When families visit the City Park in Fort Payne for the annual Christmas in the Park event, they typically have to wait in line for their children to visit Santa Claus and tell him what they hope to get under the Christmas tree at home. This year, they’ll get to enjoy a brand new backdrop around the park pavilion courtesy of the artistic talents of Michael Anderson, an employee of the Fort Payne Parks and Recreation Department.

The park pavilion is open on all four sides, so having three sides contained eliminates chaos. The city decided to replace the panels it used since 2003, so Parks and Recreation employees built all new ones. It’s an important project since they may very well have to last 16 Christmases as well.

“I hope kids will enjoy looking at the panels,” Anderson said. “Realizing there’s a little bit of a wait to get to sit in Santa’s lap, I’m adding a lot of details so the display is entertaining and will get families talking. I’d love to see parents sharing stories with their children about their family experiences growing up.”

Fort Payne Parks and Recreation Director Robin Brothers asked Anderson to take on the project after learning about his skill as a visual artist. He credited his co-workers for creating the new wooden panels, then lifting and moving them to a space inside the Wills Valley Recreation Center where he could paint undisturbed.

It’s doubtful anyone visiting "Santa’s Candy Shop" for the first time will be able to fully experience every detail on Anderson’s backdrop. The former Chattanooga school teacher said he has always enjoyed drawing and took after his father.

For this project, he looked up reference photos of presents he enjoyed as a child, then drew them on the wood panels in pencil before adding layers of acrylic paint to achieve extremely detailed renderings of various items sitting on imaginary shelves or fireplaces. Several of the objects are vintage toys sure to ignite some good memories for the grown-ups while inspiring a sense of awe from the little ones. He smiled as he pointed to a kite he used to love flying, the real one discarded long ago.

Anderson incorporated a lot of other peoples’ details as well, adding several pets of his fellow Parks and Recreation staffers. The animals present the biggest challenge to capture realistically due to their fur, he said.

The panels also tell stories. In one, a co-worker’s dog knocks down presents, leading to another animal rubbing a genie’s lamp and causing the presents to come to life. Finally, a Christmas fairy at the top of the panel restores order.

On another panel, we see a miniature of the famous Red Square from Russia, where Anderson spend a couple of years teaching after the fall of the Soviet Union and he traveled as a goodwill ambassador of western values.

Reflecting changing demographics, Anderson made the display multicultural so children of different ethnicities would see something they could relate to in it. The Hispanic fairy represents peace, the African-American fairy offers the spirit of giving, the Native-American fairy symbolizes understanding, the Irish fairy holds mistletoe, etc.

“Christmas is a tradition for families regardless of their faith, but the holiday does have a strong Christian significance,” Anderson said.

He’s been at work since August priming the boards and painting. “It’s been a labor of love, really. We want to make Christmas in the Park better and better every year.”

Once his work is finished, the protective coating will seal in the paint. The backdrop will remain under the pavilion roof to minimize exposure to the elements.

Anderson said the work he’s doing is important to enhancing everyone’s enjoyment of the holidays.

For a project like this, it is imperative that the display last a while to achieve a return on investment. The reward for his creativity is seeing the smiles on the faces of children as they absorb all of the details they see. He hopes they enjoy the display so much that the wait in line to give Santa their wishlist goes by quickly.

“We, as a community, need that time to slow down during the hectic holidays and just enjoy each others’ company,” he said.

He’ll keep on painting to get Santa’s Candy Shop all ready for Santa’s visit during Christmas in the Park on Dec. 6 in Fort Payne City Park.

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