Article by David K. Smith
Kentucky is rich with artists known for their proclivity toward animal forms. Minnie and Garland Adkins, Linvel Barker, Carl McKenzie, Lonnie and Twyla Money, Tim Lewis and Earnest Patton have created extensive bodies of work in which animals are the central motif. The Kinney brothers, Charley and Noah, who were born and lived all their lives on the family farm in Toller Hollow in Lewis County, produced some of the most interesting depictions of animals in Kentucky art.
While both Charley (1906-1991) and Noah (1912-1991) did a lot of drawing as children, it wasn’t until much later that they began making art with greater purpose. In the early 1970s, Charley painted on window shades, depicting desert landscapes filled with animals. He also used modeling clay to create figures such as ducks and sheep.
At about the same time, Noah also began making art. His first piece is reported to have been a small saddle for a toy horse, but his widow, Hazel, believes that his first animal carvings may have been of various pet dogs the couple owned. “He just loved dogs,” she says. “We always had all kinds of dogs lying around.”
Initially, Noah’s carvings were mostly flat, silhouette-like objects cut from boards, the edges of which he rounded off with a coping saw before painting. In the early 1980s, his carvings became more weighty and three-dimensional as he began to use chunks of logs. “I believe he got some of the logs from old log buildings,” says family friend and dealer Larry Hackley. “He’d then add the things like wings or legs to the body. His carvings were really assemblages in many ways.”
Dogs, chickens, birds, foxes and skunks were Noah’s initial subjects, all animals with which he was familiar on the Kinney farm. Local critters were also the subjects of Charley’s painting and sculpting efforts, although he also tried his hand at rendering exotic animals, such as giraffes and tigers, pictures of which he had seen in books and magazines. In the mid-1980s, Richard and Maggie Wenstrup took Noah to the Cincinnati zoo and introduced him to a living encyclopedia of exotic animals. Upon his return home, Noah began carving many of the animals he had seen at the zoo, with lions and tigers as his favorite subjects.
The brothers generally kept their own counsel when it came to making art, and neither was overly influenced by what the other was doing. While Noah usually carved and drew animals he had actually seen, Charley allowed his imagination to dictate what he would sculpt or paint. He even rendered a few Tasmanian devils (although it seems unlikely he ever saw the animal in print or otherwise), after hearing someone describe his “haints” as resembling the creatures.
Richard Edgeworth, another Kinney family friend, says, “Charley painted what he thought he saw in his dreams or what he thought he remembered. The animals were a part of his dreams, day dreams and night dreams.”
Besides their differences in favored mediums — Charley being primarily a painter and Noah, a carver — there are clear attitudinal differences in each artist’s portrayal of animals. Charley’s animals are frequently aggressive, often killing and feeding upon smaller animals. “There’s usually some little victim down in the corner,” says Hackley.
Charley’s portrayals are often quite intense, and he had no qualms about showing the blood and entrails of slain smaller animals. Animals also were often shown as servants of man, such as mules performing farm labor or hunting dogs chasing raccoons. Even in his relatively straightforward depictions of single animals, such as elephants or snakes, Charley’s nervous brushwork and often contrasting palette create a sense of motion and urgency that is absent in much of Noah’s work.
Noah’s carvings almost always depict a single animal standing upon a board base and appear to be much more passive, even gentler, than Charley’s. Even in his few renderings of multiple figures, such as his drawings of farm scenes, Noah’s animals are presented in a rather benign and communal fashion. Noah’s exotic animals — lions and tigers — often seem as unthreatening and domesticated as his farm animals, more like angry house cats than ferocious jungle beasts. Says Hackley, “That could be because he himself was ‘domesticated.’ He was married. Charley, on the other hand, really thought of himself as the ‘natural man,’ something of a wild man who was very proud that he could support himself by living completely off the land if he had to.”
Charley and Noah Kinney, brothers with so much in common throughout their lives, were also artists who shared a fondness for animals both familiar and exotic. Yet each displayed distinct attitudes and individual stylistic differences in his portrayals of animals.
Note: Biographical information in this essay came from telephone conversations with Larry Hackley, Hazel Kinney and Richard Edgeworth, July 1999.
DAVID K. SMITH is an artist, an art historian and the publisher of the folk art journal, The Bottlecap.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: