The Customs House Museum & Cultural Center: 40 Years of Collecting Art 

By Meghan E. Gattignolo 

How big of a collection can you amass in 40 years? Would it even fit in your house? The Customs House Museum & Cultural Center has collected over 22,000 pieces of unique objects, artworks and historical artifacts over the past four decades since the Museum opened in 1984. 

From the 842 pieces of artwork in the Museum’s collection, Exhibit Curator Terri Jordan has selected some special pieces to share with the public. You may recognize a painting or two if you’ve been a Museum visitor within the past few years, but many of these pieces have not been seen by the public in decades. The works have been donated by the original artist in some cases, or by previous private collectors and local businesses.  

As one would expect, this exhibit features a wide range of different styles spanning multiple eras and mediums. A few of these are particularly good examples of Clarksville’s artistic history and current art scene culture. 


The Porter Children by William Stamms Shackelford 

Few images are more eerie than that of the two unsmiling children you’ll notice as soon as you walk into the gallery. Today, we take for granted our ability to take hundreds of images of our children whenever they do something cute. In the 19th century, photography was an expensive luxury when it was available, so there was no guarantee a parent had a picture to remember their children by after they passed away.  

The Porter family experienced such a loss in 1864. During the Civil War, a measles outbreak devastated Clarksville and many families didn’t have access to medicine as a direct result of the war. The Porter Children was completed on commission for the grieving family who wanted to preserve the memory of their children. This would have been the only captured image the Porter parents possessed of Irma and James.  

The artist, William Stamms Shackelford, was a prolific portrait artist who made a name for himself in Tennessee painting portraits of well-to-do families and political dignitaries.  

He moved to Clarksville permanently in the 1850s, making his home along Franklin Street, along with his own art studio. The Museum also has Shackelford’s portrait of Cave Johnson, a local prominent politician who served as U.S. Postmaster General under President Polk. Shackelford’s work can also be seen in the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville.  


Blue Vidalia by C. Douglas Charlton 

C. Douglas Charlton is a modern active artist and Middle Tennessee native. Born in Gallatin and based in Nashville for years, he recently made the move to Clarksville, and now lives and works here in town. His colorful abstracts have been exhibited here at the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center before, particularly in 2021 and was featured in a previous blog article.  

Vivid abstracts are a big part of Charlton’s work, but he also enjoys painting portraits and has painted the likeness of several celebrities, including Dolly Parton and Bob Dylan. Charlton takes on commissions, so anyone can own a personalized original work from this prolific artist. He refers to his art as “neon-rustic,” intentionally evoking strong and expressive emotions with his thick brush strokes.  

Clarksville has a growing community of contemporary artists, and Charlton represents the trend of Nashville artists relocating to Clarksville to continue their creative journey. Whatever Charlton does next, his work is already preserved here in the collection of Clarksville’s museum.  


Clarksville – The Beginning by Peg Harvill 

Few artists have left a bigger legacy in their hometown than Peg Harvill. You’ll run into her name often throughout Clarksville in places that have cultural or educational significance. She also married into a family that promoted excellence in education in Clarksville. If you see the name Harvill anywhere, it’s probably in reference to her father-in-law who was once a president at Austin Peay State University.  

Peg Harvill became well-known for her watercolors, particularly ones dealing with local historical subjects. Her paintings of Clarksville buildings, including the 1898 building of the Customs House Museum, have become treasured works. A founding member of the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center, she was also the first to win the Gracey Award, an honor bestowed to significant supporters of the Museum during Flying High since 2000.  

Harvill passed away in 2004, but her daughter Kitty continues her mother’s artistic legacy with her own work – which you’ll also find in this extensive exhibit, as well as near the gallery named after her mother in Heritage Hall. Find out more about what Kitty’s been up to in this blog post dedicated to her recent works. 

See many more artworks important enough to be treasured forever by the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center and the Clarksville community in this expansive exhibit. Wood, Paper, Paint: Collecting Art for 40 Years is open now until June 2, 2024. 

Meghan E. Gattignolo is a freelance writer and longtime Clarksville, TN resident. She loves to obsess about historical subjects and annoy her family daily with unsolicited random facts. Meghan holds a History B.A. from Austin Peay State University and lives in town with her husband and two children. 

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