The Common Wealth of Kentucky project explores and reveals the richness of humanity and the common connections we have with one another. Focused on that which connects us as people–all shapes, colors, sizes, and backgrounds, contemporary impressionist Kelly Brewer paints from life while Beth Pride, writer and multi-media creative, combines portrait and landscape art with digital, oral, and narrative storytelling. Collaborator Jill Johnson and her powerful people and interview skills joins the team as we travel the eastern part of the state.
The two horses stood butt to butt. Their short, stringy manes hung at an angle as they nibbled the grass. The Paint looked up and greeted us with a wild side-eye. I took a quick picture, unsure of his next move. No fences; the two were on their own, free to go. They stood still and indulged us, right there on the side of a one-lane road in Breathitt County. I knew we might see them on the way to Elk View Mountain. The Director of the Breathitt County Library, Stephen Bowling, who knows almost everything to know about the region, told us about the wild horses just an hour before we interrupted their snack. Stephen was the first stop on our eastern Kentucky tour and the thesis paragraph in our experience essay.
Prepared with a bit of research, notions, and a set calendar of portrait sittings in four different towns, the Appalachia we took from books like Hillbilly Elegy, news accounts of opioid addiction, and the politics of coal would surprise and enlighten. We would grow to know people from and of the eastern Kentucky mountains, and like our roadside reception of wild horses who had no fear or hurry, each of our interactions would powerfully affect us.
Stephen sat for Kelly with light streaming in from a store front window. His office is a center of folklore; photos of ancestors hang on the walls, and artifacts line his bookshelves. Stephen Bowling: “The mountains themselves are unique. You have the beauty, the wild nature of the mountains. It gives the people a certain strength because you may cut the timber, drag the logs away, haul off the coal, but nature is going to recover.” The people of the mountains are the same. They moved there to be free. They fought “to scratch an existence out of pure jungle and wilderness. What it means to be a mountain person is to understand that we can overcome anything when we work together, when we return to our core principles and are willing to fight for what we believe.”
The fight runs thick through the arteries of Appalachia. Only two counties in the state are esteemed “Bloody,” and both are in the state’s eastern region. Breathitt is one, the result of a vast, long-running economic feud that started in 1867 and ended, they hope, in 1997 with the last directly connected feud murder of an 87-year-old man. Stephen, like most Jacksonians, admits these are not Chamber of Commerce moments in his town’s history, but he embraces the infamy, tongue in cheek, “We are on the up and up. We haven’t had a murder in the past twenty minutes.” He laughs and moves on to another of many stories. Stephen has written 14 books and helps thousands of people each year with their genealogy research. He is fully vested in his Breathitt County community.
Stephen and leaders like him, the “twenty mules in every community who can’t help but do the work,” are committed to fighting for the renewal of a region where so much of their economy has been based on the natural resources that ebb and flow over generations. Leaders like Stephen Bowling and Les Stapleton are committed to making home a place to return and to visit.
Winding through deep hollows, we saw the sun duck behind the mountain slope and dim the light that led us. It was mid-afternoon. Batten board houses and aluminum mobile homes squeezed in tight to the rising woods behind them. Small creeks marked their boundaries. A little boy in blue overalls fished a manufactured pond. A spotted dog lay next to him on fresh-cut grass. Barn wood coops hosted free-range chickens and an occasional Billy goat. Closed lids on square steel cages kept household trash safe from nighttime scavengers.
Off the beaten seemed the only path we took on our eastern Kentucky tour and not on purpose. Narrow surreptitious curves kept us curious as they carved the mountain base. We drove dirt routes marked “fastest” on a dissolving Google map and felt anxious to find our next stop. I imagined these trails when Native Americans traveled through, camping in the pitch-dark night of the valley floor. The cougar screamed like a beaten woman, and they believed the land haunted. They called it “the dark and bloody ground.” Morning light brought them back from their illusions like our asphalt road, after miles of gravel, magically led us to the music of Butcher Hollow, next on the eastern Kentucky tour.
White-washed and weathered Webb’s Grocery, Loretta Lynn’s former pit stop shop, surprised us, popping up when we doubted, and we were there. Inside it was just us. The worn wood floors thick with shoe dirt and pine sol softened our steps as we scanned the shelves and stocked up on candy, water, and a few souvenirs. Pictures of Loretta and Crystal Gale covered the walls to the ceiling.
Tourism signs pointed the way to Loretta’s homestead, so when we got there, the closed cattle gate with a “private property, no trespassing” made us wonder if that was it. The brown barn wood house set back against the hill, and a creek ran next to the narrow, deep-shouldered road. The front porch swing sat still. Beneath were old tools, a ladder, and a rusted cruiser bicycle. Perfectly authentic, we felt Loretta might open the door at any minute. Nobody home, we paid our respects to the starting place of profound talent, took some pictures and made our way to next stop Paintsville.
