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Carl Mackenzie, Snaky Holler, Nada, Kentucky, 1988
photograph by Jonathan Williams
 
BEAUTY? BEAUTY,
MY EYE!
What better place to write a note on Kentucky bluegrass-root artists than here in the December shadows of Dentdale, a remote part of the Cumbrian Pennines in the far northwest of England? The saying around here is: “There’s’nowt so queer as folk.”

Which, I think, once used to be true of folk in either place. ‘Which, sez me (The Old Original Onomamaniac), is clear simply from the names.

Once upon a time Thomas Thistlethwaite, James Dinsdale, Cherry Kearton, Dixon Daykin, and Myles Bainbridge lived near Elysian Shades, Cowclose Hill, Green Edges, Bower Bank, Shake Holes, Nettle Pot Beck, Tongue End, Stalling Busk, Rowantree Top, Clanking Stones, Hag Worm Haw Moss, and Cluntering Gill Head. The men and the places are both very topographical in their names; and, here, in Dentdale, there is a distinct Norse nng to the names. A thistlethwaite would be a clearing with a thistle patch in it. A boy named Tom was once born there. What else to say about these names? They sound old and settled, very literal, very rich.

Once upon a time Red Sol Day, Aunt Tish Hays, Aunt Cord Ritchie, Jethro Amburgey, and Wilma Creech lived near Viper, Sacred Wind, Handshoe, Boreing, Hardshell, Dingus, Cutshin, Breeding, Stab, Acorn, Rowdy, Decoy, Redbush, Ruin, Load, Crum, Blue Lick, Climax, Highsplint, Flippin, Marrowbone, Furnace, Meshack, Pippa Passes, Bypro, Decay, Dwarf, Hi Hat, Neon, Science Hill, Wolf Coal, and Slaughters. Is it too much to deduce that this was a raw, untamed place, or that the people who did the naming were imaginative, humorous, Fundamentalist, realistic, even a mite paranoid, and on their own? They were, in fact, serving a life sentence of solitary confinement on a huge, new continent. Tocqueville, recall, kept being amazed by the human distance from one heart to another. It was D. Boone, was it not, who declared he did not want to hear another man’s axe or see another man’s fire.

The New World situation (both edenic and horrific) did something to promote Imagination amongst the Anglo-Saxons. There are those tart observers here in England today (like the journalist Bernard Levin) who are of the opinion that Imagination left these shores by the end of the eighteenth century and now even the shadow is fading away. Certainly, the eccentrics and nouveaux riches and characters who filled Britain with follies and grottos are extinct. And this particular savant knows very well that the malaise of meilikhoposthoi (vagueness of mind and cock) is a national disgrace. Sir Fancis Dashwood (“Hell-Fire Francis”) had carved at Medmenham Abbey: Fait ce que voudra. The days when you did what you liked are gone. Eighteen bureaucrats have been invented to see that you won’t, or can’t.

Kentucky, to this very day, has a fair share of citizens who see “differently” with as much distinction as any “fine” artist. When it comes to making art, “the folks are as good as the people.” And I say that before push comes to shove, because the winning combination in this democracy, for me, has always been high art and low life. So I have spent a number of years tracking down the extraordinary things that dot the country: Henry Dorsey’s house at Brownsboro; the funeral monuments at Mayfield. It was important to sit on Father Merton’s front steps at his hermitage and talk; or watch Wendell Berry tend to his place and tend to his poems; or go up to Campton to see Ed Tolson in the flesh and hear about why he makes his dolls; or know about the photographs of Ralph Eugene Meatyard and Doris Ulmann; or let Guy Mendes tell me about Sweet Evening Breeze, Cowboy Steve Taylor, and Carlos Toadvine, the World’s Greatest Upside-Down Left-Handed Guitar Picker. (The latest discovery is one Carlos Cortes Coyle, 1871—1962, of Bear Wallow, Kentucky, whose bizarre paintings are at Berea College—if you can get anybody to show them to you. I have been to Berea seven times and have had to encounter the pictures in a book, Twentieth Century American Folk Art and Artists, Herbert W. Hemphill, Jr., published by Dutton.) If a man who lives in the North Carolina Blue Ridge and the English Pennines can find that much in fifteen years, think how full the Kentucky woods must be with other curiosities and glories. Things made by eccentrics, booger men, wierds, populists, hell-fire shake-handling preachers, end-of-the-world shouters, people in touch with the spirits, mentals, them a mite tetched in the haid, busy old ladies, and just folks, etc.

