James Harold Jennings was a visionary artist and well-known eccentric in his hometown of Pinnacle, North Carolina. And, perhaps, the American brand of fear, fatalism, and nihilism.
At the end, in April of 1999, James Harold Jennings was still good to the stray cats. They’d been around, keeping him company—how long? He couldn’t say. The cats had come and gone and come again over the twenty-five years since his mother died in 1974. There were calicos and browns and blacks, cats with green eyes and brown eyes and yellow eyes that flashed red in the night. There were mommas and babies and old tomcats, ten or twelve at any one time, skulking near his seven broken-down buses out on Perch Road in Pinnacle, North Carolina, where he lived without plumbing or electricity. The cats walked around his painted wooden sculptures, his leaning, silver-painted shacks, the sawhorses and piles of sawdust, the rusted, old saws, the shiny, new saws, chisels, boring tools, hand sanders, cans of paint, paint brushes, rain-filled five-gallon buckets, rags, and mixing sticks from the hardware store in King.
He let the strays eat the crusts from his ham sandwiches. He let them drink the foam from his cans of Miller beer. He let them have the dregs from the bottom of a cold can of generic pinto beans—two for a dollar at the Panda grocery down the road.
Those last days it was just James and the cats. They saw him as he walked around the property, which had been in his family since before his birth in 1931. He still carried brushes and pencils and pens in his multiple leather belts and pouches, which he slung around his hard, thin body, over his shoulders, and he had his portable radio hanging around his neck, bouncing on his bony chest as he stepped over refuse, boards, and discarded art materials. For years, he had listened mostly to country music, but now, agitated, fairly humming, he only tuned in to AM fire-and-brimstone preachers and right-wing talk shows and news of the impending collapse of everything at the coming millennium—computers blinking to sleep because of something about zeros, financial crashes, runs on banks, no travel possible except on foot or bike or horse because the gas would run out, no phones or other communication, violence in the streets, starvation, chaos, maybe even tanks right here on these rolling hills in Stokes County, in the once great Confederate State of North Carolina.
He kept his revolver in a holster on his hip. But he never pointed his gun at a cat. He only pointed it at shadows and noises and his own thoughts racing around in his skull.
James Harold Jennings’s father was a blacksmith and veterinarian. He died in 1934 when James was three. Veterinarians, back then, and in that part of the country, were often simply people—sometimes licensed, sometimes not—with the skills needed to stitch up farm dogs, birth calves and pigs, tell you when one sick rooster might infect your whole coop, set a horse’s or mule’s foot or leg to see if the owner could keep from shooting it, which was, finally, an economic issue.
He didn’t do well—socially or academically. Not a bad kid, but just “a mess,” as people in North Carolina like to say.
And back then, of course, you could get yourself properly deceased with, say, gingivitis, or appendicitis, or a mean dose of bronchitis on a damp night, or tetanus from farm fencing, or the pooling internal bleeding from a wrong-set broken bone, the whole limb getting a little green, then purple, then here comes a fever, but oh you’ll probably be alright just before they find you at room temperature in the morning. For most of our short American history, people have been dropping dead with profound ease, no more permanent than summer mud puddles or brittle fall leaves.
James couldn’t remember his real dad.
James’s mother was a schoolteacher, loving toward James by all accounts. We should remember, though, that “loving” back then, and in that part of the country (my own family is from the piedmont of North Carolina), might mean it was your parental duty to beat a child severely about the back and rear and legs with a good, whip-like switch for wetting the bed or some other unavoidable small-person infraction. But she took care of him and his brother through the depression, keeping up, as best she could, and with what help she had, their small tobacco farm. Later, tarried by the daily tasks of farming, she rented the fields to tenant farmers. Eventually she married a man from King—a town magistrate she probably met at church, the main social event of the week—and rented out the farmhouse and fields. The family moved to King, which was the big city to James, though it only had a population of a few thousand. It had an official public school (not just a schoolhouse) full of town kids, a movie house, streets filled with cars. James was ten.
School wasn’t his thing. He was such a nervous kid, like a scared cat in his way, ready to run heart-hammering fast away from danger, and when other kids, big kids, with their booming voices and laughing and confidence, came streaming down school hallways, he felt a little wave of panic, just a touch, run up him like a fast current. He didn’t do well—socially or academically. Not a bad kid, but just “a mess,” as people in North Carolina like to say. Finally, his mother let him quit school when he was twelve, which was not so unusual in those days, and she homeschooled him at the house in King, taught him what he needed to know.
Though organized education wasn’t for him, he was an avid reader throughout his life, and as a teenager, homebound by his moods and ingrained fear of life, he read Popular Mechanics and National Geographic and how-to books and journals, along with all that his mother assigned him—science, history, novels.
You wouldn’t have been able to tell that he had probably read a lot more books than you had, or that he could take your refrigerator apart. . . and use the parts for a wholly different machine that he could quickly design—something with wings.
