Monday, October 08, 2007

The Museum of Appalachia: Exhibit on Harrison Mayes

One of my favorite trip destinations is the Museum of Appalachia, located conveniently off I75 Just north of Knoxville. It's an homage to mountain folk...and it's a pretty extensive facility, with a complete village, a large exhibit barn, and two whole houses full of memorabilia.

There are a dozen or so stories I could tell from this museum, but the one that continually catches my attention is that of Harrison Mayes. Mayes worked in a coal mine, and as a young man, he was nearly crushed by a runaway coal car. While he struggled for his life, Mayes made a deal with God that if God saved him, he'd serve God all the rest of his life.

Unlike other such deal makers, Mayes made good on it. He tried preaching and quickly found that he had no talent nor taste for it. He was a man who worked with his hands. So he took paint and painted "Sin Not" on the side of his family's free range pig. Soon he was painting holy graffiti on anything he could get his hands on. And not long afterward, he came upon the idea of making large concrete signs. He made his mold out of wood, and then he had entered the world of mass production.

He placed his signs all along the highways of post WWII America. Remember, this was pre-interstate days. An era of getting kicks on Route 66. An era celebrated with nostalgia by Pixar's movie Cars. It was a time when travel by road was an adventure with discoveries along the way, rather than a task to be checked off in as little time as possible. Mayes' signs became part of the adventure...right alongside "See Rock City" and other type roadside attention getters.

And Mayes was good at what he did. He put thousands of these things up all over the country. By the time he quit (incapacitated by old age), his work was erected in 44 states of the union! But his dreams were bigger. Some of his crosses were marked to be delivered to other nations...even the moon, and other planets as mankind spread out into space. This man dreamed big! He built his house in the shape of the cross and designed religous symbolism into every design element.

How did he pay for this passion of his? He worked double shifts at the coal mine. His painting in vivid reds attracted the attention of a Georgia based sugar water company, named Coca-Cola. They hired him to paint metal signs that went up in country stores. Some churches donated money to this unique mission. He was also a true ecumenical soul. Check out this heart shaped slab with his creed:

"My religion is Catholic, Protestant, Jew. My politic, Democrat, Republican. Languages, I recommend one for all nations. Races, I recommend all in one yellow, white, and black." His son says he'd worship in any church with any type of people.

Mayes life and work show me several things:

1) what one man can accomplish when he has a big enough vision

2) an urgency to tell people about Christ

3) an unassuming nature...he didn't have to make things slick and tricky. This is part of the warmth of Appalachian folkcraft. It's heartfelt and warm ... not cold and cynical.

I'm not quite ready to start casting cement, but I sure am inspired....

For further reading, see this article by Fred Brown.
Read David Ray Smith's article (with more photos)
See the artwork of Linda Arnold Miller -- inspired by Mayes

Soli Deo Gloria