Over the past 25 years, several artists have tried their hand at creating a poster to publicize the annual blues festival in McDuffie County.
“The posters are designed to emphasize McTell and his history here first, and secondly, the history of music,” said Don Powers, of the Activities Council, the group that puts on the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival each year. “If you notice, not all the posters are of Blind Willie McTell, but they all try to characterize the way back years, the music that was played in the first half of the 20th century. It’s designed to give a feel of old-timey music.”
Both Don Powers and Elizabeth Vance, executive director of the McDuffie County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the posters are designed to create a vibe of not only quality entertainment but also quality art and a quality experience for the patrons.
The process of choosing the artist to create the poster is a collaborative effort between the Activities Council board and Tourism. At the beginning of the festival, there was an art committee that created the first two posters.
The first artist to get involved in organizing the effort for the posters was Jackson Cheatham, a local artist and former art teacher. Dot Jones, the person who started the Blind Willie McTell Blues Festival in 1993, asked Cheatham to do the poster for the festival’s third year because he was a local artist who was interested in music.
Since then, Cheatham has worked with associates and friends from the University of Georgia and the Atlanta College of Art.
“All of the artists did it for free,” Cheatham said. “They love the blues festival and have been very instrumental and supportive.”
Alex Murawski, one of those artists and a professor at the Lamar Dodd School of Art at the University of Georgia, has created at least 10 posters for the festival.
“I've always been interested in drawing figures, interesting perspective and dramatic lighting,” Murawski said. “I also love and play the blues, so this a natural for me.”
Murawski said he taught with Lanny Webb, a colleague of Cheatham, one of the first festival organizers, and Cheatham got him involved with creating the posters.
“Illustration is like character acting by proxy,” Murawski said. “In this business you make these images, and hope they move and excite your audience. And again, I love the blues.”
JJ Purvis, who is from Eatonton and a member of the Activities Council, is another artist who has done several posters for the festival.
“I have drawn my inspiration for the poster art from the blues artists themselves,” Purvis said. “For me, drawing a blues artist or painting a music scene is like getting to tell part of the story. I enjoy reading about the history of the blues. Blind Willie’s story is so inspirational. The stories and music live on through festivals like this and it is fun to be apart of.”
Greg Purvis, JJ’s husband, said his wife has poured herself into blues history to create the pieces she submits for the festival.
“She has certainly become a much bigger fan of the music in the process,” Greg Purvis said. “She has a vision for turning that research into a story. I believe her piece entitled ‘Railroad Street’ for the 20th Blind Willie is the most amazing artwork we’ve had for the festival…but I’m probably biased.”
JJ Purvis said her husband introduced her to the festival. Greg Purvis was friends with Tommy Powers at Georgia College & State University, and they started playing music together. The two then started a band with Don Powers and Charlie Knox.
“When Don started talking about developing a festival to honor Willie, I mostly saw it as an avenue for playing,” Greg Purvis said. “However, I quickly fell in love with Blind Willie’s story and music, as well as with working with the Activities Council on creating a high end festival experience with a modest budget.”
JJ Purvis said she would attend the festival every year to hear her husband’s band even before they were married. She added that she loves the sense of family at the festivals.
“I love that my kids have seen and met some great blues artists over the years,” JJ Purvis said. “It is something they look forward to every year.”
As a part of being on the Activities Council, Greg Purvis assists Don Powers in finding a quality music lineup.
“Don is amazing at juggling all the variables and surprises involved with booking agents and artists,” Greg Purvis said. “I’m sure it's brought us a few extra wrinkles, but it’s also brought us more joy than I could’ve ever imagined. Seeing the crowds get so much joy from the experience is always a thrill.”
Other artists include: Henry Winn, Julie Spivey, Laura Connely, Jay Niver and Keith Rasmussen.
Rasmussen, who was a Vietnam veteran and art teacher, created several posters. He died about 10 years ago. Rasmussen and Cheatham were close friends, and Rasmussen was part of the Atlanta College of Art.
Past art is available for purchase in some form, whether in posters or T-shirts, online at blindwillie.com.
“I love the blues, and this is a great cultural event for McDuffie County,” Cheatham said. “If you’ve ever been to the festival, then you know why people love it and support it.”