An American Folk Artist

Jim Lewis

Little glazed earthenware badgers crawling around a table in County Durham in the Northeast of England; saints flamboyantly painted on tin decorating walls in Central Mexico; carved wooden Chinese memorial figures displayed in flea market stalls near Panamanian embroideries of exotic fantasy creatures; and hooked rugs and patchwork quilts, animal masks and decoupage cigar boxes.

No matter where it originates, there’s something about folk art—something that makes you smile, something that plays with your imagination and reminds you how you looked at things when you were a child.

Appalachia, that area of the eastern United States that stretches from the southern tier of New York to northern Alabama, Mississippi, and Georgia, is a section of the country with a particularly rich heritage of folk art. Here various farmers and miners, truck drivers and housewives have turned out to be gifted painters, sculptors, carvers, and basket weavers as well.

One of the most gifted and original of these self-taught artists is a gentleman named Jim Lewis.

Born in 1948 in Plummers Landing, Fleming County, Kentucky, Jim and his family moved to Sandy Hook, Elliott County, when he was a child and has lived there ever since, marrying Beverly and fathering two children, Mary and James Bob. And although he started wood carving when he was about fifteen, Jim did not devote all of his time to his art until he was laid off from his job at a strip mine in the late eighties. Working mostly with basswood, maple, and acrylic paint, he has created and continues to create a wondrous parade of biblical characters, mermaids, animals, fish, and other creatures to bring joy to his many devotees.

Jim Lewis was introduced to the world of folk art by his neighbor Minnie Atkins, the legendary doyenne of eastern Kentucky artisans. Spoken to recently, Minnie says, “I got Jim started, but unlike a lot of others I helped along, he always gives me credit. And Jim’s work is wonderful! He carves a Jonah inside the whale which is great—and it was his own original idea.” Not surprisingly, Tom Haney, a kinetic sculptor in Atlanta similarly credits the very same Jim as one of the people who inspired and encouraged him.

Jim Lewis’ work has been exhibited in many shows both nationally and internationally, but one that was particularly interesting and beautifully illustrated some of the common threads in folk art was Oaxaca to Appalachia at the Folke Arte Gallery in Cleveland. This 1994 exhibit highlighted carving and, interestingly, the techniques and compositions of these two geographically different parts of the world proved to be strikingly similar. Giving credence to the gallery show’s thesis, a friend from El Salvador recently admired one of Jim’s mermaids in my collection and commissioned two—one for herself and one for a Mexican friend who collects Oaxacan folk art.

In his introduction to the catalogue for O, Appalachia, an exhibition organized by the Huntington Museum in Huntington, West Virginia, and on tour from May 1990 to February 1993, British designer and editor David Larkin wrote about artists from this remote and sylvan corner of America. “Starting out, painting and sculpture are just something they try because they feel a need to make a statement that words cannot express. There are no rules to intimidate them. There is no one to tell them how it should be done. As far as they are concerned, there is nothing special one needs to know before picking up a brush or whittling knife.”

And talking about these same creators, Nancy Jane Bolton, a collector in Charlottesville, commented, “This kind of expression is and was an important way of life. These people live in true ‘hollers,’ and nighttime comes and there isn’t a lot to do. A ‘holler’ is the lowest place at the end of a road. The end of a dirt road. You go on a paved road to a smaller paved road, to a dirt road, and at the end of a dirt road is a holler. And there’s a mountain behind. It’s rural isolation.”

Jim Lewis seems to enjoy this rural isolation (which today isn’t quite so isolated thanks to the Internet and Facebook) and finds his inspiration on long walks in the woods, often with Callie, his American Bulldog and sometimes even with Chopper, his Maltese. Recently on one of these walks he found exactly the twig that would make the perfect tail for a carving he was making of a beloved Chihuahua for a New York collector.

Writing about folk artists of the southern mountains, well-regarded authorities Ramona and Millard Lampell noted that “in the works of self-taught Appalachian artists, two themes dominate: nature and morality. Attuned to wild creatures and the quirks of nature, mountain people possess an abiding faith in the force that created them.” Jim’s work exemplifies this. Deeply religious, he celebrates those things he respects and in which he believes, and he shares his vision with a gentle smile and with a wink.


Issue Twenty Two