Tony Pence

Tony Pence

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My writings are about people, places and things I find of interest not only to myself, but nouns I think you might find interesting, too. And the interesting nouns of which I write are here in the foothills of Appalachia.

Every now and then an inquiring feller will come across extraordinary achievement rendered by the vision of an ordinary person in the possession of having been nurturing, with the education and drive enabling the capacity to achieve goals and fortuned with longevity.

Sam McKinney (Photo provided)

My friend Sam McKinney is one of those ordinary but complex down-to-earth people that took his vision developed at an early age as the template used to carve out his professional niche on a knoll at the end of Gilliam Cemetery Road. Sam is an artist. Sam is an artist with the capacity to turn just about everything within his reach into art, including music and, of course, Serendipity. Serendipity is the name of this unique place providing shelter since 1975 and the personal studio and gallery where Sam has produced over 350 Portraits, somewhere between 25 and 35 sculptures of significance ranging from busts to monumental pieces on display in commercial arenas.

Sam’s diverse works are housed in the Rayburn Office Building at the Nation’s Capital, England, and Pyramid Hill International Sculpture Park in Hamilton, Ohio and scattered all over the country in private collections. Some of his work is featured in a book printed in both English and Chinese called, Masters in Landscape and Public Sculpture including the cover shot in 2012, part of a Landscape Design Series.

I guess it has been nearly 23 years since I met Sam. We were eating Chinese food here in Morehead at a now long-gone China Buffet that stood in the very same spot you can purchase a mobile building from Lowe’s today. I was introduced to Sam as a picker as was he to me, which led to Sam extending an invitation to Serendipity, his home and pickin’ parlor over on the fringe of Carter County, right along the Rowan County border and located at 13th and Plum, an address which translates: Take Kentucky 32 east out of Morehead up Christy Creek 13 miles, take a left and it is Plum out to the end of the road. Seriously.

Sam McKinney's homeplace, Serendipity (Photo provided)

Sam McKinney’s Home Place, Serendipity (Photo provided)

Today one is greeted by a massive log cabin complex serving as the home, studio and gallery for an internationally known artist possessing provincial talents honed to high level skills. The home of an artist producing every form of art from a charcoal drawing to a monumental sculpture with as much ease doing one as the other.

As it goes in this part of the country, when a feller also has a hankering for stringed instruments, in addition to being an art studio and gallery, Sam’s living room has also been a Pickin’ Parlor for over 30 years. I feel fortunate to be a tenured member. Upon spending some time in this region you will quickly discover the rarity of public venues for music, so knowing where to find a good Pickin’ Parlor is paramount to finding true happiness within one’s musical soul.

I am lucky to abide in an area with its fair share of musical alliances receiving their satisfaction in the cramped quarters of kitchens, porches and living rooms. And as the Good Lord Himself is my witness, this sprawling log structure purchased off site and relocated to become what is today Serendipity Studio, is an absolutely marvelous backdrop for Sam’s vast alliance of pickers, artists and writers to share and absorb creative energy, and on occasion a sip of tequila.

The thick log walls at Serendipity 200 years old have absorbed a lot of history since they were sawn at that Wolfe County sawmill in the 1840s with the gravy on the biscuits being all the marvelous pickin’ and singing since the mid-1970s with many a new acquaintance having been made over the years.

“Hey, our reality is just a big soup of vibrations which is why music has a universal understanding. Music has its own tones and vibrations, happy, sad, creating their own emotions. Just like a painting or a sculpture creates emotions through the sense of sight,” said Sam.

Sam went on to elaborate how he relates music and art, their parallels of primary, secondary and tertiary colors and notes and how those comprise the structure that gives them both shape. Music in these mountains has always been a catalyst behind the passion for life many from this region possess, and it is certainly a common characteristic within folks migrating here from afar who have chosen to adopt a slower pace in their lifestyle; a lifestyle where personal face-to-face relationships are still the norm and Serendipity has been a mecca for these unique, diverse, eclectic, and extraordinarily talented folks we call friends and neighbors for a while now. I have introduced a few pickers to Sam’s unique world who pretty much without exception are overwhelmed by the experience of the whole place on the first visit, resulting in no pickin’ and getting an evening’s tour with the stories and fellowship that accompanies such a time.

Sam tells me “in the beginning I was seeking shelter for my expectant family and serendipitously came across this place. There were no structures here and the road ended at the cemetery half mile back up what is now the road,” he explains pointing toward Kenny Ratcliff’s cabin. “I then sold parcels of land between the cemetery and here to Kenny and Steve Ratcliff and others in their family enabling me to fund the purchase of this cabin found in Wolfe County, Kentucky.”

This sprawling complex has origins in 18th and 19th century structures dismantled and moved here becoming Sam’s most complex site-specific work of art. “The 18th century structure that currently provides family living quarters was one of the early early prefabricated homes in Kentucky,” he said.

