The freshly renovated Renasant Convention Center lobby was a fitting scene for Tuesday’s official unveiling of the late George Hunt’s final creation for the Memphis in May Beale Street Music Festival.
Hunt, who was named the official artist for the Memphis in May International Festival, painted “Greatest Hits” for Memphis in May 2020. But the COVID-19 global pandemic hit, and festivities were canceled. There was no 2020 celebration and only a limited schedule of activities in 2021.
The unveiling ceremony on Tuesday (April 19) featured an adoring crowd of art lovers and fans of the artist, who praised the revealed work and honored the Hunt family with expressions of love for the artist and his work.
Hunt, who had enjoyed past unveilings of his coveted paintings, did not get to see the favorable reception of his new piece. In early December 2021, Hunt died after an extended illness, at the age of 85.
Memphis in May President and CEO James Holt facilitated the unveiling with brief remarks, acknowledging Hunt’s important contributions to the branding of Memphis in May over the years.
“This was George’s last Memphis in May portrait, and it is appropriately named ‘Greatest Hits,’” said Holt. “His representation of Memphis life and music has made a lasting contribution, not only to the festival, but also to our city. We have taken delivery of his final painting…and can now release it for his many fans.”
Hunt’s widow, Marva Hunt, attended the unveiling, along with a daughter and several grandchildren. Asked if she had realized how admired her husband’s work was, she said, ‘Not really.’”
“I guess I really didn’t,” said Marva Hunt. “People have told me this afternoon about how much he was loved and that his work was appreciated. That really means a lot to us. We were married for 63 years. If he was still here, we would have been married 63 years, eight months, and four days. And I miss him every day.”
Holt gave Mrs. Hunt an opportunity to greet the crowd and share expressions of appreciation for honoring Hunt.
When the unveiling marked the program’s end, attendees took a copious number of photos of the painting, as well as Hunt’s family posing with the signature portrait.
Hunt’s signature style involves the use of bold, vivid color, abstract depictions of people, and exaggerated features, such as large hands playing a keyboard.
Of course, there are musical instruments in this year’s portrait, and the depiction of an owl on the lower left side.
“George would sometimes use animal images in his paintings,” said Holt. “I remember asking him once about their significance. I wish I could remember what he told me. But he would paint an owl or a duck in some of his creations.”
Holt said Hunt has been painting the festival’s art since 1992 when he was first named the official artist of Memphis in May.
“I remember that he was supposed to paint a signature piece for the next three years,” said Holt. “But the response to those portraits was so overwhelming, we decided George would be our official artist. I miss my dear friend.”
Kash Yeargin, 22, one of Hunt’s grandsons, admitted he had not fully appreciated the fact that his grandfather was a famous artist.
“I guess I’m only just really getting to understand what my grandfather’s art meant to so many people,” said Yeargin. “It wasn’t until I started going to more and more of his events as I got older. But most of the time, he was just ‘Grandfather.’ We actually shared him with so many people who also loved him.”
The afternoon unveiling also showcased a special exhibit in the Renasant Convention Center entitled “The Art of Hunt.” Holt told attendees that the “retrospective exhibition of Hunt’s colorful Beale Street Music Festival paintings” will be on permanent display.
Posters of “Greatest Hits” will soon be available, Holt said.