“When I was a Junior in high school, I started trying to find art schools, and I was so lucky I got into Pratt in New York. It was so expensive that I didn’t know if I could go, and Mike Mullins from the Settlement School, he helped. He helped arrange fundraisers. One of my friends and I both got into that school, so the community rallied around us, and basically paid for our first year there. It was just incredibly endearing.”
Lacy Hale, Artist; Crafts Colley, Kentucky, Letcher County:
“I grew up in Wolfpen in Knott County, Kentucky. I remember playing outside all the time; climbing through the mountains, playing in the creek. I was the sixth generation Hale, myself and my siblings, so we all lived in the same area our family had lived on for six generations. I grew up really close to my cousins on my dDad’s side, and my mom’s family wasn’t too far away either.
She was number eight of nine children, so she had a really large family. We just played with cousins, played outside a bunch. It was just a really great experience. I feel really close to nature because of that.
My dad, when he passed away, he had been the Radio Engineer at WSGS in Hazard for almost forty years, and my Mom was a homemaker. My mom’s father was a coal miner, but nobody else in my family really coal mined. I do find that interesting.
My dad was apparently always very interested in taking things apart and putting them back together. He was the first one to go to college. He went to college for engineering, and you know, that’s what he did.
I never met my grandpa on my mom’s side. He passed away before I was born, and my grandma on her side, she was a mountain woman. Like I said earlier, she had nine children. I remember going to her house for Christmas. She’d make the apple stack cake, the stack cakes with the apple butter on top. Oh, they were delicious. I wish I had her recipe. But you know, she was just a good, mountain woman.
My dad’s mom and dad, my grandpa played music. He played the dulcimer and the banjo. I remember he always had a book in his hands, or a musical instrument. He played a lot of claw hammer banjo. My dad passed away several years ago, and so the people he worked with at WSGS, they had found this interview of my grandpa that a news station out of Ohio came down and did a little story on him.
My grandpa passed away whenever I was eleven so that was in ’91. So I guess they did this in the eighties at some point. They did a little television spot on mountain music, and filmed my granddad playing the banjo. It was just the most wonderful thing to see that. His name was Hiram Hale. Well most people say ‘Harm.’ Around here they would say Harm. (Laughs) But yeah, Harm Hale.
My grandma, she was a pretty tough woman. She wouldn’t tolerate any foolishness. My Dad used to tell stories that they had a little grocery store on the holler where a lot of people came. It was inside their house, and so a lot of people would come there and buy stuff.
My dad said that he and his siblings would have to hoe corn for everybody in the holler. I guess my grandparents kind of loaned ‘em out to hoe corn for people, to make a little extra money. They did a lot of gardening and that stuff. They did have pigs. I don’t remember if they ever had chickens or not. By the time I was born, they had a garden, but that was it. They didn’t have any animals, but I know they had a cow they milked. I think my mom’s family had pigs and stuff, too.
My dad played music, and I tried. I was more of a visual artist. Two of my siblings play music as well, so it kind of passed down through the family. [My dad] liked to do like picking and grinning type things, but he never did really play in public. My grandpa, I just remember him sitting on the porch playing music. That was one of the biggest things that I remember about him.
A lot of these ballads were brought over from England, Scotland, Ireland, like you know, Germany, and even Africa. I think it’s just a way that people around here could express themselves, and get together and have fun. And you know I think this area is so incredibly talented, and it seems to be more so, maybe I’m just partial, but it seems to have so much creativity, and maybe even more so than other places.
A lot of people here had to make things, made do, make things out of utility, but also make them esthetically beautiful. I feel like there’s just so much creativity here. But you know music, I think that was just a way to pass stories along, and to get together and have fun.
As long as I can remember, I’ve always loved to draw and paint. In Kindergarten, I won the first place ribbon at the Gingerbread Festival in Knott County, for a drawing I did. I remember at that point I was like, ‘This is awesome.’ My Aunt Patsy was a big inspiration to me. I loved going to her house. She’d have those huge boxes of crayons, and she’d just get out all of her markers and everything, and so I’d get to do artwork at her house and that really inspired me.
I feel really lucky that my parents always encouraged me to do art. They never discouraged me, and they never said, ‘That’s not a real job. You’ll never make any money.’ I mean, I don’t make much, but they encouraged me.
