JIMMY WRIGHT is a successful and acclaimed artist who lives and works in New York City. He and I met almost sixty years ago when we were both contending with the leftover dregs of the 1950s and the fatuity of the second-rate Kentucky teacher’s college where we’d ended up. The unrelenting pressure of those Cold War times, the vapid tyranny of that red dirt abecedary, and the oppression of their combined agendas kept trying to undermine us. We were draft age and the evil American god of war had us in its sights. We both still had the Jesus monkey on our backs, were awash in our deeply repressed outlaw queerness, and always harbored anarchic schemes on our neural back burners. An inscrutable future was impending. All the harbingers were inauspicious. Things looked bleak because they were.
After two preliminary years, Jimmy—I will refer to him by his first name given my personal connection to him—transferred from that Bluegrass backwater to the Art Institute of Chicago, from which he graduated with an honors degree. After taking an MFA at Southern Illinois University, he packed his battered suitcase and headed to New York City.
Starry-eyed artists and writers from flyover states gravitate to New York looking for fame; but not Jimmy Wright. He had come to immerse himself in the newly budding gay culture and find out what it had to show him. The all-embracing ubiquity of New York City being what it was and is, that oracular show-and-tell would be providential both in its bounty and in the impressions inspired by its infinite variety. Jimmy was eager to explore the harlequin mosaic of queer diversity. He had all the skills necessary to turn those impressions into art. Jimmy Wright was born an artist.
Jimmy was always called Jimmy. Growing up on a farm in Western Kentucky, a boy learns many things: how to catch, clean, and cook a fish, where milk comes from, and even how to turn a hog into pork chops. In the country there are a million things you get to know and collect. By the time he started grade school, Jimmy had already assembled an impressive collection of pencils, pens, crayons (the box of sixty-four), watercolors, and hopscotch chalks. In the fall, winter, and spring his focus was the art class at school where he was learning to draw and paint, and during the overheated summer it was all about skinny-dipping in the creek like Huckleberry Finn.
Folks in rural Kentucky know where they came from, who their near relations are, and how the pecking order works. It doesn’t take long for a country boy to find out what’s expected of him and which church pew he’s supposed to occupy on Sunday. If the family pew happens to be vacant some Sunday morning, church ladies are very likely to come calling. When expectations are conciliated you receive modest praise at home, good grades for your drawing efforts at school, and a pat on the head by the preacher after church. These are things that help you get by. And, learning to artfully conciliate the estimations of the always suspicious church ladies means you’re starting to flex your testosterone.
Church is fundamental in western Kentucky, the fundamentalist ones in particular, more so than all the competition put together. Jimmy knew that certain relatives had paved the way for him to attend a church college in Tennessee. The preacher had always singled him out for that pat on the head, and when he got older, a firm handshake and maybe even a pat on the back. Jimmy knew the clock was ticking. Since he already had things figured out and had made his own plans, Jimmy dodged artfully.
Jimmy Wright’s upbringing in that colorful and idiosyncratic bluegrass backwater left a lasting impression which he was eventually able to both transcend and make prodigious use of in his early drawings and paintings. When he presented his portfolio of those first works to the department head in the art section at the nearby teacher’s college, Murray State, Jimmy was granted a full scholarship, the second one he’d been awarded. The first one had been for formal bible instruction at the church college in Tennessee. Since Jimmy now had two scholarships to choose from, Old Testament retrospection lost out to a higher calling. Jimmy had made up his mind. He was all about art.