A Cleveland native and longtime artist, Billie Nipper said she didn’t try to learn how to paint.
“I am amazed I can do it,” she once said in an interview with the Cleveland Daily Banner. “I thought I'd just be a housewife — I didn’t plan to be an artist, but I worked hard.”
The beloved artist died Wednesday morning at age 86. One of the last statements she made to a Banner staff writer was, “I have had ups and downs in being an artist, but you get through it with encouragement. I enjoy life and being with people who enjoy things I do.”
The funeral for the popular expressionist, who was still painting and having her canvasses framed leading into her final days, will be Saturday at 11 a.m. in the chapel of Ralph Buckner Funeral Home.
Interment will follow in Sunset Memorial Gardens.
The family will receive friends from 5 to 8 p.m. Friday at the funeral home.
Word of Nipper’s passing broke the hearts of friends and fans alike, one of whom is Dale Dotson, president of Cleveland Creative Arts Guild.
“There is so much to love and admire about ‘our Billie,’” Dotson told the Banner. “Her many contributions to the Cleveland Creative Arts Guild over the years were, indeed, priceless.”
Dotson called her endearing friend “... the heart and soul of the Nillie Bipper Arts Festival for 45 years. She was the greatest in orchestrating the very best arts festivals ever.”
Dotson said she will never forget a particular trait about Nipper — her smile.
“With a face, a smile and a talent that brightened up a cloudy day, Miss Billie was a treasure to ‘The City With Spirit,’” Dotson said. “So many have been truly blessed with the gifts she so generously shared with us.”
As if she were carrying on a conversation with her dear friend, Dotson added, “Thank you, Billie. You will be missed.”
Two more who knew Nipper well and were saddened by her passing are Cleveland Mayor Tom and first lady Sandra Rowland. The latter, who formerly held lifestyles and managing editor roles with the Banner prior to changing careers, worked with Nipper regularly.
“During my years at the Banner, I did have the honor of working closely with Billie Nipper,” Sandra said. “What a talented artist, and her abilities to capture horses on canvas was remarkable. She has contributed so much through the years to the arts in Cleveland.”
Speaking on behalf of herself and the Cleveland mayor — who also considered Nipper a close friend — the former newspaper veteran added, “Tom and I loved attending the annual events at Red Clay named the Nillie Bipper Arts & Crafts Festival in her honor. She was a driving force in promoting artists and craftsmen in the region. We were blessed to call her friend and to have small treasures in our home to forever remind us of her talents through the years.”
Like Dotson, the longtime Cleveland mayor said he considered Nipper a talented local resident who epitomized the message behind the city’s theme, “The City With Spirit.”
Over the years, the Banner featured Nipper in a variety of news stories and features. Most involved the popular arts and crafts festival that was discontinued two years ago after a run of more than 40 years.
Another was a Personality Profile published in September 2011.
For someone whose art is seen nationwide in all circles, Nipper didn't start with ambitions toward an art career. In fact, her first efforts came about because she had “nothing to do,” when her husband's work took the newlyweds — married a year — to Cleveland, Ohio.
“I bought a starter set at an art shop,” she said. And she hid everything she did — “It was horrible,” she confided.
But her husband thought differently. He proudly showed off her work, which Nipper — “a basically shy person” — said was embarrassing.
Nipper met her husband, J.L., as students at Bradley Central High School. He was a senior, she a sophomore.
Many things happened since then, but Nipper said she learned from everything. After going through the death of her husband 10 years ago and her own bypass surgery, Nipper said in later interviews with the Banner “nice things are happening again.”
In fact, she finished painting the New world Champion Walking Horse in 2013. She started with the Walking Horse Association in 1976 and was the official artist for the Breeder's Association Tennessee Walking Horse.
Her work can be seen (and bought) at the Creative Art Guild's Craft Palette Gallery at Five Points. That is an outgrowth of her work with the late Jean Turner, who started the Creative Arts Guild, and the Nillie Bipper Festival, which flourished for more than four decades. Turner had the idea for a festival which would highlight local talent, but with juried-quality entrants. She put out an ad about starting the festival and Nipper said her husband “pushed me into it.”
Nipper became chairman of the show and together they “learned how” to carry out a festival. First the guild members tried to come up with a catchy name. John Bradley and Perry Skates took a cue from the TV show “Laugh-In” and submitted the name “Nillie Bipper,” just reversing the first letters of her name. It was short and catchy and became the official name of the Cleveland festival.
However, when the name was published, calls began pouring in about the “mistake” in the newspaper. Friends of Nipper were outraged that her name was misspelled.
Although Nipper is known for painting horses, she not only painted horses — she raised them, too. And she said horses helped her.
“Without them, I would be just another artist,” she said.
However, she occasionally will take a break from horses and do Tennessee landscapes.
She was commissioned to paint ZsaZsa Gabor and her horse, and a painting for Shania Twain also, as a gift from her husband.
When the World's Fair came to Knoxville in 1982, Nipper was contacted about a presentation to President Ronald Reagan with something to represent Tennessee — a walking horse painting, they thought, would be appropriate.
Nipper suggested a plate with her painting of the first walking horse. She later received a thank-you letter from the president, saying that “Nancy collects plates.”
She was chosen also to create an ornament for the 2012 Christmas tree at the Tennessee governor’s mansion for the second annual “Tennessee’s Home for the Holidays” open house events. Her ornament depicts scenes of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the Cherokee Chieftain and the United Daughters of the Confederacy Civil War monument, along with the Bradley County name and boughs of holly to help deck the halls of the governor’s home.
She was in the Walking Horse Hall of Fame, the Agriculture Hall of Fame, Who's Who's in Walking Horse Breeders and received an award from the Walking Horse Trainer's Association.
Her art collection has been displayed in all 50 states and in several countries around the world. Her art work has been reproduced on weavings, albums, music boxes, pottery and prints. She completed murals for several churches and a painting for E.L. Ross Elementary School.
Nipper said she thought she was supposed to paint like the grand masters when she started. But, she said, I learned to just be myself.
In the last few years, health problems forced her to slow down.
“Finally,” she said, “I've paid my dues.”
Her full obituary is published on Page 2 of today’s edition.
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