By Bob Heafner © 1984-2012
Issue: February, 1984
From a childhood of Appalachian poverty, Willard Gayheart has drawn from his memories to capture the very things that have given mountain people the strength to endure any adversity. His pencil drawings reflect not only the likeness of his subjects but the fabric of the mountain spirit as well. There is a detail to each of his drawings that upon first glance, one would attribute only to photography. However, closer inspection reveals an essence that camera and film cannot reproduce. His drawing of Phipps Bourne, the Mabry Mill blacksmith known to thousands as “Festus,” creates an atmosphere for the beholder where the ring of the hammer on the anvil and the smell of the smoke from the forge are as vivid and real as “Festus” himself.
Willard was born June 5, 1932 in the rough and tumble area outside Hazard, Kentucky, in the isolated community of Cordia. There, on Lotts Creek, a love of mountain people and their ways was instilled in him and has never wavered.
He attended Cordia High School where his teacher Ms. Alice Sloan, encouraged him to continue his education and artistic endeavors. Looking back today, Willard attributes Ms. Sloan with being one of the major motivational forces in his life. While attending Cordia High School, Willard had the task of starting the fires each morning in the school’s four pot-bellied stoves. He was paid for his work and his teacher saved the money for him. By the end of the school, year, he had accumulated $3.00, just enough to buy an old used guitar. With only basic instruction from his mother, the 12 year old Willard quickly learned the Appalachian folk songs and his creative abilities were channeled into this musical direction, a direction he still follows today. He has been a member of “The Highlanders,” a well known bluegrass band for over 10 years and not only picks the guitar and sings, but writes many of the songs himself. On one album, 5 out of the 10 songs were written by him. All the songs written by Willard reflect his experiences and love for the mountain way of life.
After graduating from high school at the age of 16, among a graduating class of ten, he began his freshman year at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky. He was only 17, backwards and scared of the environment of college life. Fresh out of a mountain hollow, it seemed to him that his mountain roots were a handicap here among the sophisticated college atmosphere. One class, English Composition, still remains among the most valuable of his college experiences. His teacher, a Miss Faulkner, encouraged him to be himself, but in spite of her encouragement, he tried to hide his mountain roots and each composition and theme was written about city experiences of which he knew nothing about. Miss Faulkner, sensing his shyness regarding his roots encouraged him continually, saying, “You’ve got to be yourself.” Needless to say, he failed the course the first year and three-fourths of the way through the second year, it looked as if he was going to fail again.
Finally, during the last semester, with only one remaining theme required, he heeded Miss Faulkner’s advice. His theme was entitled “Raising Corn in Eastern Kentucky” and so impressed Miss Faulkner that she asked and was allowed to keep it. Miss Faulkner’s constant advice of “you’ve got to be yourself” had finally gotten through to Willard. It was a lesson which he has never forgotten. In the theme, he told of plowing new ground behind a mule and gathering up the rocks and planting the seed. He told of a life he knew and the words flowed onto the paper. At last he was being himself. Talking with him today, it is readily apparent that he is a product of the mountains who will always be himself and proud of his mountain past. Today Willard Gayheart is manager of Arnold’s Variety Store in Galax, Virginia. He still makes music with “The Highlanders” and his love of mountain music is a deep and sincere one. But an event in 1974 has since changed his entire life.
In was in 1974 that his church, Mt. Olivet United Methodist, joined with other area churches for a “Lords Acre” sale. Willard made two small pencil drawings as his contribution to be sold at the sale. He had always been creative but these first pencil drawings brought a newfound way of expressing his love of the mountains creatively. They were snapped up by appreciative buyers at the sale and Willard says today, “I was really surprised at myself,” referring to his newly found artistic gift.
Many of his subjects today are mountain musicians but not all. The common denominator of each of his drawings is that they are of mountain people. He prefers to draw people rather than buildings because he says, “Buildings only reflect the people who built them and I like to see the people themselves.”
As a resident of Carroll County for the past 22 years, Willard readily attributes his church as being one of the best influences on his life to date. He works six days a week, eight hours a day as a store manager, but he is quick to admit that his heart is in his drawing, not in his store. That his heart is in his drawings goes without saying for those who have witnessed his ability.
The mountains have long been noted for the talent and qualities of character they evoke from their residents. Willard Gayheart exemplifies both the talent and the character of his mountain beginnings. He is primarily a self-taught artist who, with his pencil, can capture the spirit of “mountain folk” on paper in a way that is, in itself, a testimony of what mountain spirit really is - a way of life that demands the very best of an individual’s efforts, and rewards those efforts with a “home” where roots of love run deep. Willard Gayheart is preserving a departing way of life for future generations to glimpse and envy, and he’s doing it in a soft spoken, unpretentious way - the mountain way.
His original works and prints, such as the portrait of Phipps Bourne, are increasingly becoming more and more sought after by collectors. The prints are limited to only 250 of each original. The beautifully reproduced prints measure approximately 14x20 inches and currently sell for less than $30.00 each. Each print is individually signed and dated by him.
We do not often make predictions in The Mountain Laurel and this will be an exception - but one day, we predict, Willard Gayheart will be recognized as one of Appalachia’s leading artists; from the depression era, poverty ridden coal fields of eastern Kentucky, his life has brought him to “The Heart of the Blue Ridge.” Now at slightly over 50 years old, he is emerging as “The Rockwell of the Mountains.” Who can help but hope that his dream of someday being able to devote full time, “To exploring mountain back roads and capturing on paper what I see,” will become a reality as well as a lasting gift of mountain heritage to each of us. His work is currently on display and available for purchase at Arnold’s Variety Store, located on Main Street in Galax, Virginia, and the Mountain House Restaurant’s “Gallery Room” in Meadows of Dan, where the work of many other local artists is also on display.
Willard invites written inquiries regarding his work to be addressed to Willard Gayheart, PO Box 605, Galax, Virginia 24333. He occasionally does specific work on request, but he insists that it must be in keeping with the mountain themes which he strictly adheres to.