Our ancestors here wove flax and wool to make their clothing and coverlets; they used bellows and fire to weld a fire box, make shoes for their horses and mules. They shaped and fired clay pots to store drink and food. There were those who painted portraits of their loved ones before cameras and their photographs were common. Some of their descendants are still here and carrying forward these skills. And they have helped make our home here an art center. But as the years have passed we forget that what artists hold dear today began with our fore bearers. And that artists far from here were drawn to this beautiful place; maybe because of them.
And as always there were people meeting up who will change our lives forever. One such meeting happened in 1935. It was a time of change for everyone. Change is hard for some and for the people in Mitchell and McDowell County in the 1930s it was no different. The whole country was in a state of flux with jobs and fortunes lost and some of the common folk were searching for food and even shelter. But in this place we could grow our food, cut wood for our fires, and maybe get a few coins to buy oil for our lamps. We also had ‘summer’ people from Charlotte and as far away as Florida and New York City bringing their families here, giving us jobs and in some cases welcoming our produce and mountain ways.
We need to imagine the time. Roads were being grubbed out with the help of strong oxen, roadways and mines were worked with men blasting with dynamite then digging out and deep with only light from their lanterns. But the lowland people living here have become part of their lives, too. One such woman, a spinster and an important personage in our road system and our state of North Carolina, invited a young man, Paul W. Whitener, from Hickory, N. C. to stay with her while he took a job with the road people.
Paul W. Whitener was a student and football player at Duke University. Called ‘the galloping ghost’ because of his speed carrying the ball, he had suffered a serious head injury in a game and was hospitalized. There he met Harriet Morehead Berry, who became known as the Mother of Good Roads in North Carolina. She invited Paul to stay with her in the Little Switzerland cottage she owned while he was working nearby. He would be introduced to Mildred Missouri McKinney (calling herself Missouri), a promising art student, by Carrie Buchanan, Missouri’s cousin who assisted Mrs. Berry at her home. (This home was built by Missouri’s dad, Fons McKinney, who would build many of the summer homes here.) This young couple would marry and move to Hickory, returning to visit her parents in Little Switzerland often.
Missouri was taking art lessons from Frank Stanley Herring of New York City who had been summering in Little Switzerland with his wife Frances since about 1929 or 1930 when they met. He taught at Grand Central Art School and was delighted to find many models for his portraits here. He met Jane and Fons McKinney and their family early as his portraits show: a pencil drawing of Jane’s mother, Nancy Deweese Buchanan (1842-1935); an oil on canvas of three of their daughters, Ida, Thelma and Missouri, 1929; a water color of Missouri, 1932; oil on canvas of Missouri (now Mickey) in her wedding dress being hemmed by Frances Herring and her cousin, 1936; oil on canvas of Mickey wearing a floral dress, 1938.
While they were dating, Paul became interested and began painting some, using her paint box. She introduced him to Mr. Herring. After their marriage in 1936, noting his talent, Herring suggested Paul take lessons at Ringling School of Art’s summer program at Wildacres, where he had classes with Herring and Donald Blake. And this couple met another well-known portrait artist, Wilford S. Conrow, also from New York City, who summered near Waynesville, NC. With these artists’ instruction and encouragement and with the help of influential Catawba County business people, this young couple made The Hickory Museum of Art a reality in 1944. It was the second art museum founded in North Carolina.
Today, 73 years later, a young mountain girl from Mitchell County, Mildred Missouri McKinney (Whitener, Coe) and a young man from Catawba County, Paul Austin Wayne Whitener, have a legacy unfolding at this museum. Beginning Thursday, July 27-January 21, 2018, in The Paul Whitener Gallery, this story will be told in portraits and landscapes by Frank Stanley Herring, Wilford S. Conrow, Donald Blake and Paul Whitener as they painted together in these ‘The Early Days.’ Admission is free in this and other galleries, including the large Coe Gallery, named in honor of Mildred Missouri McKinney Whitener Coe, who served as Executive Director of this museum for 37 years after Paul Whitener’s early death in 1959. You are invited. Story contributed by Pat Turner Mitchell.