Barbara Summers is no stranger to putting on productions.
As a retired stage manager for Broadway and off‐Broadway shows, it’s no wonder she performs with precision and passion in her current role as executive director for the Southern Hills Arts Council in Jackson. This past fall, Summers and her team of volunteers and board members put on a show of their own: the 33rd Annual Foothills Arts Festival, a judged exhibition that hosts hundreds of artists from Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, featuring their works.
A woman with a long history of love for drama and the arts, Summers spent her theater career working diligently on productions such as “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” on Broadway and at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C. She hadn’t actually planned for a theatrical career path, though.
“My college degree is in secondary education and literature so I was training to become an English teacher,” Summers says. “I figured that dramatic literature was quite a bit of what was going on in the field of English so I started in the theater.
“I took to it, I really loved it. So after I finished college, armed with my degree in education, instead of going into a teaching situation in a classroom, I ended up in theater instead.”
Summers and her late husband, a costume designer named Caley Summers who also worked on Broadway, off‐Broadway and various other companies, bought land in Ohio in 1971 for their eventual retirement home. They had originally planned to return to New York City after buying the 70‐acre plot, but they fell in love with the land and moved there permanently in 1974.
“It’s hard to live in Manhattan,” Summers explains. “It’s not a place [where] I really wanted to grow old.”
After her move to Jackson County, Summers became involved with the Southern Hills Arts Council in 1984, working as a volunteer until her promotion to executive director in 1987. Her husband had convinced her to take some of his artwork to the council, and it was hung at the Foothills Arts Festival that year.
Summers never lost her love for the theater, however. During her time working for the council, the search for a home base became a major priority; the council had held art classes, galleries and exhibitions at various locations throughout the years, but the venues were not fit for live performances—one of the council’s main goals. Eventually, the council gained access to the Markay Theatre in downtown Jackson in 1996. Summers has helped oversee the renovations at the once‐abandoned theater, assisted in the programming of art classes and, most recently, planned for the opening of the Markay’s auditorium.
“Sometime in 2015, we will open the theater and then we will feel as though we’ve completed our circle. We’ll be able to provide live performances as well as the various other art forms we already have. It’s pretty darn good for southern Ohio, in my opinion,” Summers says. “It’s been a long time coming. We’ve built it slowly as we’ve gone but I’m really happy to see the arts getting a wonderful toehold here.”
Summers and her production skills are tireless; nothing motivates her more than the people within the Jackson local arts community. Summers organized the Preview Reception, an event held at Canter’s Cave prior to the public viewing of the arts festival, where artists, sponsors and award patrons flowed through the door. Everyone was jovially greeted by name as Summers shook hands and handed out nametags, pointing out where in the gallery to begin. Canter’s Cave, a 4‐H camp and community building, is nestled in the backwoods of Jackson, surrounded by rolling hills and rocky one‐way paths. Inside, the space is anything but a cave—high ceilings and wood paneling give off a cozy atmosphere, perfect for an evening of the arts.
During the reception, Summers’ enthusiasm was tangible—not a single person left that night feeling overlooked. It’s the mission of the Southern Hills Arts Council (and Summers’) to “encourage folks to practice and appreciate the arts.”
400 pieces of artwork made by 117 artists hung on installation boards that took up the entire space, complete with bright gallery-style lighting. Each bay held pieces from six categories: watercolors, 3D works, mixed media prints, pastel and drawing, oil and acrylics, and photography. Roughly 80 people walked about, admiring various pieces submitted from all over Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky.
Each category contained first-, second- and third-place winners, along with honorable mentions, and the festival awarded a best of show. The festival typically welcomes about 3,000 people during the exhibition’s opening weekend, exceptional turnout for a small‐town arts festival.
“This [festival] gives us the opportunity [to give a chance to] an emerging artist who wants to put their work on display and wants to see it in context with other established artists,” Summers says. “So we welcome kids from area schools to enter, whether it’s a high school or a college student. We certainly welcome those who come to art later on in life.”
Many people owe a lot of thanks to Summers, and not just for her efforts during her time on the arts council. Molly Markley, a senior at Jackson High School who earned an honorable mention at this year’s festival, began showing at the festival when she was 9 years old (the youngest person to show at Foothills, her father, John Markley, says). Summers, who knew Markley was taking painting lessons at the Markay Theatre, noticed her work and invited her to show.
Paul Brown, chair of the Foothills Arts Festival and an oil painter, decided to show his work mostly because of Summers’ encouragement. “Barbara was the one who saw something in one of my works that I brought [to the festival] and liked it,” Brown says. “A couple of the board members [who are] on the Southern Hills Arts Council said, ‘We ought to get Paul Brown in to do a one-man show.’ I owe Barbara a lot for my success.”
But Summers’ experience and drive remains the basis for others’ interest in the festival and other events held by the Southern Hills Arts Council. After her choice to stay in Jackson, she has maintained her home stage with the care and dedication of a seasoned professional.
“She has such a wealth of knowledge and experience that things come automatically to her. We’re learning from her,” Kathy Miller, board member for the Southern Hills Art Council, says. “She’s a wonderful director and she brings that experience from her world travels, she grew up in New York, she has experience in theater and her husband has experience in costume design.
“She’s been an inspiration for the last twenty years. We would not be where we are with the Markay or the arts in this area if it weren’t for her visions.”