He made his own radios and little engines and gadgets, one after the other, always doodling with something, which gave him purpose, kept him focused. Without that, his mind might have gone into overdrive, thoughts just pinging off the walls.
When not working on little machines, he liked to read dictionaries, flip through and learn new words, the meaning of things. At some point as a young man, though he was a supporter of the Republican party and a Protestant Christian to the end (like almost all of his neighbors), he became interested in books on the occult and magic—astral projection, metempsychosis, the idea of harnessing all the raw energy of the universe. In 1986, after his work started to be known in Southern outsider art circles, he told Steven Litt of the Raleigh News & Observer that what truth there was in the Bible was in astrology, though what he meant by that was never made clear. He said: “You can get down on your knees and pray for what you want, and if it comes, it comes, but it won’t be from God.”
He continued to live with his family through his thirties, had to really, but he had jobs. He was known around town as an oddball maybe, “Red Jennings” with the freckles and red ponytail, but he came from a good, loving home and he wasn’t dangerous or a bother to anyone. Decent fella. A loner, was all. Every small town in America has a few.
If you were driving north out of Winston-Salem and sailed through the main drag of King, past the shops and grocery and hardware, you might have thought him a homeless guy, and you wouldn’t have been able to tell that he had probably read a lot more books than you had, or that he could take your refrigerator apart and put it back together again, or maybe just take it apart and use the parts for a wholly different machine that he could quickly design—something with wings.
He worked for a time picking tobacco, which was filthy, hard work and not for him. Then he got a job at a lumber yard as a night watchman, which was better and which gave him his days for sleeping and working on projects and reading up on Indians and history and religion.
In the late ’60s, he worked as a projectionist at the local cinema. He understood machines, little, whirring electrical engines, so he fed film and fixed problems like a master in a room above the theater. No one bothered him. It was his kingdom behind a heavy door that smelled of metal and oil.
He started drinking whiskey daily, then mixing it with huge amounts of caffeine so he didn’t fall asleep in the projection room, then, oh, say doubling or tripling the whiskey for good measure, then quadrupling the stimulants.
He liked machines, and his body, after all, was a lot like one, so he got to where he was testing its capacity for extremes. How much could one take of depressants and stimulants at the same time before the engine went kaput? How fast could a heart beat? How many thoughts could a mind have at one time before these tangled thoughts shot out on a beam of light through the theater air and crashed into the screen?
He had a nervous breakdown in his late thirties—a series of what we’d now call panic attacks related to depression and anxiety. It scared him. He didn’t want to be crazy. He didn’t want to get stuck in that kind of misery. He quit whiskey and stimulants. He quit work. He quit driving. He bathed less than frequently. He started riding a bike around town, wearing the same dirty pants and flannels and T-shirts and old stocking or brimmed caps. He sometimes collected cans, took them to the redemption center for a little pocket money, enough to get a moon pie or a six-pack of Miller. He still lived with his mother and stepfather, but one would imagine relationships might have been getting a little frayed. If you know small towns in North Carolina, then you know the neighbors were talking.
But after a breakdown, you’re buzzing and life is twice as hard as it was before. Hard to look into a person’s eyes. Hard to be seen. Hard to speak. That thing that’s come up that you need to do, that you usually think of as a simple thing—how hard, how impossible, is that going to be? Jesus!
You spend time alone. You have to. You try not to think so much as you think so much about trying not to think so much. You’re a prisoner and your own prison guard.
A year after his breakdown, James’s stepfather died. He and his mother left King and went back to Pinnacle, to the farmhouse. In 1973, his mother, with whom he had had a very close relationship all his life, went into an elderly care facility. He once said she had taught him all he needed to know. A year later, when James was forty-three, she died, leaving her two sons the farmhouse, land, and enough inheritance for James not to have to work to support his near-pauper’s lifestyle, which he called “living kind of low, like the Amish.”
He could afford a six-pack of Miller every day and have his favorite lunch: A “Miller sandwich,” two Millers with one in between.
James lived by himself in the farmhouse, which had no indoor plumbing, electricity, or telephone. He rose with the sun and retired with the dusk. He believed in the logic and cycles of nature. If you were in tune with them, they taught you how to live and behave; you live like an animal, which, of course, is what you are.
He later began to call himself the “Artist of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars.”
Grief, isolation, and loneliness, sparked the art, as it has for so many outsider artists.
He began to construct a series of interconnected, small shacks not far from the house, which he painted silver, which may have had something to do with his interest in astrology and the occult. He used scrap wood to begin his first “whirligigs”—wind-powered constructions that ranged from windmills to Ferris-wheel-like structures as big as a man to wood cutouts of brightly painted animals such as turtles and snakes. At first, he used paint discarded by homeowners and returned to the hardware store, often with the color labels torn off or paint-smudged, so there was no color coordination or “palette” selection beyond what was cheap and available.
