by Dee Newman
On my way back from spending several days at the Mountain House in the Smokey’s, I stopped in Oak Ridge to spend a night with my good friends Nancy and Bob Highfill. Since his retirement Bob has become an accomplished potter, mentored by Bill Capshaw, the award winning ceramic artist, instructor and Pottery Studio Chair of the Oak Ridge Art Center.
During my visit Bob began telling me about Rickey Beene, the President of the Board of Directors of the Oak Ridge Art Center.
Rickey and his wife Carol are also members (along with Bob and Nancy) of the Oak Ridge Unitarian Universalist Church. Last March one of the church’s Sunday services combined and featured the works of some jazz musicians with an exhibit of Rickey’s paintings. In addition, Rickey also shared a number of his poems, which Bob described as exceptional.
On Friday morning after having breakfast (some of Bob’s delicious oatmeal with fresh fruit) we gave Rickey and Carol a call and asked if we could come for a visit. Rickey was in his Pouting House Studio painting and told us to come on up.
Petros is only 12 miles northwest of Oak Ridge. It is an unincorporated community with a population of less than 600 people. Historically, it is an old coal-mining town and the home of the now closed Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary that once held James Earl Ray. Some of the town and coal mining scenes from the movie October Sky were filmed there. There is talk that the old prison may one day become a distillery.
Rickey and Carol live on 27 acres at the eastern base of the 3,324 foot-peak of Frozen Head State Park and Natural Area in the Cumberland Mountains. Rickey designed and built both the house where he and Carol live and his studio. When they met back in the 1970s, Carol was a Catholic nun from Massachusetts. She had come down to Morgan County to live in the tiny community of Deer Lodge and work with the Episcopal Dioceses of East Tennessee in their outreach program for children in the area. The following summer she came back to work for the Morgan/Scott Development Program to work with emotional disturbed children.
A language arts teacher by training with a Masters Degree in English from East Tennessee State University, Rickey is a self-taught painter and has over the last decade painted predominantly the portraits of the folks with whom he has lived and worked during his lifetime in Petros. His inspiring and colorful portraits are primarily done with acrylics on gessoed hardboard panels.
Both his painting and his poetry are inspired by his unique and exceptional vision of the people of his hometown and of the reality they share together. Each portrait according to Rickey is an attempt to know our universal, collective conscious – to find, reveal and celebrate the beauty, the joys, the victories, the over-whelming losses and heart-breaking defeats that we all share in common as human beings on this planet.
While we were sitting around the wood burning stove in his studio talking about a sundry of topics, I noticed Rickey scribbling on a piece of paper. It was a poem he had recently written:
A Hiatus of Doubt
A slice of snow floats slowly down.
Momentarily I fall
and falling find something of my old self,
the one that hides in the passages of time.
I am an old man
living through the darkness of memories.
They cloud my skies.
They creep into my nighttime dreams.
They enter into the part that is always
close to my eyes.
Even old, how can one not want to live
if they find something of love daily?
Come light, come sun through the breaking clouds,
wake that part of me not locked in flesh.
I feel that river of creation
caressing me again.
Paint is the whisper in my mind.
My hands are already moving
toward the heavy wet branches.
Peace again, at last.
Please, let more again in this waterless river.
After spending an hour or so at his studio, we all went over to their house for some tea, where Rickey shared several more of his exceptional poems. As I told him, he may be even a better poet than he is a painter. And, that is saying a great deal, since he is an extraordinary and inspiring artist.
For me, our visit with Rickey and Carol was an incomparable experience. And, will remain so, I’m sure, throughout this New Year.
If you would like to know more about Rickey and his artwork click on Pouting House Studio Weblog.