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Essay: Pioneer Spirit

Discovering fine art in the folk traditions of Kentucky.

By Dana Micucci.
A menagerie of brightly painted wood cut-outs of roosters, zebras, pigs and galloping horses crowd the living room of Marvin Finn’s small flat in a housing project in downtown Louisville, Kentucky. Finn, a diminutive African-American man whose youthful radiance belies his 86 years, smiles excitedly, awaiting my reaction. I cannot help but smile, too. “When I go to bed at night I can hardly sleep,” he says. “I have so many ideas running through my head and the next day they just come out. The roosters come out perfect.”
Finn has been whittling since he was a boy. He watched his father, an Alabama farmer, carve walking canes and buggy wheels and spokes. At first he carved toys—large models of cranes and other machines with moving parts. Then he began observing animals in the countryside and on the farm where he worked, translating their graceful forms into wood. He’s had a million jobs, he says, moving from factories to construction work to lumberyards, wherever he could be useful. It wasn’t until he retired at 62, though, that he was able to devote himself full-time to his carving.

Finn is one of a colorful community of established folk artists scattered throughout Kentucky, a state perhaps better known for Thoroughbreds, moonshine and the fabled frontiersman Daniel Boone. But the frontier spirit is still present here, in the home-grown art of Finn and other self-taught artists who dare to express themselves with the raw simplicity and honest beauty that come from tapping deep into one’s soul. To me, the joy with which Finn lives and creates is common to all these artists, whose works are not simply vehicles for self-expression but offerings of truth and healing, and an affirmation of our common humanity. Theirs is also a highly personal art nourished by the comfort of family and community,
the majesty of nature and an abiding spirituality.

Not far from Finn’s flat lies Smoketown, an inner-city African-American community. Here I met Zephra May Miller, also known as “The Bag Lady of Louisville” for the garments she crochets from multi-colored plastic garbage bags. She greets me with the warm hug of a long-lost friend. A former mortician whose great-aunt taught her how to crochet when she was 5 years old, Miller, now 60, says her art is about showing that people everywhere are the same. The clothes she makes are useful, adaptable and are meant to appeal to people of all backgrounds. She began by crocheting doilies and clothing with yarn. When she ran out of yarn once at a state arts-and-crafts fair she turned to the only thing available, a garbage bag, and the resulting garment won a blue ribbon. Miller’s wearable art has since then been exhibited and sold throughout Kentucky and beyond. Her works are almost always reversible, symbolic of the dark and the light inside every human being, she says. Miller also has created art through her street ministry. “I try to help people when I can. All it takes is a little kindness and compassion,” she says.

That simple, yet profound message came to me again in the hills and hollows of Appalachia in the eastern Kentucky town of Isonville, where the renowned woodcarver Minnie Adkins resides. The drive had been long and arduous, and I had gotten lost. When I finally found Minnie’s home, dubbed “Happy Gizzard Holler,” she instantly treated me to some delicious vegetable soup and fresh peaches in syrup, and offered me a bed in her guest room in case I wanted to stay the night.

Adkins says she taught herself how to whittle as a girl by watching the men in her family and community. But she only began to pursue her craft as a way to earn a living in the mid-1980s, when she and her late husband, Garland, had been hit hard financially. At that time she was encouraged by Kentucky dealer and potter Adrian Swain, who is now curator of the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead, where works by Adkins and other Kentucky folk artists are exhibited and sold. Adkins, who collaborates with current husband Herman Peters on many works, is known for her whimsical carved roosters and other animals, many of them painted, including bears, foxes, tigers and possums.

The spry 69-year-old Adkins has received many awards for her art, which has been included in numerous museum exhibitions and collected by the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Cosby. She was recognized for her lifetime achievement at a folk art exhibition in Louisville that was organized by Phyllis George, the former first lady of Kentucky. George, a folk-art collector herself, has been instrumental in bringing national recognition to Kentucky folk artists. But as Adkins herself will tell you, “My art is not about the recognition; caring about people is where it’s at.” One of her greatest legacies has been encouraging younger artists to keep the folk-art tradition alive. Her cousin, the esteemed stone sculptor Tim Lewis, who lives just up the road from Adkins, is one of many who have counted her among their inspirations.

Husband-and-wife team Ronald and Jessie Cooper of Flemingsburg, retired grocers who are noted for their playful carved-and-painted figures and paintings on found objects, also are intent on passing the torch to the next generation. Their son, Tim, and his wife, Ruthie, also have produced folk art. The Coopers’ art, like that of another Kentucky folk painter, Hagan McGee, is inspired by their Christian faith and nostalgia for the past. But it also has been a healing force, having given Ronald hope and solace while he recovered from a near-fatal car accident that left him disabled for years.

The authenticity and generosity of spirit that I found among Kentucky’s folk artists were life-affirming, like warm breezes softening the soul-numbing noise and stress that often accompany living in New York City. As I headed home to Manhattan, I recalled some urgent lines in a poem by William Stafford: “For it is important that awake people be awake … the signals we give—yes or no, or maybe—should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

Copyright ©2003 Trans World Publishing Inc. All rights reserved.