Georgia Original series: This is the fifth in a series of stories spotlighting area residents who have contributed to the betterment of Northeast Georgia through their community works. In this series, The Times will highlight one person or persons each month.
Once upon a time, the English village at the end of the gravel driveway in Clarkesville was just a simple sharecropper’s home and the neighboring city of Alpine Helen was just another rural mountain town.
That was before John Kollock worked his magic as a storytelling artist.
The 85-year-old has written and illustrated a number of books detailing North Georgia’s history. Most recently, Habersham EMC released a CD travel guide narrated by Kollock, “Experience Northeast Georgia- John Kollock’s guide to 75 Special Places.”
The Clarkesville man seemed to be the perfect person for that task. As a well-known watercolor artist who specializes in painting scenes from the past, Kollock draws from his knowledge of history to see what has been or what could have been while others may only see what is.
Kollock explained the subject of his paintings grow from what he knows of history.
“Each one of them tells me a story,” Kollock said, his gaze scanning the room.
Most of Kollock’s paintings depict mundane moments of North Georgia’s history. The walls of his gallery are lined with framed moments: sunlight on the Soque River or a musician picking a playful tune on the front porch of a humble cottage.
He laughed and said he hopes the paintings tell the stories to other people, too.
It would seem Kollock’s artistic endeavors have always been urged by a desire to preserve stories otherwise forgotten.
As a child, Kollock was never without a pencil.
“I used to copy cartoons from the funny pages in the paper,” Kollock said. “I saw a cartoon and would draw it. And so I did more of that. They tried to send me to art school and I didn’t like what they were teaching me, so I quit. They tried to teach proper art and I was more interested in cartoons. They just gave me storytelling power.”
Every summer, he traveled from Atlanta to his grandmother’s farm in Clarkesville.
“Growing up here over the summers was my foundation,” Kollock said. “Atlanta was just school. It didn’t mean anything. It was kind of uninteresting to me. But this was fascinating to me, the contrast from Atlanta to here, rural life to city life.”
His summers were spent learning “the old way” of farming and playing with the neighboring sharecropper’s sons. This was the place where his interest in storytelling took root.
Kollock earned a degree in theatrical set design before being drafted into the U.S. Army Special Services division. While in the Army, he traveled around Europe writing scripts, performing and designing sets of plays to entertain troops.
During his service, Kollock became fascinated with “vernacular architecture”— the places where common people live.
Smiling, Kollock said his architectural interests began in childhood, too. His father was an architect in Atlanta and taught him to appreciate the details of buildings.
“I grew up around what was acceptable, good architecture,” Kollock said. “He came from another generation. Even when I built shacks in the backyard, which I used to do, he’d come out with a ruler and measure and make sure it was right. But I respected that. It rubbed off.”
His love of architecture apparently influences his artistic work.
Nancy Kollock, John Kollock’s wife of 53 years, walks through the small gallery and points to a painting of a cottage.
“He has the creativity of the artist,” she said, drawing her finger through the air outlining the cottage. “So in his eyes, he sees the beauty and what he wants. But his backgrounds, because of the scene design and his dad, he doesn’t draw something that can’t be built. He’s got both sides of it.”
Evidence of this ability isn’t difficult to see.
Kollock moved to his grandmother’s farm permanently in 1972 with his wife and their three daughters. Today, the couple live in the sharecropper’s cottage a short distance from his grandmother’s old farmhouse.
Over the years, he added onto the cottage and renovated it. The surrounding out buildings look like a quaint English village. A small sign at the start of the driveway reminds visitors to keep to the left side of the road, they’re in England after all.
“He always said if we ever got too old to travel ‘I’m going to build a little bit of England right here,’” Nancy Kollock said. “Which is what he did.”
John Kollock shrugged.
“There’s just something in me that likes the coziness,” he said.
“He’s just an anglophile,” Nancy Kollock said with a grin.
John Kollock starts to protest but stops and shrugs again.
He said guests to his home sometimes get the English theme confused with the German theme of the nearby city of Helen — another example of John’s work.
At the start of 1969, some of the business leaders in Helen decided they needed to do something to bring tourists traveling to nearby Unicoi State Park into to the city.
One of the entrepreneurs, Pete Hodkinson, asked John Kollock to come up with an attractive color scheme for the buildings on the main road. But as he drove into the city, Kollock saw something more from the top of a hill.
“I was like ‘This looks like a little village in Bavaria,’” the Clarkesville resident said. “You’re not there until you get there.”
Kollock drew watercolor sketches of what the individual buildings might look like if Helen were a German folk village. By fall of that year, many of the businesses had finished adding the decorative exterior and filigree to their buildings with the help of local carpenters.
“It took off like Babyland General really,” Helen City Commissioner Jeff Ash said. “The builders started nailing the next day. It’s just a phenomenal success story, because everybody started fixing their buildings up. ... Everybody sought his advice on colors, trim work, particularly the alpine motif. That word alpine motif is still used today in city government. A lot of our ordinances are designed to keep aligned with the Bavarian theme and colors.”
John Kollock said he’s still proud of the city, which celebrated it’s 100th anniversary this year.
“I think the basic idea is still there and people are happy and still doing the folk costumes like they should,” he said. “Don’t forget the theme. If you leave the theme, you’re dead in the water.”
Nancy Kollock said it was nice seeing how her husband’s idea has shaped the mountain town’s history. John Kollock said he’s glad to see people are taking more of an active interest in their history these days.
“There’s an appreciation of history and the past,” John Kollock said. “There’s more awareness now. For a while there, people were just burying it. Stick it under the rug. Hide it. Everything has to be new and different. That’s changed some.”
Nancy Kollock nodded in agreement.
“People are trying to,” Nancy Kollock said. “They’re tired of the modern stuff and they’re trying to go back to our roots, to understand all of that. We’re not going back there but we want to understand it.”