Bonita Skaggs Parsons

“Mamaw also taught me that you could take nothing, and make something out of it. The quilts she made were beautiful, and they were made out of scraps of nothing, old clothes. I’ve heard her sit and tell, ‘well this was the dress that Hazel had when she was fourteen,’ and she would name off every person that was in that quilt. Well, by giving you that quilt, she was giving you those people to carry on through life with.” 

Bonita Skaggs Parsons, Artist; Morehead, Kentucky: 

“I have named myself a self-proclaimed ‘buckabilly,’ because I am the daughter of parents that crossed the river to find work. I was born in Mansfield, Ohio, then we moved down here. Then we went to Michigan. Then we moved back to Mansfield. Then we moved back to Kentucky when I was eleven. 

A buckabilly child [has] this place in the very essence of themselves because they’ve been here most of their life, back and forth. I’m the tailgate kid. I saw license plates going this way, and I saw license plates going that way, and I ended up this way. But that’s what a buckabilly is. It’s something everybody asked me. They said, ‘Well your accent don’t sound like you come from around here.’ I lived both places, so it was different. Maybe I don’t have the thick accent, but boy it comes out sometimes.

When Daddy asked Mommy to get married, she was sixteen and he was nineteen. She told him, ‘you don’t have a job. We’re not getting married.’ Him and his brother went up to Mansfield, Ohio to look for work, because there were no jobs in the area unless you were a logger, or a farmer, or something like that. You really couldn’t make a good living that way. You survived. And so they crossed over the river the day they got married, and Daddy went to work in a lumber mill. He worked up there, and then we came home every weekend or every other weekend. I thought Kentucky was home, and I thought Mamaw’s was a vacation, because that’s all I knew. (Laughs) Vacation was Mamaw’s house. Every one of us children was born in Ohio, but we’ve all grown up in Kentucky. 

Dad and Mom were trying to buy the farm that my grandparents owned, and the only thing I remember is, sometimes I’d hear, ‘You can’t have this at the store, because we’ve got to pay on the home place.’ So to me, I was always Appalachian. I was raised a buckeye, because of where I lived at the time, but home was here, and I knew it was going to end up being home. As soon as we could pay for the farm, it was going to be home. We ended up coming back here when I was eleven. We did our house from the ground up. We dozed it. We dug the basement. We laid the block. We put up the walls, and we made our home. We were traveling back and forth to Ohio still while we were building our home. We pulled an old trailer from Mansfield, like a ‘50s model trailer, and we would live in it on the weekend, and work on our house. As soon as we got the roof on, we’d sleep on the sheetrock in the house, and that’s where we stayed. 

[As kids] we did a little bit of everything. We learned to shoot guns, of course, which was normal. But ours was with a BB gun, because Mom and Dad didn’t give us real guns. But if you could shoot a BB gun, you could shoot a rifle, so you were fine. We spent a lot of time with family. We worked at my Mamaw’s. We did everything from slaughtering hogs, to making soap out in the yard, to learning how to quilt…Oh, Lord, just so much. 

When we moved back here it was flooding, and it had flooded the school out. We didn’t know, and we went out to the road. We lived on a gravel road that was two tracks of mud, and Daddy had to bring us out on the tractor. We got out there and the bus hadn’t run, and we found out school was cancelled. Well, it was a mile and a half back to the house, so we had to walk in. I fell down in my brand new school clothes, and I hated it. I thought, ‘How in the world are we going to live, when we can’t even get to a school bus without a tractor, and then we get the tractor stuck?’ I don’t even think much about how it was hard at all. Even though we didn’t always have the money we wanted, and we didn’t always have the things we wanted, we still had everything we needed, and we had family. 

My grandparents were probably the greatest people you would ever meet in your life. My Papaw was a character. He did everything. If you lay down in the house and went to sleep, you had clothespins on your ears. If you went to sleep, he got a switch, and tickled your nose, until you swatted yourself in the face. He was always like that. When he was seventy years old, he would chase my kids up and down the road, and they’d hide under the car, and he’d hide until they came out, and chase them again. He was climbing a pine tree in the front yard and adjusting the TV antenna at eighty years old. 

He actually went across the river himself to work for a while. He went all the way to Mansfield, and worked in the GE Plant. He couldn’t read, but everyone loved him at the plant, because where he couldn’t read, he memorized where everything was. So, if they needed anything, they hollered at Charlie. My Mamaw was a quieter woman, but she still had a sense of humor like no one would believe. She didn’t get much chance to express it, because Papaw was always the clown, you know. He danced around the living room, singing ‘Going Up Cripple Creek’ many a day, or String Bean, or Grandpa Jones, or Hee Haw, something off Hee Haw. But both of them were some of the best people I ever knew. They gave me so many values, and they touched very aspect of my life. They helped me be who I am. 

