A! Magazine for the Arts

David St. Clair

David St. Clair

Tributes to the Legends in the Arts

February 21, 2022

Each one of these legends had already been present at Emory & Henry when I arrived on campus 52 years ago, and they had established in their respective fields the excellence which would be the hallmark of their individual and collective work at the college. I would come to know, appreciate, be influenced byand love each one of them. The college is lately coming to publicly and permanently acknowledge their contributions, but there long have been monuments of gratitude and admiration in the hearts and lives of thousands upon thousands of the students who were blessed to be under their tutelage at some point in their academic careers.

Dr. Marius Blesi

Dr. Blesi taught English at the college, and each class was a delight of information and insight and humor. The freedom of expression he encouraged in the classroom matched his iconoclastic personality: He pushed his students to take their thoughts in sometimes surprising directions and to new conclusions, while all along the way before them he spread his own unique wit and bountiful sense of humor. Nothing was more fun in class than hearing Dr. Blesi erupt in laughter, especially when he was the subject of the jest. He taught us to do our work thoroughly and well and never to take ourselves too seriously.

Dr. Blesi produced, directed and acted in a nearly annual production of Thornton Wilder’s “Our Town,” which was where I first came to know him. Alan Pickrell was on sabbatical leave, and Dr. Blesi took over the fall production in his absence. He cast himself as the Stage Manager and never was the role played with such relish, I am sure. I was Howie Newsome, the town milkman, and Dr. Blesi helped me have confidence in my first college play and helped make me feel comfortable on the stage. He taught acting by establishing an air of purpose and repose for the actors, which was also how he taught literature to his students.

I have wondered why that particular play was the one he chose to produce for the college and the community, and I think his reasons must have been both appreciation and aspiration. “Our Town” tells truths that are timeless about family and friendship, love and marriage, community and nation, and the process of loving it all by letting it all go. These were all themes that Dr. Blesi emphasized to his students as he taught them the great literature of the Western world.

I think he may have chosen “Our Town” also because it seems a lot like his town, Emory, or maybe what he hoped Emory could always be, that is, a place where neighbors knew each other and cared for each other, where strangers were shown hospitality and respect was shown to each person for who they were; and that in Emory, as in Grover’s Corner, life on this Earth can be “too wonderful for anybody to realize.”

“That it will never come again is what makes life so sweet” is the way another New Englander, Emily Dickinson, put it. And, because while it is here, life may be filled with such lovely things as literature and poetry and truth also makes it sweeter still. A debt is owed to those such as Marius Blesi who helped to fill this one life with those sublime gifts.

Ludwig and Alys Sikorski

Larry Stookey, who taught preaching and worship at Wesley Seminary, once noted in a sermon that “according to an account which is certainly more tradition than fact, the pipe organ was invented by a godly woman of the third century whose name was Cecilia. It is said that Cecilia played every musical instrument then known but found none of them adequate to express her joy at the goodness of God. So, she invented the pipe organ, more fully to proclaim the glory of the Lord. The legend goes on to say that the first time St. Cecilia played upon her new invention she attracted the attention of an angel who had been roaming around the universe. When the angel suddenly appeared in front of her Cecilia was understandably startled and asked: “Why have you come to Earth?” Somewhat befuddled, the angel replied: “Why I didn’t realize I was on Earth. The sound of the music was so exquisite I wandered in, supposing that I had found my way back to the courts of heaven.

What St. Cecilia did for this Earth, Ludwig and Alys Sikorski did for Emory & Henry College. They brought music to Emory and when they performed, or their students did, or their daughter Pravda did, it could be a hint of heaven.

