The artist on staying true to his roots and his love for Appalachia.
So much of your work touches on the folklore you heard growing up. What are some of your earliest memories when it comes to those kinds of stories?
I was always around people who told stories. There weren’t good roads in the place where I grew up in Brush Creek, Kentucky and not a lot of people came into that area. It was remote enough that people probably told stories in the old days when they didn't have radios and televisions. They didn't have books, either. I remember the only books I had early on as a child was a set of encyclopedias that my dad got from a traveling salesman and I learned a lot from those, but that's just the way it was. And people told stories that were pretty fascinating. I remember hearing my aunts and uncles telling a story about a time they were traveling somewhere at night. They were going across the mountain and somebody had to get out and use the bathroom when somebody walked past them on the road. My uncle got back in the car and said, "Did you see that guy walk past us there? He didn't have a face." I would hear stories like that even as a kid. I was listening in and hearing them tell these ghost stories and strange encounters they had. I had aunts and uncles talk about witnessing full-blown exorcisms in the Pentecostal church where they cast out devils and a black mass would fall on the ground and crawl across the church floor. These people were sober as a judge and went to church. But that gives you an example of how folks in Eastern Kentucky, in those coal fields, can be really religious and very superstitious at the same time–highly so. I always found that, as I got older and reflected on it, the coal fields of Eastern Kentucky and western West Virginia, and south in Southwestern Virginia are a unique culture. Maybe more so different than other parts of Appalachia.
What is it you think about that culture that stands apart so much?
Well, the coal mining had to be done in the most remote areas of the mountains. People don't go there. There's no such thing as a tourist that's coming into Southeastern Kentucky because it's just hollers. I use that word a lot in my artwork, holler. I grew up in the holler. It's a one-lane road that goes up in between the mountains. There's nowhere to turn around till you get to the end. When you get to the end, there's a whole clan of people living there and there are dogs running around, everybody's watching you. People don't just go there to visit for fun. I grew up around very old-fashioned people. I'm just old enough to have been around some of the old timers who had the old stories and went by the old ways. I knew some people who lived in one-room log cabins and washed their clothes in the creek and gathered their water from the creek running off the mountain. But I'm also just young enough to have been able to get out and have experiences and have more of an open mind and, I think, try to have a bridge between the contemporary culture and my culture there in the mountains.
When you were growing up, were you a creative kid? Did you already have inklings that you might want to be an artist, or was that something that came later?
I did like comic books. Sometimes we went to the pharmacy where you could pick up a few comic books, and I would draw in the comics. I had some watercolor sets, and I would do watercolors. And I liked to take art in high school, so I showed some talent by then. That encouraged me to do a lot of painting. Of course, when I went to college, I studied to be a teacher. At first, I had an ROTC scholarship. I was going to go into the military and played around with that idea for a while. Then I started studying education and there were a few art classes that you have to take for that. But a lot of my exposure to art then was at the Kentucky Folk Art Center that was in town. When I went to the end of the art building, the first thing I saw was the folk art center. It used to be in the art building, now it's in another place. I saw paintings by people like Charley Kinney and Ron Cooper, Hugo Sperger, Helen LaFrance, people like that. I saw folk paintings, visionary paintings. That got me all fired up because you walk in there and you get hit right away with the devil holding somebody on a pitchfork, burning them over an open flame. That resonated with me because when I was growing up in the old regular Baptist and Pentecostal churches, all they preached was going to hell. That's all they talked about. It inspired me to paint some things that were darker, more mysterious. That and storytelling.
Beyond the style and the technique that you use, storytelling is such a big part of the work and your practice overall. What made you want to merge the storytelling aspect with your painting work, and what do you find most interesting about making some of those stories visual?
I was pretty introverted as a kid until I got to be an adult. Now I'm a little more outgoing, but when I started out, I really couldn't tell a story very well. But I could paint a picture of something that might have happened, or a story that I heard, a ghost story or something like that. And so that's what I set out to do when I first set out trying to get a body of work together. That's what I wanted to do. I knew right away I wanted to tell stories.
You eventually got a Master of Fine Arts. At a certain point after earning that degree, you looked back to a lot of the folk artwork that you were describing and really honed in on that style for yourself. Was that something you intended to do when you set out to get your master's or was there something in particular that made you return to that?
I got out of school and a lot of different things happened. I was working odd jobs, really, really terrible jobs. I even worked outside of a coal mine for a while. My dad was a coal miner and I promised him I'd never be a miner, so I went away from that. I was painting through college, and I took a few art classes, but I never really had a lot of technical art training, only an art education class where they teach you how to design projects for little kids to do. I got those paintings together, applied, and got to the University of Cincinnati. It was very conceptual. It was like a conceptual art program in the '90s with abstract painters and a lot of conceptual thought, and they don't teach you anything about how to draw or how to set up a palette. There were people in there that knew all of that, but that's not what they wanted to talk about. You signed up for a critique and you went in this big pit. Everybody just talked about critical things and hammered on your work. I had a really hard time being in a program like that because I wasn't geared up in the same way that some other art students were. I had some teachers who found where I was coming from interesting and liked it, and I had some people who wanted to ride me out of there. But I got through. I got to work with some interesting people while I was there. I got to work and talk a little bit with Terry Allen and Andy Andrews, some pretty important artists who were inspirational to me. Terry Allen had that country music that he does going at the time, and he was in there with the big cowboy boots and the west Texas attitude talking about just keeping it real. That anchored it right there for me. I'm going to be me and to hell with everybody else. That's what I said and that's what I did.