Papaw taught me if you want something, you have to work for it, and he also taught me if you couldn’t have fun in your life, that you were wasting your life. If you couldn’t laugh and carry on, it wasn’t worth being there, because he had fun! I don’t care if we were digging sweet potatoes, or planting beans, there was something funny going on at all times. He made it that way. 

When Papaw got old he had to be in a wheelchair because he was getting so weak. But one thing he always done to Mamaw was, when he caught her with her back turned, he’d either pinch her, or slap her on the butt. Well, one day we were getting ready to take him in the kitchen, and Mamaw was going through in front of him, and I saw this little grin come on his face. I knew it was coming. As soon as she passed him, he reached out and just slapped her tail, and it made Mamaw grin. It made her so happy, because he hadn’t done it in so long. They were both in their eighties then. 

Mamaw taught me how to make quilts. She taught me how to manage. She saved everything because she was a child of the Depression. One of Grandma’s best tales she ever told was about how [frugal] they had to be during the Depression, because she was trying to get across to us what it meant to waste. She said that when the boys came home from the war, they couldn’t afford bullets. Everything was hard times. They went out and shot their guns, and they gave the kids little buckets made out of coffee cans to gather up the shells, so they could refill them. 

Mamaw also taught me that you could take nothing, and make something out of it. The quilts she made were beautiful, and they were made out of scraps of nothing, old clothes. I’ve heard her sit and tell, ‘well this was the dress that Hazel had when she was fourteen,’ and she would name off every person that was in that quilt. Well, by giving you that quilt, she was giving you those people to carry on through life with. It was just fantastic. I loved her.
Our people live long. My grandma was ninety-six when she passed. My papaw was ninety-two. They both passed at home with family, with all of us around. 

My mom and dad are good people. My daddy worked hard all his life. He was one of twenty children. There were nine of the first kids. His mommy died when he was three. My Papaw remarried, had ten more of his own, plus a stepchild. I was telling someone a while ago, we got a surprise at his funeral. There was a kid who showed up that nobody knew about. (Laughs) This lady walked in, and she was standing up at the casket, and she was acting weird, you know, and nobody recognized her. A couple of the kids walked up there, and they were talking to her, and they were like, ‘how did you know him?’ And she said, ‘I heard he was my daddy, and I thought I’d better see what he looked like before they put him in the ground.” And she walked out, and we’ve never seen her again. Have no idea who she was. 

Mommy is one of two kids. There’s just her and her sister. Mamaw and Papaw didn’t think they should ever have any more kids because that’s all they could take care of. That’s all they could give plenty of stuff to. My dad, I have actually seen him take the shirt off his back and give to somebody else. They taught us to give to people. They said that if you had two things, you could share one. I came home and got off the school bus [and] I didn’t have my shoes on. I’d just got brand new shoes. Daddy and Mommy were both sitting in the car waiting on me, and they were like, ‘Where’d your shoes go?’ I said, ‘Well, Mommy, that little girl had a hole in her shoe, and I gave her my shoes.’ And that’s what you’re supposed to do. (Laughs) 

Dad always said, you know all these people are always saying, you see people begging along the road, and you don’t give them money, because they’re going to go get drunk, or they’re going to go get high, or something. Daddy always said that you don’t know what they’re going to do, and someday that may be you standing by that road, and you give them that dollar. That’s one thing I’m really proud of my son for. When he was going to MSU, there were some men working out in the heat doing the landscaping. He saw them eating, and they were all drinking out of one jug of water. They had a little bit of food each. He took his meal card, and bought them food. I was never prouder in my life, than that day. Mommy and Daddy raised me good, and they cared about who I was, and they cared about what I had, and they’re still proud of me to this day. 

At age eighteen, I went to work at McDonald’s, and I worked there probably for a year and a half. Then, I went to work at Rose’s Department Store when it opened, and that’s when I got pregnant with Misty. I was an unwed mother, but I was unwed because I decided to be unwed. The man that is her daddy, I didn’t feel like he’d be good to her, or us so I didn’t get married. It definitely bothers some of the people in my family, especially the preacher. He said I was cheating her. I think she turned out pretty good. I’m not worried about it. 

All the time, I was doing little art projects and stuff. Then, I started doing my art more fulltime, and we got actually got to where we were selling more. [I was setting] up a show, and it was raining cats and dogs, and Minnie and Garland Atkins pulled in. Minnie got out, and she come over and looked at our stuff, and she was like, ‘Well, y’all don’t need to be here. You need to come to Day in The Country.” And that’s how we got started with Minnie and over there. Minnie is a folk artist, and what she started doing was carving her roosters to make ends meet, and setting up beside the road and selling them, and then somebody [discovered] her. 

She has found so many artists in the area and helped them. Minnie was like a driving force, and Garland was right there with her, helping her, and then she lost Garland to cancer. Garland was funny as a monkey. We were set up at ‘Day in the Country’ up in the holler, and it was like a party, all of us artists. It would be as high as fifty artists set up, all the way up Gizzard Holler. We all brought potluck, and then we put watermelons in the creek, and the kids played in the creek all day, and we sold art. 