When I was a Junior in high school, I started trying to find art schools, and I was so lucky I got into Pratt in New York. It was so expensive that I didn’t know if I could go, and Mike Mullins from the Settlement School, he helped. He helped arrange fundraisers. Me and one of my friends both got into that school, so the community rallied around us, and basically paid for our first year there. It was just incredibly endearing.
When we got up there it was really expensive, so I was there two years. Going to a big city like that from a holler, it really made me appreciate this place. I could have gone to Louisville for free, but I wanted to get out of Kentucky and go to New York City. That’s the art hub of the world, basically. I’m glad I got to do that, because it really did make me appreciate this area.
I met my husband, and he was in school. He and I made a deal. He was like, ‘If you work while I go to college, and then whenever I get a job you can do your artwork fulltime.’ And so that’s what has happened, and I do a lot of commissioned portraits. I love to do oil painting, landscapes. I’ve done several murals. I do a lot of painting and 2-D artwork.
I feel like I used to be very realistic, almost hyper-realistic. I was in high school and that was where my work was. As I learned about other artists and just lived life basically, I’ve gone from being so realistic to I guess being a little looser with my work and kind of instilling a dreamlike quality into it. I do commission pieces, I still do hyper-realism, as real as I can, but for my own work I try to make it a little bit looser. Sometimes, I try to hide little pieces.
After my dad passed away, I started hiding little owls in work. I keep trying to learn different media. I’ve gotten into block printing recently. I really want to do ceramics and stuff like that. I think you should always learn, especially if you’re perfecting a craft. You’re always going to be trying to perfect the craft, and you should always learn other media, or learn as much as you can about it, so that’s what I try to do.
I was hanging [a] show and there were two interns that were from up north, the northeast. They were like, ‘You know, we’ve never been to an area where people love the place that they live so much.’ I think a lot of people would say that. There’s a real connection to the earth here, to roots. We have so many people that live here, they’ve lived here or their family has, for generations. I think that creates a love of place. That creates kind of ownership of the place. People here are just very strong. They’ve had to be, you know. It’s instilled in them, very smart, intuitive. I don’t know, it’s just good stock.
One of the saddest times? Well, I would say it was probably when dad passed away. He went in for a triple bypass surgery, and had a major stroke while he was in surgery and they didn’t realize it. He was in the hospital for like nine days. I was living in Morehead at the time, and so ever day I would go to Lexington and come home or stay over in Lexington a couple of nights and come home. I still had a job, but my Mom stayed right there in the hospital the whole time. Never left.
They weren’t used to driving in Lexington. You know, they barely left Eastern Kentucky. So my brother and his wife drove them to the hospital in Lexington so he could have his surgery and stuff. But, coming back home, Mom was by herself. We’re all living three hours away. It was just really difficult to see her have to be on her own, and not being able to visit as much as possible. My dad, like maybe a month before he passed away, my sister and I started trying to get video of him playing music. It was just like something, we were, ‘We need to get this on record in some way.’ If he knew we were filming him, he would shut down immediately.
He played a lot of finger picking, and he instilled a love of music in me from the time I was really young with a lot of blues; Mississippi John Hurt, John Lee Hooker, and stuff like that. He was such an influence on me as far as that goes, and taught my brother and sister how to play stringed instruments. We did get some video of him playing music, which was very special.
I’ve done several murals around here, but I applied to do a mural in Lexington and I got the commission, which I was thrilled. It was on Broadway in Victorian Square, Victorian Plaza, or whatever, I can’t remember what it was called. It was so awesome working there, because people would stop. I don’t know, it’s really cool to work in public because people stop and ask you about what you are doing. My youngest brother was helping me with the mural, and people would yell at us from the street in the car, be like, ‘That’s looking awesome!’ It would just make us feel so good. The Commission called for something that was about Kentucky, but it couldn’t have anything to do with bourbon, couldn’t have anything to do with UK, horses, basketball. You know, none of that. And so I, I’d seen a tattoo that this girl that I knew got of the tulip poplar flowers. I’d always thought they were beautiful, and that’s what I submitted, and so that’s what we did, and it’s very realistic.
