Chester Martin Remembers The Artist George Little

Monday, March 14, 2016 - by Chester Martin
Little Art Shop
Little Art Shop
- photo by Wes Schultz

George Little was a big, likable man who loved to paint local scenes. Always affable and friendly, he liked to chat with people. His voice had a mild raspiness to it which went with his rather droll personality, and his mouth always seemed ready to break into a smile. He had not always been an artist, however, as he was first a skilled sign-painter before becoming an artist. Not native to Chattanooga or the region, he began life near the banks of the Ohio River. A childhood friend had been one Leonard Slye - better known to my generation - and to the world, as Roy Rogers.

Because they had family in Miami, he and his wife, Alice, started driving south from Ohio to Florida for a time each year, coming down US Highway 27 long before the first Interstate highways were built.

Chattanooga made an excellent stopping point for the first day's drive - and then they would also arrange to stop here on their return back to Ohio. Both George and Mrs. Little were impressed by our local scenery with so many pictorial and historical facets. It awakened George's inner wishes to become an artist - or to develop that inner talent further, and so they jointly decided to make Chattanooga their permanent home.

They acquired property on Frazier Avenue, on what we now call the "North Shore", opening a sizable art supply business there. Their new building had a number of very large display windows suitable to show either their products, OR the "artist at work". George Little was in every way a promoter and knew how to attract the public's attention. No better place could have been chosen to display himself and his work than in that spot, as GPS (Girls' Preparatory School) moms passed that way up to four times daily. George would frequently be seen sitting in one of the windows with all his artist's paraphernalia spread out around him and his easel. Never shy and retiring like so many other artists, George gave his audiences something to watch, keep track of daily, and then see the next project evolve. Ownership of that property was later acquired by Tony Mines, of Art Creations, and that is Tony's main office today. Tony worked at the Little Art Shop beginning at age 15 and remained there for a number of years. I must thank Tony for filling me in on a number of details in the Little story.

George Little painted many a Baptist "River of Life" in those windows, as well as smaller easel pictures. Commissions poured in and he was constantly busy. It is fortunate that he painted rapidly in a style that others called "Impressionistic". But George liked to get outside the shop for some "plein air" painting also, leaving  others to sell the art products. I have seen him working "live" (not from photos) in many outdoor venues, such as at the former "car shed" of Union Depot, now demolished. Painting architectural shapes is quite tricky because of the ever-changing light, so Mr. Little told me how he could only work about an hour in one place today, then return at exactly the same time tomorrow. His memory probably filled in some gaps, but he would rapidly get the whole painting done for display in one of those big shop windows. "Reflection Riding" and the Chattanooga Nature Center were two other favorite places and he could paint longer there as there were no building shadows to contend with.

Mr. Little had many of his works reproduced as "prints", and from these you could judge how he had scoured the entire region for subject matter. He and Mrs. Little must have had many great outings by car while in search of the new subjects. When George had some new work to show the public he was always welcomed onto the set of Bob Elmore's long-running TV show on Channel 9, called "Backyard Safari".

But one of George's early and most important commissions had been for the former "First Federal Savings and Loan Association", a very modern building at the SW corner of Georgia Avenue and 9th Street (now MLK). It was built on the very site of the old Millard Reece Cafe... at the exact site of the present bronze plaque to Burkett Miller, for whom Miller Park is named. That mural was painted very tastefully in muted earth colors - browns, sepias, pale blues, etc. It was of a favorite view of the Tennessee River valley and it got much publicity. Painted on a large, curving wall, it made you feel like you were actually part of that sweeping landscape. It was fortunately saved when the First Federal S&L building was demolished, being removed to a special place inside Girls' Preparatory School.

George Little chronicled in paint some of Chattanooga's history when the "Project '66" Interstate highway system was built here. Everywhere you looked at that time you saw hundreds of steel girders painted with rust-preventive red oxide paint which looked bright orange in the sunlight and at a distance. George quickly got out to do several large paintings of these structures - and I wonder where they are today? They would be excellent pieces to include in any local history museum, as they document an entire era of Change in the city.

Our Chickamauga Battlefield provided a lot of subject matter which appealed to George, and he created some battle scenes, populating them with imaginary Blue and Gray soldiers, Cavalry, Artillery, etc., - all very full of life and color. He did the same for the "Last Battle of the Revolutionary War" which was supposedly fought on the slopes of lookout Mountain opposite Moccasin Bend. (Though history books tell us this was actually only  a "skirmish", and that the actual "Last Battle" was fought elsewhere. But it was good for civic pride to think of it as being local, as Mr. Little did).

The Littles were very good to me personally. They wanted me to take over their shop as manager at one time, but I declined because I am no businessman. They graciously let me use an upstairs room of their shop when I needed to paint a 10-foot high mural. On the very first day I  drove across the Walnut Street Bridge to work on that project, and when I left to return home in the afternoon the bridge had been closed - permanently! Its fate was in the balance for some time, but it ultimately became the now much-used and much-loved "pedestrian bridge", blue in color.  It was never re-opened to automobile traffic.

Mayor Robert Kirk Walker's wife, Joy, was a great promoter of the Arts while her husband was in office. She was always commissioning art, and opened City Hall to all the artists of Chattanooga - a good place to hang a piece of work. The need arose for a re-design of some of the city regalia, including the City Seal. Mrs. Walker sponsored a city-wide contest to create the new design - and George Little won! So, when you see a police squad car, or a policeman's sleeve bearing the current city seal, think of artist George Little. No other artist came closer to capturing the heart of Chattanooga than him, and it is good that his legacy lives on through that seal.

I was able to visit with Mr. and Mrs. Little shortly after they retired, making an audio recording. They gave me permission to use it - and some of their taped story is included here, though not in their exact words. George and I discussed Sculpture, and I was not surprised to learn that he had made a stone carving of both Alice and himself, as there was no phase of Art that did not interest him. I wonder where those carvings are today...?

When I was in the U.S. Air Force at the height of the Cold War, I was given a month-long crash-course in the Russian language. Curious about the meanings of some of the Kremlin leaders' names, I was especially interested in the very sinister-sounding Russian name, "Gyorgiy Malenkoff" and was very surprised to learn that it translates to, "George Little"!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at cymppm@comcast.net )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin


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