And we had buyers come in from everywhere. The first year I was there, we had the Olympics tour; the guys that were running it came. They bought a bunch of our pieces, so I have pieces that are all over the country, and I don’t know where. The funniest thing was Garland. He’d walk up and down the holler all day. He was hyper, and he had his dog with him, an old shepherd dog following him behind. He’d come past me and there was nobody at my booth and he said, ‘Well Sissy, ain’t they nobody up here?’ And son, he turned around and went back down that holler. In a few minutes I had six, seven people up in my booth buying art. He did that all day long, back and forth. All of a sudden the dog was so tired, it just went and laid down and watched him go back and forth. It gave up! 

I decided I was going to be an artist when I was in Kindergarten. They gave me a little paper ship, and they were having everybody write what they would do, if they got to the new land. And my little scribble, I’ve still got it, it said, ‘An artist. That’s what I would be in the new land.’ And when I got more confidence in my art, was when Misty started Kindergarten. Our school in Elliott County didn’t have an art class in elementary level. So I volunteered, and I started teaching. To those kids, I couldn’t do any wrong. Everything I did was good, you know, and it built my confidence up, and I started putting my art out in public more, and from then on it’s been growing and growing. So I’ve done shows. I’ve been everywhere. I feel like it anyway. 

When I first started, I started woodcarving. Well, my hands got so I couldn’t wood carve anymore. I decided that I needed cheap material because I’m not wealthy. I hate when everybody says poor, because I feel wealthy all the time, you know. But I didn’t have the kind of supplies I would have liked to have. I took newspaper and white school glue, and I wanted to make not to make papier-mâché, but solid sculpture. 
I developed my own technique, and started putting the white glue on the paper, and working it almost like clay until I made it into a solid sculpture. That’s what I’m doing now, and so far everybody tells me they’ve never seen anything like it, so that’s pretty good. [I make] Whatever hits my mind, really. Right now, I’m working on ‘The Munsters’ in black and white, but I just finished doing Marilyn Monroe. I’ve done Johnny Cash. I do crucifixes, which I really love to do. The first Dolly Parton I did is my most fun one, and the best story that goes with that Dolly Parton. 

I made Dolly, and a Chicken McNugget box was her belly so she opened up, but the only way you could open her was to grab her by her boob. So what happened was, we went to a show at Louisville. Everybody was so excited about it, because inside of her, Dollywood was in there. A roller coaster with Dolly in the front car, you could actually see her in the car. We were sitting there, and all of these people were coming over and opening her up and opening her up. All of a sudden I could see this man standing up there, and he’s acting so weird. So I went up to talk to him, and he said, ‘I really would like to see inside Dolly.’ And I said, ‘Well, honey, all you got to do is reach over there and pull and you know she’ll open right up. He says, ‘I’m a preacher, and I cannot bring myself to grab her like that.’ (Laughs) I got so tickled, and everybody else wanted to know what I was laughing about. That was the best story of the day. I opened Dolly for him, and he got to look inside, but he turned as red as a beet when he told me why he couldn’t open Dolly.

[Art] makes me breathe. It’s my outlet, calms my mind, it calms my soul, makes people smile. I make people smile [and] it tickles the crap out of me. Especially at shows when they come up, and they find something that blows their mind. I have a habit of kind of throwing political stuff into my art, which causes problems. I’ve lost buyers because of it actually. I’ll take the ones that like me, that’ll be okay.

The doctor just told me I have nerve damage in my hands, and my back, and my legs and stuff. And he said, ‘You know, you may have to stop doing what you’re doing. It’s too hard on you.’ When he said that, I thought, well Lord have mercy, I’m not going to make art. Oh, I can paint with my mouth. I told my friend, ‘I could go chimpanzee and use my toes.’

I didn’t think about how I’m going to feed myself, or how am I going to put on my clothes. I don’t know what would happen if you took my art away. 

I’ve thought a lot about, ‘What are you going to leave for your legacy?’ I have a book in MSU Children’s Library right now. ‘I Can Change the World,’ is the name of it, and I feel like that’s something I left. But most of all, I want people to remember I laughed and I cried, and I loved, and that I tried my best. I tried to be a good person, because I feel like if we don’t try to be a good person there’s nothing. My art, I think is going to be here long after I’m gone. I did a piece with doves where I did suitcases, and I called them ‘Mamaw Told Me’ and ‘Papaw Told Me.’ I put little stories in them. And I would do a piece of art, like I told about this ghost story Mamaw told me, and then I took and wrote the story and put it inside. So that is part of what I’m passing on to generations. 

We were having a hard time recently. My TV tore up and I couldn’t buy a TV. One of the [art students] I worked with in Elementary School [sent a Facebook message] and said, ‘I’ve got a extra TV. Come get it.’ I said, ‘Lord, I appreciate it.’ He said, ‘No. Every kid that you worked with should’ve offered.’ 

And that was my legacy. Yeah, that was my legacy right there.”