It’s like a stairwell, and I painted the wall and stairwell and the bottom of the stairs and then out front on the facade so it all kind of flows together and looks like one full piece. But it’s just so nice to work in the public, and people get to comment on what you’re doing, and thankfully I’ve never had anyone say anything bad. It gave me a chance to work outside of Eastern Kentucky, and work in a city setting. After that, I feel like things started rolling and I started getting a little more business. It was really great, and the people that I was working with that helped arrange it were wonderful. It was a really great experience, all except for I had to rent a scissor lift to work on the second floor of the facade, and that was a headache. (Laughs) But it was a great time, and you know, there were people that would come by every day and stop and talk to us about it. So it was cool to hear what they had to say.
After I got back from college I was living in Morehead, and even that far away I missed home. But you know, it’s still in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, but I missed home. I decided I wanted to do a mural in Hindman, since I’m from Knott County. I wanted to do one that kind of glorified the community, and the artisans in the community, and Mike Mullins helped me choose. I believe there are nine people in it from Knott County that were well-known artisans in one way or the other; Verna Mae Slone is in it, and James Still, Art Stamper, Jethro Amburgey. You know there are luthiers, there was musicians, basket makers. That mural is eleven by twenty-six, I believe. I’ve got a Facebook page that’s Art By Lacy Hale, and a website just lacyhale.com [with photos of my work].
Mike Mullins was the Director of the Hindman Settlement School for years. I don’t even know how long he was over there, but he was just such an asset to the community and he was so very helpful and caring about the people in this region. He was always a huge supporter of the students, of me, of everyone. He was just such a great guy, and I don’t really think I’d be doing what I’m doing if he hadn’t help encourage me. He was just a wealth of knowledge. Whenever he passed away several years ago it was shocking. He was an inspiration. He’s just going to be missed. That’s a hole you can’t fill really.
When I went to art school, when I went to Pratt, I went to one of my classes and we were sitting at big tables, and we were all kind of, you know it was the first day. We were all kind of talking, ‘Oh, where are you from, blah, blah, blah?’ And the girl right across from me was like, ‘Oh, you’re from Kentucky? That means you’re inbred, right?’ I was like, ‘Excuse me?’ I’d never been faced with something like that before. That had never really happened to me, and so I was horrified. I was angry. So, there were a lot of people that would say derogatory things to me. Especially as soon as I spoke, they would say, ‘Well where are you from?’
I do everything I can to fight any sort of stereotype. The only good thing anybody said to me up there about being from Kentucky was, ‘It sounds like you sing when you speak.’ And I thought that was a really sweet compliment. There are few things that make me angrier than people stereotyping our area. But there are so many people that come here from outside the region, and I’m sure you’ve heard the term ‘poverty porn.’ They look for all the bad things they can, and that’s infuriating all the time.
This area has so much to offer, and so many good people, and we’re so much more than what a lot of these places want to show us as. My friend writes a blog, and I think he calls it ‘The Hillbilly Stomp,’ and the other day was just like, ‘I never really thought of [the word hillbilly] as being a derogatory term.’ You know he was like, ‘I feel like we’re hillbillies here,’ and blah, blah, blah. But I’ve always found that term offensive. I try to shy away from that word. I do not like that word. I don’t use that word. I guess living in the region, if you want to use that word that’s fine, but somebody outside of here calling you a hillbilly is usually not good, you know.
(Going to art school in New York City) That was the biggest city I’d been to. I’d gone on school trips to Lexington and Cincinnati and stuff, but going to New York and being from, you know, Wolfpen Holler, Wolfpen Creek. I went up there going, ‘Yeah, I know how this is going to be.’ It was a bit of a culture shock, and the first time I came home for Thanksgiving after being up there for a couple of months, I came home and said, ‘It is so dark here.’ It’s like I really didn’t realize there was such a thing as light pollution.
It was interesting just learning to navigate the city, and it took me a long time to be comfortable traveling by myself, especially at night. I loved the subway. I absolutely loved that that means of travel because I could go anywhere anytime I wanted to for a very little amount of money. There were a couple of scary things that happened to me. It was October right after I’d gotten up there, and my friends and everybody said, ‘Don’t go out on the night before Halloween because gang initiations are happening and stuff.’ So we were like, ‘Okay, so we’ll just go out on Halloween night.’
We stepped off the campus through the gate and onto Myrtle Avenue, where there was a Blockbuster down the street. That’s where we were going, to get some movies. Well, there was also liquor stores and stuff like that. We stepped right into this group of guys, and they all had handkerchiefs tied around their faces, and they started throwing eggs at us; some were hardboiled, some were raw. Then this little boy, I don’t know how old he was, started kicking my shins like crazy, and then one guy punched me in the face, and so that was a little scary. I had to grab my friend and drag him out of there because we didn’t know what to do. They chased us down the street, and we ran into the Blockbuster. At Blockbuster, they had to lock the doors, and they called the police.
