Being an artist from Kentucky, I struggle with identity issues.
Personally, I feel that I am a global citizen and that my art should appeal to a wider audience beyond my bluegrass borders. I find myself trying to rid my work of any hints or clichÃ©s that might cue the viewer in to knowing that I am from a small town in the middle of Kentucky. Because, let’s face it – the contemporary art world doesn’t seem to have a high appreciation for the culture of rural America. There are exceptions – mostly in the form of outsiders like Caroline Kennedy, looking in to reveal impoverished mountain folk sitting shoeless and shirtless on a dilapidated front porch full of dirty-faced children. I can appreciate their efforts in raising awareness of the poverty and conditions of less fortunate Appalachian people, but they aren’t doing any favors toward artists who truly wish to express themselves outside these preconceived hillbilly roles.
Even while I try to steer clear of any hints of my rural upbringing, I’m still proud of who I am. On one hand, I’m careful not to trigger any underlying connotations of Jeff Foxworthy’s “You Might Be a Redneck,” or other forms of unflattering southern stereotype, yet I still want to reference and pay homage to my local culture and heritage through my art. I feel that to completely deny my upbringing would be unfair to not only to the culture that I represent, but would rob others of the chance to see my spin on it. I don’t wish to poke fun at others around me, but rather pay tribute to the hard-working agrarian people that have shaped my community.
Having a desire to do work that might accomplish my goal of representing my community while still being somewhat original and true to my own vision presented a welcome challenge. I once found myself simultaneously inspired and dissatisfied while viewing a craft show. I was inspired by all of the artists’ local spin on traditional crafts – the beauty of the craftsmanship, and the honesty in their relationship to their time and place. I was dissatisfied with myself because I am not necessarily a craftsperson. I don’t weave baskets, throw pottery, carve wood, or sew quilts, and I am not into figurative or representational art enough to begin to tackle the anatomical challenges present in equestrian art. How could I pay homage to my community without completely “borrowing” their ideas? How could I create “Kentucky art” on my own terms?
As a photography student, I found myself drawn to the old barns on my grandfather’s farm. Of course, lots of people take pictures of old barns, but I was particularly drawn to the “broken-ness” of the structures – the peeling paint, the splintering wood, the rusty roofs, and especially the patched holes. Wherever there was a hole, there was a need to cover that hole quickly to prevent livestock from escaping or to keep vermin out of corn bins. There was no time to go to the hardware store to get the “proper” supplies, so the farmer used whatever was on hand – tin, wire, wood, old advertisement signs – to patch the hole. I found the results of this nonchalant patchwork to be quite aesthetically pleasing as I photographed them. Although the farmer had no intent of creating art, some of these patches could rival Picasso or Robert Rauschenberg if they were ever to be put on a gallery wall. What if I could go further than photographs? Could I just recreate this style of patchwork as art?
As these structures fall into further disrepair, there is often quite a lot of scrap as the wood rots away, the building leans over, and is eventually done in by a windstorm or an over-enthusiastic herd of cattle. The roofing tin, one of the few parts left, is usually piled up as the building is disassembled. This abundance of roofing tin, along with my growing displeasure at the flimsy nature of paintings on canvas, led me to start creating assemblages in the patchwork style that had captured my interest as a want-to-be photographer.
To create my art, I build a wooden frame, much like one would to build as a stretcher frame for a canvas painting, and use the tin to cover the surface, nailing it down and wrapping the edges around the back. These assemblage paintings take advantage of the natural patinas and surface imperfections of the roofing tin. I use different colors of metal – green, red, galvanized, black, and natural rust to create minimalist compositions. I have (so far) avoided painting or preparing the surfaces myself (other than the occasional coat of poly or lacquer) to keep the work simple and pure, relying on the original colors to carry the weight of the design.
As I began showing them to others, I realized that people were interested in putting these works outside. Although it may work for some interiors, art made from sharp, rusty metal doesn’t always lend itself to the comforts of a southern home. Being made from roofing tin allows the work to stand up to the weather and demands of being outside for long periods of time. Of course, the metal will continue to rust and decay, but I consider that to be an important part of the work.
With this series of work, I feel that I have made a fitting tribute to my rural community while still doing work that I find challenging to myself as an artist as well as to viewers. As tobacco is no longer an important cash crop in the region, a lot of barns that used to store the lucrative leaves are left in ruins. I still find some people that are somewhat offended that I am just “slapping down metal” or “just taking junk” and calling it art, but for the most part viewers tend to enjoy the work, either as art or as a sort of tribute to the farming community that we once were.
As an artist, don’t be afraid to come out and say where you’re from. I once felt that to have any credibility as an artist, I had to deny my previous existence as a sharecropping, tobacco-slinging farm boy, but now I find it gives a certain character to my work that tells a story that few other artists could. Look around your community and see what makes it stand apart from the rest. Tell your story in your own way. Whether you are from a rural area, the suburbs, the big city, or the slums, don’t be afraid to incorporate what makes your community unique into your work.