The Common Wealth of Kentucky project 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 I combine portrait and landscape art with digital, oral, and narrative storytelling. Collaborator Jill Johnson brings her powerful people skills as we travel the state connecting and collecting stories and portraits. This is part two of our Appalachian journey.
“Heaven high and hell deep” is a recorded measurement in eastern Kentucky, one of many historic nuggets we learned from Mayor Stapleton in Prestonsburg. So, as we drove from Dewey Lake overlook through the dark and winding roads to Hazard, the trip felt heaven high and hell deep. We were full of new thoughts and hopes, and good tired, like the hour after Thanksgiving supper when you long for a nap.
Our eastern Kentucky itinerary had no room for naps. Hazard was next. We planned the trip to Perry County with connections to great people willing to sit for their portraits and tell us their stories. Sadly, grief and COVID unraveled the sittings, but determined to experience one of the hubs of Kentucky Appalachia and curious about the annual Black Gold Festival, we kept on track, and rolled into town late afternoon.
Adjusting expectation to a countervailed reality is a practice in understanding. Due to COVID, the Black Gold Festival 2021 was not its whole and flavorful self. The parade committee announced ahead of time there would be no candy-throwing at the “Raised on Soup Beans and Cornbread” parade, eliciting frustrated responses from some of the regulars. Candy aside, they had Jill and me at soup beans and cornbread.
We parked in an empty lot above Main Street and paid five dollars to a shirtless man who sat on a cooler. Mountain fog was light gauze over a bright but descending fall sun. We walked breezily through the arts and crafts tent, saw an artist paint a scary gash on a young boy’s face, and talked to a beautiful young entrepreneur who sold clothes. She told us she took a personal day from the law firm where she works. Her bright blue eyes were tired; she sat on her stool and admitted it was a long, slow day.
The magician was on a late break while circus performers broke things down. The crowd transitioned like the sun to stars, shorts to jeans, little kids turned groups of teens, “test, test” on the microphone as the band set up on stage. Kelly haggled over darts with balloon game vendor, a bucket of MAGA hats the grand prize. After two failed attempts at the red, impenetrable balloons, the man gave me a dart and pointed at the green, “try that one,” he said. He smiled when I popped it and offered some options. I chose the stuffed copperhead, and later, I gave it to a young, antsy red-headed boy who sat with his mother on the concrete steps of the amphitheater, awaiting the start of the band. Each time he tossed the snake in the air, the boy gave us a big grin.
We will go back to Hazard. The Queen City of the Mountains offers plenty beyond a festival depleted of its accustomed black gold energy. We walked the tidy Main Street next to the North Fork Kentucky River back to our car. We passed two colorful murals painted on the side of red brick buildings. One read, “We can do this.” The other said, “Together.”
“There’s no I in TEAM.” Pedo Mann, shift superintendent, pointed to the mine grid and showed us where we would drop in. “We have a number to hit every day, and it takes all of us.” Pedo wore coveralls and a mining hat, his face marked with expression and black coal dust. When he smiled, his eyes twinkled light blue.
An hour before, we chased behind HR Kelly Robinson as she led us up the sinuous one-lane road to the Varney, Kentucky coal mine. We signed in at the gate, and as the gravel crunched beneath our tires, we admitted to butterflies.
Clunkily attired in reflective coveralls, steel-toed boots, hard hats, and a heavy belt that held safety gear, we plodded up the gravel hill to the mine opening. It looked like a large mouth with loads of dental work; metal tracks slid us slowly into the belly, where square plates held the roof in place. The open tram moved us like cargo steadily down, 200, 400, 600 feet, the signs said, until finally, at 1500 feet down, we were there. It was not what we expected. The ceilings were high, openings wide. A breeze from a massive “attic fan” kept the air flowing and comfortable. No longer nervous, we opened our minds to Pedo Mann as he proudly tutored us Coal Mining 101.