I didn’t fully realize. I guess I was more mad than scared for a little while, and then once I got to my dorm room, and I called my mom, and I just exploded in tears and cried. She wanted me to come home immediately, of course, but I was like, ‘No, I want to try to make this work. Everybody here can’t be bad. You know this is just a onetime thing, I’m sure.’ I never had any other problems. It was just bad luck on my part.
[Pratt Institute] is located in Brooklyn, which is one of the five boroughs of New York City. From the school, I could see the Twin Towers. It’s very close to Manhattan. One side of the school was brownstone, really nice houses and stuff, and the other side was Myrtle Avenue, which was a little seedy. It was a really great school. I learned at the school. I learned a lot from just living in the city, and being around different types of food and people, and again it really made me appreciate being home, too, coming home, and how wonderful this place is.
I would yearn so much for green spaces, and so I went to Central Park a lot, Prospect Park near near Pratt. You know that was one of the biggest things I missed, whenever I was living up there. I was there for two years, and I haven’t been back since then. Actually I was talking to somebody the other day, and they were like, ‘Myrtle Avenue’s real nice now.’ (Laughs)
My husband went up there last year, and I was telling him, ‘Keep your wallet in your front pocket.’ I was scaring him to death. And I said, ‘Act like you know where you’re going.’ I would ask people for directions, if I didn’t know. I went up to the people that would take the tokens, or you know, you pay to get your tokens at the subway station. I’d be like, ‘Well, which train goes to blah, blah, blah?’ And they’d just stare at me, and wouldn’t answer me, and then look back down.
I want to go back. I just haven’t had the opportunity. The first time I walked into the Met, I just started bawling my eyes out. I mean, it was just so, I don’t know, I get chills thinking about it; so much to see, the moment was incredible, incredible. The Met was the first museum I went to while I was there, and so I just remember it was so overwhelming. Stendhal Syndrome, I guess.
I was really good friends with this guy that lived there. His dad was from Greece, and his mom, her family was from Italy, and so I got to go spend Thanksgiving with them one year. His aunts lived upstairs in their apartment building. They were Italian, and the food they made was just traditional Italian and Greek food for Thanksgiving. It was so fun, so incredible. One of the things I miss about living in the city is getting to try different foods.
I feel like I moved back here at a really good time, because there’s a lot of momentum building behind the arts. I think that’s a way to create like sustainable economy here, tourism, become kind of a maker culture. Maker spaces are becoming very popular, and I think that’s something that we can offer here. I feel really positive about the future of Appalachia. A lot of people get discouraged. I know of one lady who moved away, and didn’t want her children growing up here because there was no future.
I think we have to make our future. We have to do this ourselves. People come here and try to help us, throw money at different problems, but we have to do it ourselves here. We can’t look for handouts. We have to do it ourselves. I feel like there’s a lot of stuff happening here, and it’s exciting to me.
I want people to remember me for my artwork, and for being proud to be from Kentucky. One of the things that’s near and dear to my heart is being from here, making a good name for this area, working hard, trying to make the arts something that is available to everyone. That’s really what I want to leave on this earth. I just feel such a connection to the land here, the roots. I love learning stories about my ancestors. I love going to old graveyards and just looking at names of my family members. I guess that’s really one of the biggest things. I feel that I appreciate the land and the culture here because that’s where we’ve been from for so long.
I would like people to know how beautiful this place is, how many… I’m going to start crying. I don’t even know how to express it really. This place is full of so many beautiful people. We’re strong. We’re smart. We’re creative. We can survive. If I hadn’t have grown up here, I don’t know if I would do this certain type of artwork that I do, just because this area has influenced me so much, because there’s so much beauty.
I see the art world going in places that are dark and ugly, and contemporary art is more prone to shock. Some of my artwork does that, but I think this place has instilled such a sense or a love of beauty in me that it’s hard to move away from that.
I just want people to know that we’re more than poverty-stricken people living in shacks. There are so many different facets to living in this community, in this area. Don’t listen to the stereotypes. Come here and visit and see for yourself.”