The Arkansas Arts Council named the winners of the 2013 Governors Awards for artists and art supporters last week, with the Lifetime Achievement Award going to Billie Seamans, 92, of McGehee, for his career in photography.
To be honored with a dinner along with Seamans are Bob Ford and Amy Herzberg of Fayetteville, Arts Community Development Award winners; Paul Leopoulos of the Thea Foundation, the Arts in Education Award winner; Mitchell, Williams, Selig, Gates and Woodyard, the Corporate Sponsorship Award winners; Paula Morell, host of Starving Artist Cafe’s Tales from the South radio show, the Folklife Award winner; Arkansas Repertory Theater producing director Robert Hupp, the Individual Artist Award winner; Lee and Dale Ronnel, the Patron Award winners, and retired art teacher Farrell Ford of Arkadelphia, the Judge’s Special Recognition Award winner.
Here’s more information about Seamans from the Arts Council:
Billie Seamans was born on May 22, 1921, and has lived most of his life in McGehee where, at the age of 92, he continues to view the world around him with clear interest and wonder.
After his brother Glenn died in the military during World War II, Billie was drafted and served in the Army Air Force. It was there that he learned photography and has a “bird’s-eye view” from the ball turret of a B17 bomber with the 301st Bomber Group. He completed 50 missions and returned to McGehee in 1944. He met his future wife, Dorothy Barrett of Selma, Ark., and they had three sons: Jerry, Harry and Bill. The couple recently celebrated 69 years of marriage.
Soon after the war, with benefits from the G.I. Bill, Billie entered Arkansas A&M College in Monticello and honed his photography skills under the tutelage of Mrs. Drummond, a professional photographer in McGehee.
In 1949 Billie bought his first camera. It was an 8 x 10 “view” camera, which produced high-quality pictures from 8 x 10 negatives. He did not have a car or a studio, so he made appointments by telephone and walked to each house or business to photograph his subjects. He then developed the photographs in the small darkroom that he built in the back yard behind the apartment in which he and Dorothy and their growing family lived. He was paid one dollar for each photograph. In the 1950s, he was hired by International Harvester to photograph farm equipment. That job led to full-time employment with the company and an offer to move his family to Chicago, but Billie chose to remain in McGehee.
He continued his photography as a profession and maintained a successful business until the age of 87. During those years he became active in the Arkansas Professional Photographer’s Association (APPA) and served as its president in 1977. He was recognized over the years with several state awards from APPA, and in 1985 one of his photographs was a national winner.
As a participant in the Arkansas Delta Oral History Project, which is affiliated with the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville under the direction of Dr. David Joliff, Billie was interviewed last year by Yogi Denton’s Advanced Placement students at McGehee High School. They discovered that he had hundreds of photographs that tell the history and stories of his experience in Delta life. With the help of Brandi Anthony’s EAST Initiative Lab class and Kem Haddock’s Photography I class the project has been expanded.
Many of the black-and-white images that recorded the history of the region from the main street of McGehee to the cotton farms of the rich Delta soil are being catalogued by those students. Some of those photographs have been exhibited at several community events, and now a book is in progress about Billie and his impact in the Delta. It is scheduled for completion in the fall of 2013.
Billie continues to maintain storage of his photographs and negatives dating back to WWII. There are hundreds of them. The McGehee High School students continue to archive the negatives and to preserve them for the future.