They came to Emory from New York City not with the zealousness of missionaries sent to convert the primitives but with the loving hearts of two teachers called to expand the field of their training and to plant the appreciation of things that are beautiful and moving into the desires of their students. The Sikorskis taught music appreciation by making music desirable and attainable. They literally lived in the heart of the campus and plunged into the heart of student life, attending student plays and presentations, sponsoring student organizations, and encouraging students in all aspects of their lives. They were unapologetically passionate about nearly everything. Professor Sikorski was known to show his appreciation for and encouragement of a student by composing a piece of music in the student’s honor. What a profound compliment. What great encouragement to a budding young musician.

Some of my fondest memories of my days as a student at Emory & Henry include the spring evenings when the Sikorskis and the community orchestra they led would present concerts in Memorial Chapel. The program would include the music of the great composers and always the special treat of a piece played by Ludwig on the violin and accompanied by Alys on the piano; the windows of the chapel would be open and that sweet, springtime breeze would waft across the sanctuary, or perhaps what I thought was the wind was actually an angel, wandering in, having heard a hint of heaven in the music Ludwig and Alys brought to Emory.

Charles R. Davis

In addition to bringing the discipline of music to the curriculum of Emory & Henry, the Sikorskis brought back to Emory a graduate who would cite them as formative for his life and who would go on himself to become one of the greater influences in the lives of hundreds of young adults who simply wanted to sing. He founded the Concert Choir in 1958 and 64 years later the choir continues as his legacy of excellence. The Emory & Henry Concert Choir has toured across the nation and the globe and has won numerous awards, but, more importantly, it has touched many lives.

For Dr. Davis, or “Chick” as he was known to many, every concert was not just a concert - it was an experience of worship. Chick lead us into some of the greatest cathedrals in the world, where we knew that we must be at our absolute best. And he took us into some of the most remote and the smallest country churches in Southwestern Virginia and Upper East Tennessee, where sometimes those assembled to hear the choir numbered fewer than the choir did, but we still knew that we must be at our best, just as if we were singing in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome or in National Cathedral in Washington or at Notre Dame in Paris.

“Ultimately,” Chick was to say, “every musical utterance should be an act of ministry and should be done for God’s glory.” According to the pictures given us in Scripture, heaven is a place of music. The saints continually sing the songs of God and play upon stringed instruments in praise of the Lamb. The sinful world is full of confusion and disorder and noise: the orderliness of music calls us to a better way. The sinful world abounds with terror and seemingly meaningless sorrow: music speaks to us of the beauty and graciousness of God’s peace, a peace we shall know in fullness “when we all get to heaven” where “we’ll sing and shout the victory.”

H. Alan Pickrell

I have known Alan for 52 years, and I don’t believe I have ever heard him raise his voice which certainly cuts against the stereotype of the director, especially one who is working with college student actors of sometimes limited talents and oftentimes shortened attention spans. In his quiet and wise way, he demanded excellence from his students and his student actors. He was kind and wise, firm and encouraging, patient and inspiring. When you were on stage and Alan was directing, he gave you the skills to move the audience and he let you know when you had moved him and those were the most satisfying times of all.

Alan came to Emory & Henry in the early 1960s from Nashville and involvement in the Nashville Children’s Theater. Perhaps the somewhat improvisational nature of children’s theater productions was the perfect training ground for beginning a drama program at Emory & Henry. When Alan arrived at the college, plays were presented in Wiley Auditorium. The backstage area was three narrow hallways, one staircase and a small bathroom. The wardrobe closet was an area underneath a stairway across the hallway from the auditorium. The sets were built on the stage, and the lighting board was in one of the hallways outside the stage area, which meant the lighting crew had to take their lighting cues from what they heard for they could not see the actual stage.

The plays Alan selected to produce at Emory & Henry invariably were plays that challenged the actors and the audiences to engage the contemporary situation with both their hearts and their minds.

I have told congregations before that I learned as much, or more, about how to preach and conduct public worship from Alan Pickrell, as I did in seminary. Alan taught us about presence and being present in public settings. He taught his students how to present words and thoughts and feelings, whether nuanced or clearly noticeable, to tell a story and present a truth. He taught us to trust silence to convey a message and to trust and to use our imaginations to help audiences see a reality that could be because it is in a story well-told.

