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Thursday, October 6, 2011


howard joines by tj worthington

This is the recently finished and signed portrait of Howard Joines when he was possibly around 40. He lived in Pine Swamp community and his tombstone is in the New Salem church cemetery on Pine Swamp Road. He was one of the great fiddlers of the county. Played both old-time and bluegrass. His bluegrass style was what Jr, Howard's nephew, said was a blend of old-time and bluegrass, something like Otis Burris in bluegrass fiddling. Lucas Pasley made me a cd of several bluegrass songs by Howard Joines with Jr Maxwell picking banjo. I don't know where he got the tape, and I don't know who's playing with them. It might be Howard's daughter Carol playing guitar and it might be his son Richard playing bass. That's totally a guess. They made some good bluegrass together.

I've taken to making the background, the negative space, into something on its own first, then work out in my mind how to arrange figures in relation to the lines behind them so it will work and appear natural, look like I planned it that way. I think of it as the PeeWee Herman method: I did that on purpose. In the time I was sketching his form on the canvas to get eyes and nose and fiddle and hands in their places, I was puzzled by what to do with the empty space either side of his head. I didn't want to do a landscape behind him like Mona Lisa's landscape background, and I didn't want anything, really. I decided to just make some lines. Without planning or thinking, I made 3 lines on the right side of his head. The shadow of a window on the wall with the sun at a certain angle made the triangle window on the left side of his head. I drew them on the canvas to figure out what to do with them as time goes by.

Gradually, it came to mind the lines could be a chicken roost inside a chicken house. Put a hen on it and it's a roost. The triangle window suggests a window in a chicken house. Now his head is inside the chicken house of his imagination when he's playing Chicken Reel, Cluck Old Hen and Cacklin Hen. These songs have a note in them that is a hen's squawking note while she's laying an egg. Howard gets that note so it sounds exactly like a hen instead of a fiddle. He raised chickens and listened to them closely. I wanted the hen to be leaning toward his ear like she's singing her note into his ear while he plays it on the fiddle. By the time it's finished, it looks like the chicken house images were planned. The rest of it was planned, so to speak. His face was definitely planned, as was the fiddle and the hands. I suppose by planned I mean I set out to make it look like Howard Joines at that age. Also planned to make the fiddle look as close to a fiddle as I can free-handed without rulers or measurements, just painting it.

A fiddle is a handful to paint. I can't articulate how I paint a fiddle, because I really don't know. Each time it's a different way, because each time the fiddle is held at a different angle and seen from a different direction. I like the challenge of a fiddle and the challenge of a banjo. A banjo is several circles at odd angles and in relation to each other. I do it by sight, allowing different places to be a little bit off. To my eye, a curve in a fiddle a little bit off gives it life, gives the eye the illusion of motion. It might look to everybody else's eyes like I don't know what I'm doing. I'm here to be the first to tell you with the best authority behind it, I don't know what I'm doing. Never have. Everything I do is done the first time. Painting a fiddle is as subtle as painting a face. It's the same with banjo and guitar. I want the head and face to look like it's at least somebody in particular. I want the fiddle to equally give the sense that this is a particular fiddle. Like with a face, painting a fiddle, I just paint on it until it's done. Every one is different. This is why I don't like people to watch me paint; I don't know what I'm doing. Painting is not a performance art.

When I say I don't know what I'm doing, it's the same as my neighbor Tom Pruitt, one of the last of the old-time mountain people, teaching me how to do different kinds of work on the farm. Stretching barbed wire, I helped him as his assistant. He didn't give me instruction, because he didn't know how to explain what he was doing. All of it was in the doing. If I paid attention to him, I learned. That's how he taught me, because he didn't know what he was doing. He knew in that he knew he was putting up fence like he'd done hundreds of times before, but he couldn't explain it to an interviewer questioning him about old-time ways. All he knows is you put up the fence. You put the posts in the ground a certain way that will hold the post firmly in place. There is a certain way you stretch the wire from the top down. First wire is the one on top, because it will hold its place while the ones below will not be exactly the same in tightness from post to post. Going from the bottom up, the wire will become unstable before long and the posts wobbly. I say he "didn't know" what he was doing, because none of it was written down to be known by the mind. The experience itself was it. Every time was different.

That's how I am with painting. I don't know what the ways I use a brush are called. I don't know what my style of painting is called. I think of it as portrait realism. Whatever that means. I've had no schooling in painting. It was something that came to me when I turned 40, first with pencil drawing. Using paint came about 6 or 7 years later. When I started using paint, I bought some basic colors and started. It was there before I was born. When it surfaced, it just happened. A lot of people have the gift, but it gets put in the attic or the basement in boxes and that's it. Art in this society is generally looked down on, because artists don't make money. Except when a Warhol sells for big bucks at auction and gets reported on the tv news. Then it's, "How come you aren't making that kind of money?"

This is a warrior society where our more subtle needs as human beings are rendered irrelevant. But that's ok. It lives. There is a lot of art in cities and rurally. A lot of people paint and make music and perform different forms of art. There's just not a great deal of market for it. But there could be if the artists would turn their interest to the people they live among instead of money. That doesn't appeal to me as what I have to do if I want to paint. It's not what I have to do. I'd rather sell to my friends and people I know. From here on, I don't want my paintings leaving the county. I aim for all, or nearly all of them to be Alleghany County specific, certainly region specific. It's a big deal for artists to make big money selling their wares, like it's a big deal for anybody to be making a lot of money doing what they do. But I don't want big money and I don't want big deal. I don't want openings where people go ooh-aah-the-artist. I'm just another Joe with a gift. I don't see that what I do is better than what a good welder does. At least with a welder, what he does is functional, and it pays.  


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