In the mid-’70s, the artist Randy Sewell, having driven by and seen the ever growing art presentation, began to purchase some of these pieces from Jennings, who did not at first see himself as an artist at all. More like an inventor with a lot of time on his hands, someone Popular Mechanics might write about. But he liked the attention. And the money allowed him to choose the paint he wanted, buy some better tools (though nothing electric), and have more cheap brushes around. He refined the look of his work. He could afford a six-pack of Miller every day and have his favorite lunch: A “Miller sandwich,” two Millers with one in between.
In 1985, as word about Jennings got around the communities of collectors in the South and mid-Atlantic, the important outsider art scholar, historian, and curator Tom Patterson chose several of Jennings’s pieces to be included in the show “Southern Visionary Folk Artists,” which opened in nearby Winston-Salem and included works by the better-known Howard Finster and Sam Doyle.
Outsider artists don’t often get “better,” in the way we might define that in academia or curatorial culture; they get more.
By then, Jennings’s art had found its cartoonish style, and he was making his bright, person-sized, multi-piece, quasi-mechanical figures painted in his distinctive sky blue, with other bold primary colors vying for attention. He was perhaps most famous for his series of “Amazon” women beating up men who seem to have tried to take advantage of them. In one of his finer works, “The Devil Gits Sat On,” a powerful woman, not unlike an image of his youthful mother, has the devil’s head in a professional wrestling leg lock. The background is his choice blue, as usual, with two intricate, vaguely American Indian circular designs, each made of smaller circles in orange, white, green, yellow, red, and lighter blue, framing the proceedings. Above the Amazon’s left shoulder is a white cat looking out at the viewer.
Like almost every outsider artist you could name, he obsessively reconfigured a finite series of images and motifs from his immediate outer and inner worlds. And like almost every outsider artist you could name, he did not “evolve” much technically or aesthetically. He found a way to express what he needed, psychologically, to express. Then he did it over and over and over again. Outsider artists don’t often get “better,” in the way we might define that in academia or curatorial culture; they get more.
By the late ’80s, Jennings had abandoned the farmhouse completely and moved into a lot down the hill, which was bordered on one side by the road, two sides by woods, and one side by one of his rented out tobacco fields. He now lived in what was, at least for a time, one of the most famous outsider art environments in the South.
He eventually accumulated seven run-down church and school buses. He lined them up around the perimeter, the way pioneers circled wagons to protect their camps. None of the buses was legal to drive. In front and around them were elaborate and numerous wooden cutouts of figures and animals, small and large whirligigs, and other hard-to-define contraptions. All of which was inspired by his individual brand of religion, which mixed Protestantism of the South with New Age notions about astrology, goddesses, and even shamanistic conceptions of time and reality.
He continued to wake at sunrise and retire into one of the buses at dusk to sleep, stopping work during the day only to eat, have a few Miller beers, and feed and pet the crowd of stray cats.
In hindsight, it is easy to see that toward the end, in the late ’90s, he was suffering from deep depression and paranoia about the coming millennium. He accepted fewer visitors, was suspicious of those who came. His mind and emotional life had always been partly broken, and he spent almost all of his final time listening to the apocalyptic news of our coming destruction. He didn’t—couldn’t—assess the way media and fear-mongering commentary work as an unavoidable part of American culture, as you might. Hate, anger, truth-bending, open lies—they are now just another strain in the mega information overload pop culture of our times. We are all shaped by this reality, of course. But he was a fragile soul, like a child really, a person who could never function as a “normal” citizen of our society. He believed every awful word, day after bad news day.
On April 20, 1999, his sixty-eighth birthday, he shot himself in the head, scattering the crowd of cats into the woods and under the buses. This was the same day Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris took automatic weapons and homemade bombs into a high school in Columbine, Colorado, and murdered twelve fellow students and a teacher and then finally killed themselves in the library. Though these incidents may seem unrelated, I can’t help but notice they both have a particularly American brand of fear, fatalism, and nihilism at their heart. We’re good at producing many things here in the United States, including bombs, monsters, distorted thinking, nonsense, and some very confused, desperate people.
The poet Jonathan Williams tells this story in his obituary for Jennings that ran in The Independent of London on May 3, 1999: He was visiting Jennings in Pinnacle in the mid-’80s. Two collectors from Michigan showed up to look around the buses and grounds, to inquire about purchasing some art. Jennings was always polite to visitors back then. He let them poke around as if he were a store owner.
One of the collectors asked Jennings why he painted, why he worked so hard and made so many assemblages and sculptures, enough to fill a large warehouse.
Jennings, filthy and paint-covered, looked at them, tightened his ponytail, thought for a moment, then smiled and said: “Well, boys, you know there’s a whole lot of company in what I do. I never ever get lonely… That’s because my art is something they call visionary art.”
Greg Bottoms is the author of a memoir, Angelhead, a documentary narrative, The Colorful Apocalypse: Journeys in Outsider Art (both from the University of Chicago Press), and three collections of autobiographical essays and stories, including the forthcoming Swallowing the Past: Scenes from the Postmodern South (Texas Review).
Photographs courtesy Michael Smith / At Home Folk Art Gallery