnosed, and when I found something I was good at, well, I wanted to pursue it.” After graduating from high school in 1966, he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he served as a medic for two years. Tat qualified him for the GI Bill, which he used for a year studying drafting at a vocational institute, where he found im- mediate success. Te federal government also agreed to pay for a year of the Famous Artists School, a correspondence course started in the 1950s by some famous New York illustrators, including Norman Rockwell and Robert Fawcett. He moved to Little Rock when he got the job with the Exten-


sion Service and within a few years met his wife Gail at Sunday School. Tey were married a month after they met, then bought their house in Levy with the idea of adding a back room to let him retreat from the bustle of the family and pursue his pen and ink passion. Now in retirement since 2003, DeSpain has packed that room ceiling high with books, old prints, originals and works in prog- ress, not to mention all of the paper and vellum he buys in bulk. And it remains his sanctuary. He is there all day most days. He rises early and works late. Because this is what he loves to do: Labor feverishly for weeks or even months on a single piece, one brick or leaf or blade of grass at a time with magnifying visors over his eyes, classical music on his boom box and one of his


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