George Chavatel

George Chavatel was a force of nature. Active in the field of the visual arts for over 50 years, he spent nearly 30 years teaching at Emory & Henry where he headed the art department. A pipe clenched in his teeth, glasses perched on his nose or his forehead, coffee cup nearby and dressed in a sartorial array that suggested a house painter as much as an art teacher, George Chavatel urged, drove, encouraged, prodded, led and lifted up his students to levels of artistic accomplishments they would not have otherwise believed themselves capable of attaining. George’s students were helped to see and to show things as they sometimes were and as they perhaps could be. His own art was as imaginative as his intellect and as earthy as his humor. It was as generous with the human spirit as he was generous to his friends. It has been shown in exhibits across the south and the eastern United States and one of his creations, a giraffe named George, once had a cameo on “The Today Show.”

He built the art program through the sheer force of his energy and his intellect and his very keen interest in students’ well-being. He would not restrain himself from evaluating whether a student had the skills and abilities to achieve success or not, and if, in his judgment, a student could do it, he would pull out all the stops to help them accomplish it. If they could not, he would not hesitate to help them find another area where their talents were better suited. He was not always gentle, but he was certainly honest.

One of the marvels of George’s time on the faculty at Emory & Henry is that Byars Hall never burned down, for it was not uncommon to go into his office, often late in the evening, and find a pipe smoldering in an over-burdened ash tray, a hot plate keeping a cup of coffee warm, and both of these things set amidst a pile of papers on a desk and paint cups, brushes and rags nearby. Providence preserved both George and the building so that the only fire that burned was the fire of nearly boundless energy and imagination George brought to his art and to his joy in teaching others how to express themselves through their art.

“Alongside every good legend there is a good, perhaps even better, partner.”

That’s not exactly how that quote goes, but it certainly fits our legends. More could also be said about the spouses of these friends, for they, in their own right, contributed as much to the advancement of the arts at Emory & Henry as their salaried and tenured spouses did. Lucille Blesi, known to all as Madame Blesi, was a member of the faculty at Emory & Henry teaching speech and English classes as well as several foreign languages: she brought elegance as well as eloquence to Emory when she and Dr. Blesi arrived at the College. Both of the Sikorskis, of course, are rightfully being honored as legends for their joint contribution to the advancement of the Arts at Emory & Henry: they delighted students with their friskiness and their obvious adoration of each other and rarely was one seen on campus but the other was nearby, often exchanging admiring glances. Chick Davis’s first wife, Adrienne, who died an early, untimely death in 1968 was an accomplished vocalist who trained voices and inspired young singers at the College. Chick remarried a decade later and DeeDee, herself an accomplished pianist, accompanied Chick’s conducting of his choirs on tour and then she faithfully accompanied Chick on his journey to eternity. George Chavatel’s wife, Barbara, is as elegant as George was casual with an intellect that is as broad ranging as George’s. Also an educator, fittingly, she was nominated along with George for the Governor’s Award in the Arts. And even though Alan Pickrell is the name most prominently associated with the drama program at Emory & Henry, and rightly so, Ellie Pickrell worked right alongside Alan for his entire career. She, too, was a theatrical performer in Nashville and at Emory she continued her interest in and expertise for the stage. Most of the costumes, many of the sets, nearly all of the programs, and half of the hospitality to the student actors bore Ellie’s imprint. Alan purely delights in her; she completes him.

“Tides of Influence...”

All of these legends worked with tiny budgets and for meager salaries because they loved that special place set in the fields of southwestern Virginia. They adopted as their collective credo the college motto, “Increase in Excellence.” The four corners of the Fine Arts Center on the campus of Emory & Henry are positioned on the life and work of George Chavatel and Alan Pickrell and Ludwig and Alys Sikorski, Charles R. Davis and Marius Blesi.