Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Crystal Theodore, Part 2

The Teacher

After the War, Crystal Theodore completed a doctorate at Columbia University and pursued advanced studies at various institutions throughout her life. When Dr. Theodore resumed her teaching career it was as head of the Huntington College (Alabama) Art Department. Later East Tennessee State College (now University) appointed her the head of its Art Department. At the latter institution two of her students were Ron Carrier and Edith Johnson (Carrier), the future first couple at JMU. The three of them would again meet at Madison.

 In the mid-1950’s while at Tennessee State, realizing the opportunities in educational television, Theodore scripted and hosted local television programs on the world’s finest art and interviewed local artists whom she often asked to demonstrate their craft. In 1957, the Educational Television and Radio Center of Ann Arbor Michigan awarded a grant for the program. In that same year Theodore received an offer to become head of the Madison College Art Department. The grant was transferred from East Tennessee to Madison, bringing the latter institution into the television age. It was the College’s first venture into television programming. The program on WSVA-TV was called “Viewpoint” and under Theodore’s supervision it focused on the arts and artists in the Shenandoah Valley. [i]

During her tenure as head of the Art Department at James Madison, Theodore endeavored to raise the credentials of the Art Department faculty thus strengthening the Department’s curriculum. One of her responsibilities was shepherding the building of Duke Hall in the late 1960s. As a professor she taught painting and art education. During Theodore’s 26 years at the University she took off one term to participate as a visiting professor on the World Campus Afloat program sponsored at the time by Chapman College in California. Dr. Crystal Theodore retired from James Madison University in 1983.

At James Madison University, the Crystal Theodore Service and Scholarship Award continues to
encourage and recognize art excellence that was the hallmark of her administration and teaching. The funds for this scholarship are incorporated in the School of Art Fund. Each year the Art faculty nominates and votes on a student with at least a 3.0 GPA, usually a senior, to receive the $500 award. In 2003, Theodore was featured in a JMU article on “Professors You Love” by Judith B. Espinosa ( ’65) who described her art history class with Professor Theodore. Espinosa wrote that she admired Theodore for her “vivacity, the intelligent and articulate way she could look at a work of art and know who created it and when and how other artists had influence on that work and how that work became a stepping stone to the next period of art.”[ii] Theodore herself admired the works of Mondrian and all of Picasso’s periods. Theodore said: “The arts do more to engender creativity in all fields than anything else. They encourage a new way to look at the world.” [iii]

Advocate for Art and Organizer of Artists in the Valley
In the 1990s, a Washington Post travel section story highlighting the Shenandoah Valley recommended that travelers skip Harrisonburg because there was “nothing to do there.” There appeared to be a lack of public support for the arts and no sustained track record for local gallery venues. In fact, during the 1990’s many local art assets moved to Staunton and Waynesboro. Theodore thought some of the blame for the lack of success should be shouldered by the indifference toward art in the local public schools. She was determined to change the situation. 

Her efforts began in the late 1950's to bring art education to Valley residents through television. Crystal Theodore spent another forty years creating an organization and venue around which the local art community could coalesce and where Harrisonburg residents and visitors could find original art. Theodore worked to bring cultural awareness to the area as head of the Rockingham Council of the Arts (now the Shenandoah Council of the Arts).[iv] After more than 40 years, in September 2000, her efforts resulted in securing from the City Council a one-time $25,000 grant for the opening of a cooperative, not-for-profit art gallery in Downtown Harrisonburg. Initially, 33 artists joined the cooperative OASIS (Our Art Space in the Shenandoah) and fortuitously, exhibition space became available almost immediately at 103 Main Street in Harrisonburg. OASIS, renamed in 2012 to OASIS Fine Art & Crafts, is still there today. [v]

 An early member of OASIS whose participation coincided with the six years Theodore was involved with OASIS echoed many other local art enthusiasts in their description of Theodore. She was admired for great ideas and great friends. At times her intelligence and strength of argument could make her difficult to work with. By her standards mediocrity was not to be tolerated. 

The Artist

The two pieces included with this article show Theodore’s use of bold, strong colors, and recognizable realistic forms in abstract environments. Her work also has been described as architecturally impressionistic. The “Annunciation” is one of three paintings Theodore gave as a gift to Muhlenberg Lutheran Church in Harrisonburg in memory of her parents. Portrayed in this painting is “Mary the Virgin opening wide her arms to accept the gift announced by the Dove of the Holy Spirit.” [vi] The painting, created in the late 1990s illustrates her use of realism with abstraction. Theodore’s works also appeared in religiously-themed art shows in Memphis and New Mexico.[vii] Many of her works have been described as spiritual, though not necessarily on religious subjects.

The second work is a mixed media piece called “Genesis/Exodus,” that was offered in an April 2012 art auction at The Homestead. The work depictions three human faces molded in plastic surrounded by creatures that fly, swim, and live on land. Theodore was a lover of animals and several other art works include animals. A large painting, “Fall,” can be viewed at Rockingham Memorial Hospital on the second floor opposite surgery. In this work, the theme uses softer hues than the “Annunciation,” but it also combines realism and abstraction. Theodore also produced many water color works and was a member of the Virginia Watercolor Society. Her works are in public and private collections from New York to California, however, neither the James Madison Art Collection nor the Winthrop University Art Collection own any of her works.  

 At the age of 95, Crystal Theodore died on November 9, 2012. In her obituary that she wrote, Theodore said her highest honor was to be included in Who’s Who of American Women (2000 edition) as an educator and artist. [viii] Locally, she is honored for her effort and success in promoting artistic expression through the organizations and the institutions she championed. Though she has been described as a private person, she was very visible in the community. At her death she requested that there be no service and that her ashes be placed next to her mother in South Carolina. In addition to her cultural interests described above, Theodore was a pillar of the Harrisonburg branch of the AAUW and served in leadership position at all levels of that organization. Along with her professional writing, she wrote Letters to the Editor on a range of current topics. She also wrote a book called Abraham’s Table. Abraham’s Table is about Abraham’s three religions legacy and Theodore’s unique approach was to include recipes from those three religions. She was a strict vegetarian and a good cook. Everyone contacted for this blog recommended two or three more people who should also be contacted. Those contacted described Crystal Theodore as a good friend with a wonderful sense of humor. She enjoyed a good (throaty) laugh.[ix]

i[i] www.jmu.edu/centennialcelebration/television.

[ii] Espinosa

[iii] From the description of the piece that was offered in an auction by JMU for the funding of the scholarship.

[iv] The SCA is now merged with OASIS.

[v] DNR 8/8/2000 and 8/13/2000.

[vi] www.muhlenberglutheran.org.

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Daily News Record. November 9, 2012.

[ix] In the preparation of this article, many of Crystal Theodore’s friends/colleagues shared their remembrances. Thank you for your generosity. It was obvious that she is missed.


  1. Thank you, Diane, for a great article and tribute to a 'one of a kind' woman who made a difference in the art community of Harrisonburg.

  2. Dr. Theodore was one of my favorite professors at Madison College (it wasn't yet a university when I was there). She was inspiring, intelligent and kind. Knew her subject frontwards & back. from Dixie J-Elder now in Colorado