Former Waco Tribune-Herald reporter Cassie Smith’s photo of a February 2017 Gholson City Council meeting in a member’s shed packs plenty in its frame.
The five council members, four wearing ball caps, are seated around two folding tables. City Attorney Jacob Straub, in a coat and tie, appears to be presenting some business. City Secretary Mel Priest is taking notes, with a cassette tape recorder in front of her on the table. A wall of hammers, wrenches and saws above a work bench fill a back corner. A view through an open door shows old tractor attachments and plows in a field under a twilight sky. And a dog rests on the floor.
It captures the tone of the story it accompanied, Smith’s warmly written account of small-town life in Gholson and its government. The council normally met in the fire department building after water damage made Gholson City Hall unusable, but that particular night the fire department was also meeting, so the council agreed to member Russell Smith’s offer to meet in his shed.
For 87-year-old Hewitt painter Bill Austin, the newspaper photo was an image he could not resist as a subject for a canvas.
“It looked like a Norman Rockwell painting,” Austin said. “I was so impressed with the skill of the photographer. It looks like everybody was placed just perfectly. The very idea of a city council meeting in a barn — if that’s not Americana, I don’t know what is.”
After a career of pastoring Baptist and Methodist churches, teaching college, writing books and serving seven years as Baylor University chaplain, Austin continues a lifelong hobby of oil painting.
He prefers portraits, with Waco sportswriter Dave Campbell, former Waco Mayor Pat Pattillo, Waco banker J.D. Hudson and Texas country music icon Willie Nelson, Austin’s favorite portrait, among his subjects.
Austin often works from photographs and several years ago painted a Tribune-Herald photograph of his great-granddaughter and other preschoolers singing Christmas carols at Parkview Baptist Church, which he reprinted as Christmas cards.
More recently, he painted a photograph of about a dozen Bell County hunters drinking coffee after a morning hunt, which he said primed the pump when the Gholson City Council photo caught his eye.
Austin contacted the Tribune-Herald for permission to paint a copy of the photo and started the project, only to find worsening congestive heart failure seriously affecting his time at the easel. In addition, Austin cares for his wife Margie, who has Alzheimer’s.
“I knew I could do it, but I didn’t know my heart was going to get so worse,” he said. “My hand isn’t as steady as it used to be.”
It took almost two years before Austin finished the painting. Last month, he emailed a photo to the Tribune-Herald reporter who had started it all.
Smith, now a spokesperson with the Brazos River Authority, said she was taken aback when she saw it.
“My first reaction was my jaw dropping,” she said. “Not only did he include the smallest details of the shot, but he captured the essence, the soul even, of that split second in time. And I felt a sense of honor, pride maybe, that a photograph I’d taken had spoken to Bill in that way. I felt a real sense of honor when I first saw a picture of his work displayed on my computer screen.”
The paper reposted Austin’s work to its Facebook page, and the reactions rippled.
Shock and pleasant surprise was the reaction for 22-year-old Austin resident Angel Taylor when she saw an image of the painting reposted on her Facebook page.
“Scrolling down Facebook, I saw, oh my God, that painting is my grandfather’s shed,” Taylor said. “I grew up in that shed. I can’t tell you how many tractors I’ve helped put together and fixed in that shed.”
She called her grandfather about the painting, then contacted Austin to see if it was up for sale. Not yet, but maybe.
“I want it for my bedroom,” she said.
Gholson Councilman and shed owner Russell Smith, no relation to Cassie, found himself and other council members in the story subjected to some good-natured “harassment” from others in town after the original story ran and shrugged that it was his shed that provided the framework for the picture.
The council needed a space to meet, and he had “a good shed where I have Christmas dinner every year,” he said.
The council is back to meeting at the fire station, and Gholson residents will vote May 4 on the possibility of a new city building. Smith’s shed is back to being a work shed.
“I’ve got a little more junk in it now,” he admitted.
Austin has not decided the fate of his Gholson City Council canvas but has another painting in progress on his easel, a study of a great-granddaughter painting a kitten posed on a tree stump.
“It’s going to be a lovely little thing when I get through with it,” Austin said.