We in the South (I am speaking of the we who profess our book-learning in universities, or try to make art works, or mind our manners and not become either slovens or slobs) have been particular victims all our born days of the taste for Beauty and the Finer Things of life, as defined by Nice People with plenty spondulix in the family bank . I am begnning to think that Dorothy Day may be right when she says: “The best thing to do with the better things in life is give them up.” Because, sadly, Nice People are a pathetic conspiracy on the whole. They assume that all people in the world without that moola in the bank and conspicuous consumption on the brain are genuine vermin: cretins, spending their days on federal relief, swilling booze, womanizing, refusing to work, stealing, plotting the End of Civilization As We Know It, etc. One hears the gentle voices shouting for Old Black Joe to fetch them a julep, and sighing “I just love Beauty.” Which sentiment, friends, is not just liberal bleating but the lament of an old-fashioned Jeffersonian democrat, who sees that those distances from one human heart to another, noted by Tocqueville all those years ago, are now bridged only by what they call in the textbooks “a tenuous pecuniary nexus.” Yet, of course, Mr. Jefferson sat there on his hill, surrounded by good, landed Virginia farmers, congratulating one and all that they were far from “Europe’s canaille.” The self is selfish.

This begins to sound more like a sermon than a note on folk art, but I am saying that it is very easy to ride in on our isolation and see things in an easy, art-loving stupidity. A moralist, or a gentle person, has it worse than a dog with a ten-pound bone, for greed is a national dilemma and the Nation is dog-eat-dog. For example: my eyes grow wide and both dismayed and pleasured when in front of Edgar Tolson’s whittled visions of “The Garden of Eden” in the Baptist Genesis. They are a sight to see, but are they the product of a naive, an innocent, a man with a childlike talent who can entertain us with these “dolls” of his? One would have to be very blind and callous to think so. If you go visit Ed Tolson up in Campton, Kentucky, you see a man who is a wreck, like his community, and a man treated by his neighbors as no better than a mongrel dog. Abandonné, as the French say— that double sense of the word, as so much of American life is now abandoned, like those corridors of rotting cars along the roads of Harlan County. People treated like curs and strays. Ed Tolson, poor old devil, sitting there with his fierce daily hangover, screaming as the youngest of his eighteen children bumps into his chair: “Somebody ought to kill that son-of-a-bitch!” Ed is into sin, and misery, and revival—in a powerful way. It’s not pretty. The dolls show it. They are sobering. You leave Campton muttering Protestant prayers: “There, but for the Grace of God, go I.” In a gallery or on a coffee table, a lot of Campton may be left behind, but I am not about to forget, listening to this wild old man telling about how he likes to sober up out in the woods, “livin’ just like the injuns,” with a Nehi and some baloney. Well, would he like it better if he spent an evening here in Denrdale, listening to Frederick Delius on the stereo, eating Lancashire Hotpot washed down with a bottle or two of Guinness? The self is selfish and learns how to survive. After all is said of ethnology, sociology, and politics, the fact remains he is no less an artist than I am, or most others.

There are other reasons besides pain and sin and idleness that will set a man shand to shaping pieces of wood. Shakers once lived in Kentucky, and a sentence by Thomas Merton comes to mind: “The peculiar grace of a Shaker chair is due to the fact that it was made by someone capable of believing that an angel might come sit on it.” But, of what use is that uncomfortable, austere, angelic chair to some gross dude of Middle America, laid hack on a reclining, vibrating, plastic-covered La-Z-Boy Rocker—wolfing down the peanuts, working a six-pack, sweating out Super Bowl X in front of the box? Not much, baby.

Folk Art or Art Art or Folksy Art or Arty Folks can get your head all folked up. But do not think you can buy taste from Monkey Ward or that nice young decorator out near the country club. The Average American Living Room now looks like a lounge in a Ramada Inn—Lord, Lord, those hanging lamps, those fiberglass French Provincial accessories, that wall-towall muzak, those containers for Big Macs lying in trash baskets by the billion. If you go get it from the Colonel, do please consult your nearest Public Health facility. Lay aside the blinders introduced by the Franchise People from Beyond Space and let these objects here collected before you, this folk art, remind you of the days of one-to-one relationships, of things made by the hands and talents of persons with a feeling of kinship for you. There is no reason to fear that those times are all over. We are each new human beings, when it comes to that.

Dentdale, Cumbria 1975

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