I remembered what Stephen Bowling said about mountain people scratching out an existence and Les Stapleton’s commentary on the intellect of coal miners. In 1750, eastern Kentuckians found coal to burn their fires. The first commercial mine, “McLean drift bank,” opened in 1820. For hundreds of years the region’s economy centered around coal, and now, 271 years later, the coal industry is in dramatic decline. The environmental impact is significant, and so is the loss of 13,000 Kentucky coal industry jobs between 2011 and 2018.
In 2006, Pedo moved to Conyers, GA, where he got a service manager job at a Nissan dealership. He liked the job. He made good money and bought a dream house. But it was not long before he and his entire family wanted to move back. “We missed riding,” he said. “Four-wheelers, side by sides up in the mountains… that’s what we like to do and it’s easy here.” And they missed their neighbors, the close community of towns like Inez and Martin. “It took us two years before we met our neighbors” outside of Atlanta. “Here, you know them the day after they move in, and from then on, you watch after each other.”
The theme of leaving and returning is strong in Appalachia; it is difficult to make a living without the coal jobs. Many people must travel hours to work each day in Georgetown, Somerset, wherever industry has jobs with wages enough to feed their families. It is easy to see why they must move away, and it is easy to see why they yearn to come home. The mountains pull them in, wrap them up, a warm fleece that safeguards them from unfamiliar winds; they nestle in, scrapping to sustain the foothold of their common connections.
His name is Bill Grimes, and he is a nurse, a teacher, a preacher, and now a friend. Bill moved to Kentucky from Chicago in 1976 where he lived in a redlined neighborhood and was deeply involved in issues of race and poverty. After attending City College, the only white person and male in a class of 56 nursing students, he moved his family to the foothills of Appalachia to assist The Sisters of Notre Dame (St. Clair Healthcare) in opening a primary care clinic in Owingsville. After 28 years of working as a nurse practitioner, Bill received a doctorate in Healthcare Ministry and opened a free clinic for the uninsured in Owingsville called New Hope.
We set up Kelly’s easel behind a barnwood out-building on the back of Bill’s 50-acre homestead. A few of his nine children live there too. Bill sat in a portable chair sheltered from the hot afternoon sun, an American flag mural his backdrop. He told us the stories of healthcare misses like when a woman came back too late after thinking she had to pay for her services up front. She was coughing up blood from advanced lung cancer and would soon die. Other stories reported uninsured ER visits for primary care where busy workers moved quickly, made assumptions, and humanity got lost in the shuffle. At its height, the free clinic cared for over 40 patients a day. Bill is retired but still volunteers every Thursday caring for the poor and uninsured, those who have no healthcare options.
“You have to look at each person as a human being, an individual who is deserving of care and love and should be listened to…When I look at my patients, I spiritually see the eyes of God.” As he told his story, Bill, a Catholic Deacon referenced Maslow, Buddhism; he has read the Koran. He described his years in the monastery, a student of Thomas Merton, and his introduction to contemplative prayer, prayers of the heart, “in other words knowing that God is present everywhere, in every person.”
And then, serendipitously, Bill delivered the language of our mission. “We coexist. We share a being. God is in all of us, and it is the same God, so we are all connected.“
There was Sunday silence as Kelly turned from her easel and looked back at us. I think I was holding my breath. Jill nodded her head. The rest was in slow motion. The hugs goodbye, the breaking down of the supplies, the exit right from the gravel drive, a stop in front of a purple and gold field.
Intent upon capturing the landscape, I focused my lens on the wildflowers in front of me. And then I felt movement to my left. A young boy of mixed-race rode towards me on his go cart. He sputtered in close, put on his breaks, and looked up me. I said, “Well, hey there!” He wiped some dust from his eyes, turned, and zipped away, gone as fast as he appeared. It was a flash, but somehow, I knew him.
“What is God? God is love. God exists and God is love. If those are the only two things I know, then if I want to exist fully, I must learn to love fully. So, the more I love the more I exist, the more fully I exist, the more wholly I exist.”-Bill Grimes