As Sam describes it: “a man named Doc Cockrell of English blue blood heritage, educated in New England as a doctor, came to what is now Wolfe County, purchasing 4,000 acres in the Red River Gorge area near Jericho. A man of much means, he built a water-powered sawmill and this cabin is a 1840s product of that mill. A local businessman owned the property, and I was able to buy and move it here after my friend L.C. Hoover had told me about it. My childhood friend Roy Tackett also came to Morehead State; he and I went to work preparing the cabin for transfer and preparing the site to accept construction.

Jubilance by Sam McKinney (Photo provided)

“Every single piece of the place is unique and contains the same effort and emotion I put into a piece of art,” said McKinney, adding “the place is a culmination of my life’s work that almost cost me my life. In the early 1990s, during construction of the gallery and studio addition, Sam severely injured a leg that was miraculously not lost but did take a year or so to heal.

“Good friends and loving hands helped me through that time,” McKinney says. He says there is no friend more loyal than that childhood friend from Fleming – Neon Roy Tackett. “Roy has helped me throughout the evolution of what is now Serendipity,” McKinney smiles as he speaks fondly of Roy T. “We started learning to play music together when we were seniors at the University, having moved from Letcher County in 1969. When this cabin thing began we about worked ourselves to death. Roy has been a faithful friend my whole life working only for food in those days.”

Roy Tackett can be heard on WMMT in Whitesburg, a station owned by Appalshop, and is a highly sought-after rhythm guitarist in the old-time genre playing festivals throughout the country. Some of this writer’s favorite memories are some all-night jam sessions that included Roy T, Stan Dixon, Tim Gilliam, Jamie and Jesse Wells, Sam, and, of course, myself. If some of those were only recorded I could prove my theory that Serendipity is a magical place.

In my experience of knowing Sam he has always been one to share his own experiences with both younger artists and aspiring pickers, a trait maybe picked up from spending time with one particular wordsmith of note. In the early 1980s after divorce, Sam was commissioned by Morehead State to do a portrait of James Still, the poet, novelist and folklorist. The commission came after Still donated manuscripts and such to the Camden-Carroll Library.

“At the time, James was in his mid-80s, so I was fortunate to spend quite a bit of time at Dead Mare Branch in Knott County, not only as an artist, but as an invited friend and travel companion visiting Central America exploring Mayan ruins and even once Cuba. One cannot help but evolve as a person when in the company of such an intellectual and mature soul. I learned a lot about life from him,” Sam says nodding in the affirmative.

Commissions such as the James Still project have made a steady path to the studio door over the years with the past dozen or so years being witness to McKinney taking on projects on a much larger scale. “I’ve created nine pieces for the King’s Daughter’s Medical Center since 2001 and have those two pieces, Adams First Breath and Wherefore Art Thou at Pyramid Hill,” says McKinney. A tour through the KDMC on Lexington Avenue in Ashland is well worth the trip just to take in the site-specific sculptures Sam has completed and installed there. The most recent wasBuckeye Nation unveiled in late January for the newly opened KDMC facility in Portsmouth, Ohio.

“As you know art is a feast or famine way of living, and I have had fortuitous culminations over the years enabling me to make my living doing this, but as I get older I find myself not as patient with the uncertainty” Sam explains while discussing possible plans to open Serendipity Studios to the public for classes on a limited basis. “I’ve spent my adult life teaching others as well as making my own way and think this may be a proper time to look into doing workshops here at Serendipity and would work to accommodate requests to do such,” McKinney says.

Flow of Life by Sam McKinney (Photo provided)

I was a little surprised to find that a musical legacy was not handed down from his parents, but instead the valuable ability to make things with his hands as Sam described to me. So what was it that inspired McKinney and his buddy Roy T to take up the guitar? “It was those weekly trips to the Holiday Inn North in Lexington to hear J.D. Crowe and the New South and hear Tony Rice play guitar. Hearing Tony Rice play guitar moved my soul to the point I knew I had to do it too and spent hours every day during that time learning his cross-picking style,” said McKinney, his eyes gleaming with that familiar look that emanates when recalling a pleasant memory.

As a side note, I was working as emcee at a festival a couple years back and was able to introduce Sam to his guitar hero Tony Rice after a show and yes, we do have a picture. One of Sam’s original instrumentals, Rototiller Reel was recorded by The Dead Presidents, a band from Chicago.

The last one-man art show featuring Sam’s work was 25 years ago at the Headly-Whitney Museum in Lexington so those wishing to see a collection of his work must come to his home. If you were to take a notion to breathe the rarified air at Serendipity, this knoll at the end of Gilliam Cemetery Road where Sam has created his own reality and niche, it would be worth your time.

Written by Tony Pence Copyright 2013

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