“In everything about being Appalachian, there’s some dark, and there’s some beauty. I like to stay on the happy side, though.”
Tami Booher, Artist; Sandy Hook, Kentucky:
I’m a transplant. I’ve been here six years. I come from Wise County, Virginia, and then I lived in North Carolina for twenty-four years, so I’ve kind of moved around just a little bit. I grew up in Wise County, in St Paul, Virginia. I did a lot of roaming of the hills, walking up and down the railroad tracks. Spent a lot of time in nature. Feeding chickens, I did some of that. Going after the cows, I did a lot of that. My grandmother seemed to think children needed to stay busy, so sometimes we cleaned rocks off the hill. (Laughs)
As soon as I could hold a pencil, I was drawing. Drawing was my thing to do, and I drew horses a lot when I was little, and I made creatures. I had dogs, who wore skirts. (Laughs). I did a lot of that when I was a kid.
I have five sisters and a brother. The brother’s the baby. (Laughs) They all still live in the area. I’m the only one who kind of moved around. Well, my second sister, she moved around a little bit, but she went back to the area.
My father was some kind of machinist. He lived In Illinois for a while, and he got his back hurt, so he was disabled. He just did here and there things. I don’t really know what he did, and my mom would stay at home.
I played softball. That was my favorite thing to do. I was a left-handed second baseman. I usually had to do this little twirl to get to the first base, but I had a good throw. Roaming the hills, on my own was really my favorite thing to do. I spent a lot of time thinking, watching things.
I’m honored to be Appalachian. I don’t think there’s nothing in the world I’d rather be. I look at it from the woman’s aspect; they’ve always been real strong. They’ve always been real family oriented. I feel like I’m strong. I’m strong-minded. There isn’t nothing I can’t accomplish, if I want to accomplish it. I don’t know that I’d feel that way if I was raised softer. We were raised rough. We were poor, and I didn’t realize it when I was a child, because we always had food, but we were poor. We didn’t have a whole lot, but I don’t think I would appreciate everything I have now [otherwise].
I tend to always fall back referencing my grandmother. I adored her more than anybody in the world. I just loved that little, old woman. I used to work in North Carolina with children that had mental health issues. I always found myself going back to my grandma, living on that farm, and I’d always find myself referencing things, the way things were done, and the things we had to do, and the whuppings we’d get. I lost her when I was twelve, but she stuck with me more than anybody.
My uncle is a year younger than me, and we were like brothers and sisters. We fought like brothers and sisters. We’d be around the corner of the house fighting, screaming, yelling at each other, and everything, and my grandma would come around with a switch, and she’d swarp both of our legs, and we’d both look at each other. We’d be bawling, and she’d go back around the house. We’d look at each other, and I’d blame him, and he’d blame me, and then we’d go back at it again. I got plenty of stripes on my legs.
She was an excellent cook. I can make cathead biscuits and gravy, and I learned that from her. I didn’t realize I was learning it at the time, but as I got older, that just became something natural to me. She never actually had me cook anything, but something about what she was doing on that old cookstove stuck with me. Her cornbread and her beans, I just loved that stuff, and I still love it. And those no-bake cookies! I have yet to find anybody that I feel like makes those no-bake cookies taste like hers did. I think it’s because they use that artificial sugar, or whatever it is that people are using now. I have never found any that tasted like hers, and I can get pretty close.
Our family put together a family book at one of the family reunions. Thirteen brothers and sisters for my grandma, and they were doing family reunions, up till this year. They’re not going to be able to do it anymore, because everybody’s gotten older and unable to. I learnt some stuff in the family book I didn’t know. I knew my grandma was God-fearing and all, but I didn’t know that she always said her prayers ever morning. I just didn’t know them things about her. [If I could ask her one more question] I guess I might ask her why she had that God-awful wallpaper on her ceiling. (Laughs). I’d always feel like I could see a face in that thing looking at me. It was so freaky to sleep there. I’d wake up and see that thing. It was terrible.
There was always a big garden, and they did tobacco. They had cows and chickens. She didn’t believe anybody should be lazy or sit around. I’m a little lazy. I’m an artist. (Laughs) But now, when I’m at it, I’m a hard worker. I think that was her thing. She was very much into hard work. And praying. Those are two things that stuck with me. Being spiritual. I’m more spiritual, I like to call myself. I feel like I’m in church, when I’m outside.
I’m proud that I’m Appalachian. I don’t care if I had ancestors, who were moonshiners. I don’t care if I had ancestors, who did whatever. I’m kind of proud of that. Those moonshiners, they weren’t outlaws. They were hard-working men, providing for their family. And that’s the way I look at them.
Hillbilly to me, has always been a hardworking, down to earth, earth loving, peace loving [people]. Now mind you, if you cross their path in a bad way, you’d know about it. But they stood up for right, and they took care of their families, and they were just hard working, in my opinion.
Art’s been a part of me my whole life. I started painting in my early thirties. I didn’t start exploring my Appalachian heritage until I moved here to Kentucky. I was living in North Carolina, which is Appalachian, too, but is still more urban. Coming back to Kentucky was like coming back home, and I don’t know, I could feel it in my blood. It stirs in my blood, and it made me start thinking, ‘Well, what can I do to honor who I am?’
I got to looking at the women of our area, and they’ve got a bad rap over the years. They’re not in the history books. There’s nothing honoring them, and we wouldn’t be where we are today if it weren’t for these mothers. I started exploring my heritage, women who meant something to me. [I decided], I’m going to start doing these little paintings of these women. My little way to say, ‘thank you for being who you are.’
I was turning fifty-two, and I thought, ‘I need to leave something behind.’ I paint pictures. I paint nature a lot. But then I got to thinking, ‘I need to do something that tells a story.’ I kept hearing storytelling, storytelling, and storytelling. I like pretty pictures, but I guess I was afraid to touch into that because there is some dark stuff. There’s some dark stuff to being an Appalachian woman. A lot of times, girl babies weren’t safe in their own homes. That’s just the reality of it.
[There is a lack of detail in the paintings] because I want them to be every woman. When you put a face on an image, it becomes finite. There’s nothing wrong with that at all, but I just think it takes your imagination away. By not putting a face on it, it can be anybody. I have that painting of my granny, but I can’t tell you how many people have said, ‘Oh, that’s my granny.’ The faces have been completely unnecessary. People get what I’m doing; I didn’t know that they would. I’m getting lots of really great responses about my faceless women. It’s not because I’m saying women shouldn’t have a face, or that we don’t have a voice, because I know there’s all these connotations over the years of artists who do certain different things pertaining to faceless women, and it’s always negative. That’s not my reasoning at all. I just want you to say, ‘Oh, that’s my grandma,’ and it could be, because it doesn’t look like any certain person. (Giggles)
The biggest thing that really makes me who I am today, is I am a child of abuse. I went through some abuse, and over many years, I think roaming the hills really helped me a lot, because it helped me become me. I was abused, but that was forty years ago. It doesn’t touch my life anymore. I overcame it. I don’t have hard feelings toward anybody. I’ve made peace with that person. I’ve made peace with them, and I’ve done the forgiveness thing. I completely understand forgiveness these days. I would say that was the hardest thing. I’m telling you these people who hold on to that, it’s just, it’s just eating them. It just destroys you. It did me for a long time. It tried to, but I didn’t let it.
I think I painted landscapes for a long time because I was afraid to really explore the heart, and the soul, and what’s all in there. I think we all carry that little, dark devil in there that wants to destroy your life.
There are some subjects that I feel like I want to touch on, but I made the conscious choice to keep it to the happier things. There are some subjects, I don’t know, they might have to come out, and that might not be well received. In everything about being Appalachian, there’s some dark, and there’s some beauty. I like to stay on the happy side, though.
(What makes you happy?) My children, of course, I have two, a boy and a girl. My son lives in North Carolina, my daughter lives in Virginia. I have two grandchildren. They’re so much better than kids. (Laughs) They’re much more fun. Some of the things, other than, of course, my children, that make me happy, are when people look at my work, and they get it. I’ve only had a couple of people, who were like, ‘Why’re you doing that?’ Usually I can turn them when I start talking about it, and telling them what I’m doing. That makes me really happy. Yeah. That makes me really happy.
(Question about economy) For me, when I was growing up, I never knew it was bad. I think one thing that would help us is get rid of some of the media attention on the negativity of Appalachia, because it’s brainwashing our children to think that it’s bad to be here. Media causes so much trouble anyway. When it’s presented wrong, the sex, and girls are supposed to look a certain way, and all that, they don’t know what they’re doing to people. I think children should be educated, and education is great [especially] if they could discover that they need to bring that education back to their home place, and make it better. I don’t know all the answers. I just, I know that I’ve lived several different places, and I still come back to the mountains. I don’t know if I’ll ever leave. I like to go visit places, but I want to come back to the mountains.
It’s like being in the mother’s womb. When I go somewhere where there are no mountains, I just feel so exposed. We went to Alabama a couple years ago, and I’m like, ‘Oh no! Get me out of here.’ Alabama’s a beautiful state. Every state has its beauty, but there were no mountains. I need to feel that. I need to feel that in the trees.
I would like for [others] to remember me as somebody who was proud to be a woman, and proud to be an Appalachian woman. I am. That’s the simplest way I know to say it. (Laughs). I want them to remember me as a kind person, but I’m a person who stands for what I believe. If you’re going to tell a tale on me, we’re going to have words. If it’s the truth now, I’m going to tell you I did it, but if you’re telling a tale on me, we’re having words. That’s just the way it is.
Oh, my studio is terrible. It’s in my living room right now, since I moved here. I used to have a little studio space, but since I moved here, I just paint in my living room. I paint wherever I can. (Laughs). I love to paint barefoot, and I love for my feet to touch the earth.
When I was first learning to paint, it’s always so hard to learn to know when to stop. It’s so hard, because you think, “Oh, if I just do this.” I sometimes do some classes for people, and they’ll be like, going, and going, and going, and going. And they’ll ask me, ‘Do I need to do this? Do I need to do this?’ I say, ‘Well, go ahead [screw] it up, if you want to.’ (Laughs). Sometimes you just got to stop. I guess as I’ve done it more, there’s a feeling that happens, and I’m done with that, and I’m not going to go back into it.
(State of mind when creating a piece) Sometimes there’s music, just whatever the day brings. I can go from old Southern Rock, to Celtic, to Bluegrass, to Gospel, to Classical. I listen to about everything. Sometimes it’s the birds singing; sometimes I listen to a book. I don’t have a formula. It’s the color [and] the feel of the paint, how it feels on my brush, or my knife.
I’d love to learn to play the dulcimer, I’d love to be a potter, I’d love to be…there’s so many things, that catch my attention. I love history. I love doing things with my hands. I’d love to learn to quilt, but I just don’t think I have enough time for all that. I had to make a decision to stick with one thing, or to become great at one thing. I’m a dabbler, but painting, that’s me.”