When Charlie walked across the floor and asked me to dance, I was shy. The crowd at the Highway 23 Music Museum was local, older, and maybe not vaccinated. It was round two with the Delta variant, and before we left Lexington, the news reported the six of the top ten worst COVID counties in eastern Kentucky, and even for us vaccinated, there could be a risk. Still, there was no way I was turning down Charlie’s offer to dance. Jill’s dance partner, Jerry, was decked out in his black security uniform. He wore it to a funeral just before heading over for Thursday night’s Picking on the Porch, a night they never missed. The players on the stage aren’t a band. Instead, they are local bluegrass boys who take turns adding to the sound of the community. A pretty lady in a ruffled bloused and white tap shoes clogged solo to double bass and banjo, “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Charlie told me he liked the way I danced, and then he sang every word to “I’ll Fly Away.” Steeped in bluegrass, we stepped back in time, and it was fun.
Certainly more fun than poor Jenny Wiley had all those years ago. A legendary pioneer heroine who, along with her brother and her baby son, was captured on October 1, 1789, by Native Americans. She was pregnant at the time. They slew both of her children, but Jenny escaped 11 months after her capture, reunited with her husband, and settled in Johnson County. She had five more children and lived to 71 years old. The Jenny Wiley State Park amphitheater hosts busloads each year where learn about Kentucky frontier history.
That’s where Mayor Les Stapleton walked us through rows of chairs on hot concrete while the Mountain Arts Center staff prepped the stage for a Friday night band (and beer). Jill and Kelly were awash in Deja Vue while I couldn’t get snakes out of my mind.
The theater is nestled deep in the woods. That’s what makes it feel special. That and on hot days preceding night performances, Mayor Stapleton and his son canvas the arena, catching and storing snakes before they make their way to the warmth of the concrete stands. The Mayor of Prestonsburg has your back. “Mayor Stapleton does whatever it takes to make things happen, and he won’t ask folks to do something he won’t do himself even if it is him catching snakes or raccoons or moving logs,” his police Captain told us later.
That was after a four-hour Chamber of Commerce pickup truck tour of pristine Prestonsburg. The mayor proudly drove us through his cute, clean downtown. We saw manicured parks, a civil war memorial with a giant marble Lincoln monument. We walked through the magnificent Mountain Arts Center, where students take lessons, local musicians can access a studio, and performers like Loretta herself entertain an entire region. They just completed 8 miles of rails to trails that meander through beautiful hollows alongside a freshwater creek. Finally, he drove us to the top of a renewed mountain where the public StoneCrest Golf Course promises breathtaking views. He bragged about the volunteers who helped build over 30 miles of biking, hiking, and horseback riding trails up to Dewey Lake Overlook, “the best trail system in the region.” And this is where we finally got energized, “adrenaline junkie” Les Stapleton, to sit down and get painted.
It is no wonder he drove us to the top of the mountain and over some giant boulders for a place to paint his portrait. The overlook granted us the deep green Appalachian Mountains that stretch for miles and meet the horizon somewhere you can’t even see. They rise softly to the clouds and settle into Dewey Lake, a deep green-blue reservoir.
Mayor Stapleton sat in a portable chair across from Kelly. She started her outline while he pointed overhead at a perfectly-timed bald eagle and said, “when people came here, they were looking for independence. Not necessarily independence from the government, but yes, not necessarily independence from religion, but yes. They just wanted to be independent, period. They wanted to be left alone wanted to do their thing. That gave them a strength that’s second to none. At one time, right here on this point on the side of the mountain, there were cornfields so they could feed their crops and feed their families.” Farming on the side of a mountain “that takes determination and ingenuity.
Mountain people are the kudzu cover on a cleared hillside haunch or the bright butterweed that germinates across renewed coal mountain tops. They may modify or transform in some storied way, but they root strong and come back.
The common wealth we represent as humans transcends stereotypes and notions, demographics and statistics. We are enriched as we travel, paint, and record stories, and as we encounter the beautiful people and places along the way. The gift in this journey is to see, know, and love others in their place in this common world. As we do that, without question, we know ourselves better, too. We are beyond grateful to every one of our new friends, and we are honored to share their common humanity with you.
Follow the experience here or on Kelly Brewer Fine Art social media.
Part two of our tour will come back too. Next up, the Hazard Black and Gold festival, a field trip to Varney to paint coal miner Pedo Mann, and a divine and grand finale at the Owingsville home of New Hope free clinic founder Bill Grimes.