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Quest to Preserve the Past

A family ventures to deliver its father’s paintings of local theaters to people in small towns around the country, including Tupelo.

Written by Leslie Criss

One day in late March, Christi Houin’s cell phone sounded. The call was from Winter Park, Florida, but Houin knew no one from there, so she didn’t answer. Fortunately, the caller left a voicemail.

“The message was about a painting that had been done of The Lyric,” Houin said. “And although I didn’t know the caller, they said my name had been given to them by someone I do know who told them I’m involved with TCT. I just had a feeling the call was legit.”

The Lyric is the historic theater on Broadway Street in downtown Tupelo; TCT is Tupelo Community Theatre. To say Houin and husband Jeff are involved with TCT would be an understatement. They’ve acted, directed, worked backstage and served as board members for years. And most sets for TCT productions have hours of Christi Houin’s time and talent in them.

“The caller told me if I was interested in the painting to call back,” she said.

Of course, Houin returned the call and learned the callers, Lois and Craig Stiles were planning on coming through Tupelo several weeks later.

Lois Stiles is one of the two daughters of the painter, 92-year-old Bill Orling, a native of Flint, Michigan, who now lives with daughter Kim in Florida. The Stileses live nearby. For years, Orling worked for the Flint School Board, initially driving a truck and delivering meals to all Flint’s elementary schools. Painting was something that was always part of his life.

“Dad was painting and drawing in his early 30s because he loved it,” said his daughter. “It’s just always been a part of him. He also wrote in a journal for many years, as well.”

Orling’s beginning works were of landscapes, ships and places he’d never been. In the early 1970s, Orling spent his lunch hours drawing houses, businesses and people of the St. John Street area in Flint, a place many of his friends had grown up and an area of his hometown he loved.

“When Dad found out Buick was going to use these streets for expanding and building a parking lot, he worked even harder to sketch,” Stiles said. “He often took his easel and paints to the street where he could meet the residents. They would share with him the stories of their lives, and Dad wrote the stories on the backs of the paintings.”

Sadly, not long after Orling completed his renderings of a neighborhood block, he’d return to find it leveled, all in the name of progress. He wrote in his journal on March 3, 1974, “There is no doubt in my mind I and I alone was sent to paint the St. John Street area. At first I avoided my duty, but no longer.”

Orling also developed a keen interest in putting the theaters in Flint on canvas. At the time, five new theaters were built so the influx of factory workers would have something to do. His interest could also be attributed to a 13-year-old Orling’s working as an usher. He drew or painted the theaters still standing at the end of the 1970s, then he moved to theaters beyond Flint.

“In 1980, Dad bought a discarded library book which listed all the theaters in America, copyrighted in 1940,” Stiles said. “so, when he and Mom went on their two-week vacations from the Flint School Board and GMAC before they retired, they were guided by an atlas and addresses from the book.

“He knew these theaters were leaving the American scene just like St. John Street. They traveled through Michigan, Ohio, Tennessee, West Virginia, Virginia, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, taking pictures with a Kodak Brownie camera. Dad said it was exciting to arrive in a small town and find a theater still standing.”

At some point in the Orlings’ travels, they spent time in Mississippi, where he photographed and later painted the Ellis Theater in Philadelphia, and The Lyric Theatre in Tupelo. Orling said he knows he did nearly 200 paintings of theaters, and though he sold some through the years (just enough to replenish his art supplies), most fill his bedroom in Florida.

Not long ago, Orling told a neighbor that when he died, his paintings would end up in a dumpster. Daughter Kim had been concerned about her father tripping on the paintings around his bed. When the Stileses heard about Orling’s comment about the dumpster, their hearts were broken. It was Craig Stiles who had the idea to take the paintings to the towns where the theaters stood when Orling photographed them.

“Craig felt that perhaps people might like the paintings and find value in one man’s quest to preserve the past,” Orling’s daughter said.

The plan? To follow in their camper the same routes the Orlings traveled and see if someone in any of the towns might want the painting of their theater. An early stop in Saluda, North Carolina, found one man overjoyed to see a painting of the theater he spent much of his youth. The third trip to deliver paintings brought the Stileses to Tupelo on a Saturday in April, to The Lyric Theatre where they met the Houins, who gave the couple a tour of the theater and established a friendship that will likely continue. The Stileses also take a photo of the people with the painting to have a record to share with the artist back home.

“What they are doing for her dad is such a labor of love,” Christi Houin said. “And people like us are getting a piece of their history back. I kept thinking about Tom (Booth) and how we were all still reeling from his loss. I just knew how much he would have loved the painting and meeting Lois and Craig.”

Bill Orling’s painting of The Lyric now hangs on the wall just outside the ticket booth in the theater’s lobby.

The Stileses have only a few paintings of theaters remaining — all out west, but they prefer traveling “this side of the country,” so those will likely be undelivered.

Sadly, Orling stopped painting after a bad fall in 2016 that caused some neurological damage, making his hands shake. Daughter Lois would love to see him finish a few paintings that were left incomplete.

“I’ve laid out a few and tried to encourage him to finish,” she said. “But Dad says, ‘Have you ever heard of a 92-year-old man painting?’ He still drives a little and walks every day even though his legs are failing him from arthritis. It’s probably how he’s gotten to 92.”

Putting her father’s paintings into the hands of people and witnessing their total surprise and appreciation has been a gift to Lois Stiles. But the greatest gift is being able to do this for her father.

“This has meant everything to me,” she said. “I can get choked up when I think of how proud I am of Dad. If it were not for Dad’s work, we would never have had the opportunity to meet all the wonderful folks in these small towns. When I see the smile on Dad’s face, tell him about our experiences and show him the pictures, it means everything to me.”

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