My father, Russell May, loved looking at the Floyd County,
Kentucky hills where he was born in 1921. He loved looking at creeks and trees,
old houses and barns, the greens of summer, white clouds in blue sky.
As a teenager he worked as a sign painter. In WWII he jumped into Europe as
a paratrooper for the 101st Airborne Division. During the war he also did some
design work for the army and afterwards attended a short course at the Chicago
But he returned to the Kentucky hills. After marrying in Maysville, Kentucky,
he and my mother, a native of southern Ohio, settled in Floyd County to raise
a family and open a sign shop. I grew up in Prestonsburg and witnessed his change
from sign painter to fine artist.
He began painting seriously in the 1960s when I was in high school, throwing
himself into it with his usual intensity. In 1972 Dad studied in Austria with
German-speaking artist Gerhard Nesvadba. He worked with Nesvadba for several months,
paintbrush and oil pigments their only common language.
Back in Kentucky, he began publishing limited edition prints. His subjects
were southern Appalachian landscapes and folk buildings, especially barns and
log cabins. He painted a series of barns with ads on their sides: Bull Durham,
Clabber Girl, See Rock City. Other prints depict country schoolhouses, sawmills,
watermills, country stores, coal tipples, small churches, covered bridges, apple
butter making, and baptizing. He documented his vision of Southern Appalachia’s
vanishing rural architecture, its fading folk culture, and the natural environment
that he remembered from childhood.
In the 1970s and 1980s he worked long hours six days a week, both in his Prestonsburg
studio and gallery where he gave lessons, demonstrated technique, and talked with
visitors, as well as on the road exhibiting at shows and teaching workshops, including
one at Hindman Settlement School. One of his proudest achievements was being a
Kentucky Heritage Artist.
In his last spring, on a cold April day in 1990, he sat outside, a blanket
on his lap, looking at the hills. He pointed out the pinks and oranges of sunset.
He showed me the surprising red-tipped buds of spring. He helped me see what he
saw, and taught me to love what was right in front of my eyes.
by Kathy May, from Appalachian Heritage magazine, Summer 2007, which
also contains reproductions of Russell May prints. Go to www.berea.edu/appalachianheritage.