Do you feel like the program got better for you as time went on when you found that support and people who understood and appreciated where you were coming from? Or was it something that you just had to get through?
A big part of it was just getting through. By the time I got to my thesis show, it was going better. The American regionalists were inspired by folk art, so I let 'em mold me and I changed a few things about me, that's why I was painting. But as soon as I got out of there, I put down painting for a while because my dad got sick. I had to go home and help on the farm. I was out there working like a mule and not even thinking about painting. When I came back around, some voice told me, you need to pick this back up right now or you're going to lose it. That very day I gathered up some materials and started painting. I didn't really paint anything like I did when I was in art school. I just went back to painting folk art.
If you were to go back into that program today, would those issues that you encountered still exist do you think? Has the art world and education evolved at all or not really?
I don't know anything about the art world because I pretty much keep to myself. I'm a little bit reclusive. I stay here at home, I work, and I don't go out and visit a lot of museums and big art shows or things like that. I don't know how I would do if I was in a program like that now. I don't suspect it'd go too well. I'm kind of set in my ways. I've been to a few places and people start talking about their art and it gets wild really quick. Some are talking about the metaphysical or they get into politics. I just don't go that deep with it. It’s stories, that's what I'm working with, things that are near and dear and things that are the real me.
There is so much love in your work for Appalachia, where you're from, and the places that you grew up in, but there is a very one-dimensional way that area usually gets talked about. What do you think people not from there would be surprised to learn about Appalachia and the people who live there?
Nowadays, it's really a great place. It's a lot more progressive. If you go to Pikeville, Kentucky, there are big LGBTQ communities and actual pride shops, and that's something that wasn't there during my time. The culture has become more inclusive and a little more open-minded, which I think is phenomenal. It's gotten better in a lot of ways. You couldn't wear a pair of shorts in the old regular Baptist churches–they asked you where the rest of your britches were–and all the women had to wear long hair. A lot of that's more relaxed now. I think a lot of people look at Appalachia and think that it's the last outpost that's in the way of America making some real progress. We're the last damn holdout, holding everybody else back. And I don't think it's that way. I think that Appalachian people, care about our own more than we're worried about what is going on somewhere else. This big flood just hit down here, and it killed people, destroyed people's whole lives, and everybody got together and helped each other. It was on the news for maybe a couple of days and then nobody cared about it anymore. But we were all down here helping each other and supporting each other. I think that's one thing that's true about Appalachia, maybe still, is that we look out for one another, and we might not worry as much about what's going on the outside. Maybe that's good, maybe that's bad, I don't know. But I think it's good in a lot of ways. I could live in a big city, but I don't know if anybody would ever come and check on me, I don't know if anybody ever goes and checks on their neighbor. I don't do well in the city.
In your works, there’s so much attention paid to rendering the settings and the outdoor spaces beautifully, and the idea of place seems important to your work. What places do you find most inspiring to be in?
A setting is how I start a lot of these paintings. Sometimes I’ve got a story in mind, but sometimes I'll paint a setting and then I'll try to figure out what to put in it. And some of my stories are invented. When you come into eastern Kentucky, a lot of people say as they're coming into that part of the country, the temperatures start to drop, it gets a little cooler. You pick up on different smells. It starts getting dark at four or five o'clock back in the holler. The daylight doesn’t start until 9 or 10 o'clock in the morning. The sunshine starts hammering through the hills and it's a dark place. It has a different feel to it. I try to think about that. I think about the holler a lot and the creeks and the streams and the mountains and the wooded places where I used to play. That's the setting for a lot of my work. And the spooky things your mom would tell you like, “Don't go here because there's a boogeyman that’s going to get you.” I think a lot of that had to do with the satanic panic stuff that hit all of America. It wasn't just Appalachia, it was everywhere–Manson and the Zodiac killer. And then even here in Kentucky, there was a vampire cult. I think it hit harder in the mountains because it's so isolated and people are a little more superstitious. And all those scary movies that I was watching in the '80s. I think all of that had a big influence. All these things came together in creating some of that dark stuff. But I also like humor. I like to joke a lot more than I like to work. I think this comes out in my art. I like to joke around and I don't take myself too seriously. I'm serious about painting now, but I don't take it as seriously as some people. It’s a real struggle. You meet some artists and they're depressed, and I try not to let myself get like that because I know I can always paint over something. I can always figure it out. At my age and at my stage of the game, I feel confident when I go to a painting, I feel like I can solve any problem that I run into. I can paint it out, I can rework it, I can get it together. I'm not trying to make any generalizations about artists, but it's a real labor for some folks. It's good for them and sometimes it seems like it's killing them at the same time.
Last one before we part: Is there anything you wish you were asked more often?
I wish people would ask me what the one thing that I want people to understand about my artwork, or to know about my artwork, is. And I would say the answer to that question would be, I want people to know that I’m really connected to this land. More importantly, I’m proud to be from these mountains, and that I'm proud of the fact that my family has lived in these mountains going back five, six generations. I'm proud of the culture that I grew up in and all the traditions that the people have taught me, like folk art, folk music, and storytelling. It all just comes from the land. That's the thing I think makes Appalachian people special, that they get really connected to the land here. And it comes out in different ways for different folks. The old bluegrass songs are really all about storytelling too, for some reason. You ever notice there are bluegrass ballads about a murder? It's storytelling put to music. Some of the Kentucky folk artists that you see, their artwork is storytelling, and those stories are just the land. It's a hard thing to explain.