WEST JEFFERSON — In 1981, a young music teacher named Jane Lonon and her husband, Grady, had a six-month-old son, and were looking to leave Los Angeles in search of somewhere to raise their young child. Remembering their time in college working as singing servers in a Blowing Rock restaurant, they made their way to the High Country, eventually settling on a farm house in Ashe County that needed some work.
While Grady started his law practice, Jane was a stay-at-home mom while teaching piano out of their home. She saw an article in the Skyland Post about a local arts organization, the Ashe County Arts Council, and how they were looking for volunteers.
“I didn’t even know what an arts council was. I thought, ‘arts, volunteers, fun people, a night out,’ and I was in,” Lonon said.
After her first meeting, Lonon never looked back. She joined the young organization, going from volunteer to becoming a board member with Grady and eventually the executive director that she is now. It’s a role that Lonon is now leaving, as she recently announced her retirement.
“I’ve been able to look at this organization from a volunteer perspective, from an officer perspective, from a board member perspective and then from a staff position,” Lonon said. “Just showing that slow, steady and sustained growth organizationally, financially and programatically.”
Since taking the leadership role in 1988, Lonon has overseen the implementation of the Gallery Crawls, mural projects, studio tours and the opening of the Arts Center in West Jefferson. Lonon said the building, renovated and opened in 1993, gave the local arts community a physical location where they could congregate, as well as a representation of which arts were in the area.
“It was part of the Arts Council’s long-range plan; we have always operated with a three- to five-year document which charts what we do and where we’re going,” Lonon said. “The first one was in 1983, it was written on a legal pad, it was handwritten and had three goals. One of those goals was to have an art gallery and a visible presence.”
The town-owned building, which previously served as a community center for different organizations, has become synonymous with the Arts Council. In 1993, there were fewer art galleries, and the center became one of the first places local artists could show off their work.
Echoing that fact was Arts Council Program Director Rebecca Williams, who pointed to what Lonon has allowed local artists to do, while her retirement hits hard.
“It’s a big loss,” Williams said. “She does a lot for the community here, as well as the artists in the area. So much here wouldn’t be possible without her.”
Still, the former music teacher decided it was time to step away. The decision came at the beginning of February, with the news coming Feb. 13. Williams said the Arts Council staff only found out hours before the rest of the community did. In a letter to community members and friends, Lonon wrote she’d be retiring effective June 30, with the search for her successor starting in the spring.
“I’ve had a great run with this organization and being a part of what the Ashe County Arts Council has done in this community,” Lonon said. “I’ve had the best job in the whole world. Getting to work with great people, motivating people and community members who appreciate the arts and the importance of what that can be.”
2018 was the 40th anniversary of the Arts Council’s founding. Thirty-seven of those years featured Lonon in some capacity. A frequent sight at community events and local festivals, Lonon said the line sometimes gets blurred between “Jane the person” and “Jane from the Arts Council,” but she’s looking forward to being a member of the community as just herself.
“I am looking forward to some time off, the freedom and the flexibility to be off for a month without having to worry about committee meetings, or board meetings and that’s what retirement’s all about,” Lonon said. “I want the time to balance out the schedule so my family and I can do what we want to do, while still being able to come to all of the great events that happen here.”
Lonon has spent over half of her life with the Arts Council, becoming synonymous with the organization as well as shepherding its growth. Her plan now is to relax, find more time to read and work in her garden, and to continue fixing up that old farm house.