Jenn (Miller) Hesh

Jenn (Miller) Hesh, Tattoo apprentice, artist; lives between Clinchco and Norton, Virginia, works in Whitesburg, Kentucky:

“I’ve always been an artist, I guess, my whole life, and I never thought having a career centered around art was really realistic. I never thought that art school or something like that would be practical, so I was going to go into counseling, and hopefully into art therapy. And then, one day, I was taking classes out at Mountain Empire. I just decided I wanted to get an apprenticeship. So I started drawing, and I built up a little portfolio. It was just like a sketchbook, and I took it to John Haywood at The Parlor Room [in Whitesburg, Kentucky]. 

[It] feels like you have to do something. You have to leave your mark in some way or another, like to say that I was here. Or to just get everything out, that was bottled up during the day. 

For Career Day in Kindergarten, they said, ‘Dress up as what you want to be.’ We took a piece of cardboard, and we cut out a big palette for a painter, and [I] wore my Mom’s blouse, which, when I was little, was really flowy, and I went as an artist. 

When I was younger, I would paint on the walls, and I would always try to be real secretive and sneaky. Mom would finally catch me, you know eventually, and I would have something like three by three foot wide, or something pretty good size, like at the bottom, where I could have hid it. To this day, she still has those. She’ll like paint around them. They’ve [my parents] encouraged me with whatever I wanted to do. I was painting on the walls, of the house, or guitars. But they were always okay with it. I’ve always stickered, and colored, and painted.

I think when you’re younger, and you’re born here, you don’t know how to appreciate it. I grew up, and I didn’t. It was always, when I became a teenager, I’m going to get outta here. I want to go some place else, somewhere there’s stuff to do, opportunities. 

I remember being on Flag Rock, and we had gone down, and actually climbed the rock. You’re not allowed to do that. It’s trespassing, I guess, technically. But, the view up there was just gorgeous, and it really made me think, not everybody has this, and we see it every day. 

And then you go other places, big cities, and they make me nervous. I feel like you can’t trust everyone, but you can trust people here, more so. They’re going to take the time, and wait and leave the door open for you, versus somewhere else, where everybody is too busy. 

Up until then, I didn’t appreciate being here. Plus, getting out and going places like Whitesburg, where it seems like the whole community and everyone, the youth, and people like my age were saying, ‘Why should we be ashamed?’ And you’re like, “Well, yeah!” Just going out and hiking every day, and then starting to appreciate, like my grandparents, and the way they did things. Self-reliance, things like that. Why should we be ashamed of the way we talk, or the way we look, or what we do? Because, really it’s just a humble, modest way of living. 

Even just going to the beach, and the beach is beautiful, don’t get me wrong, but we’ll be gone a week, and then coming home, as soon as we get to Asheville, up where you can see the mountain ranges again, I feel like I can breathe again. (Sighs) [I feel] ‘Okay, that was nice, but alright, I can let my guard back down. I’m back home, a sense of safety.’

I’m kind of glad that they [outsiders] have their misconceptions about us, because if people were flocking here, if it is the next big thing, of it becomes trendy; it kind of takes it away. People ruin everything, and it takes a certain kind of person to live here. You have to be willing to suffer, almost, for the tranquility that we do have. 

Everybody has bad things happen, but it doesn’t do much to dwell on ‘em, and I’m thankful. You know I’m really thankful, because I wouldn’t be the same person I am, as grateful a person as I am. I dealt with a lot of loss growing up. 

It’s just the whole attitude of the whole area. It’s slower. People, like I said earlier, holding the doors open for someone, and whenever you drive past someone on the road, and you know, they stop on a narrow road to let you pass. That courtesy wave that people give one another. You know, just not taking much for granted. It’s the land, the time. 

I’m happy to just be pursuing an artistic career, ‘cause I’ve told myself my whole life, art school was too expensive and it wouldn’t realistic. I think I told myself, that I couldn’t be a starving artist my whole life, but now that I am, I can be proud of that. But as far as something more physical, my boyfriend and me hiked the Northern Terminus of the Appalachian Trail, in Maine, Mount Katahdin. And it’s the hardest thing, hands down, I’ve ever done in my life, but it was worth it. That was gorgeous. 

I definitely think we need to improve things. Until then, people are going to keep moving away, and that doesn’t do any good. We need to keep the money in the area. The community needs to come together, ‘cause there are a lot of things, like businesses closed, and this and that and another. The town, people can petition, and keep things open. You know, not sending the money off, not shutting down businesses. They’re wanting to do a bunch of tourism type stuff, but putting a statue up on High Knob isn’t really going to give people jobs, or do anything for the community. 

Hillbilly is like the positive version of a redneck. And redneck’s not always derogatory, but it’s mostly [the way it’s] used. I don’t think hillbilly can be used in a derogatory sense at all. It’s somebody that just lives off the land. Doesn’t try, you know, and just takes enough for their own. [Hillbillies] take care of themselves, take care of their family. 

It’s really scary to think about [the region in five to ten years]. On one hand, it will be a ghost town. You’ll have to drive miles just to go to a regular store. Kids are already having to drive long distances just to go to schools anymore. The towns are trying to really exploit the land for what it is. It will be a tourist trap, like Sevierville, or Dollywood. It’s doing just that. It’s exploiting what we have. You know, all the fake moonshine and that type of stuff. There’s a line, and it’s okay for people to appreciate our culture. It’s flattering even, but people ruin everything. 

We’re not ignorant. We just know. We’re actually smart enough to know better. That’s why we choose to stay here. That’s why we choose to maybe not have the ideal, or their ideal, lifestyle, but, to slow down and enjoy life. What could be more important than that? What’s the point in living?”