Ward Nichols, already into the conversation before we started recording: …the coalfields of southern West Virginia. My wife was a North Carolina girl and I moved down here after being here often with her family, liked it, stayed, she died, and a good friend of mine, director of the art gallery in Wilkesboro that I knew for 16 years, her husband died. So we are now Mr. and Mrs. and it worked out great.
Cara Ellen Modisett: It did! Congratulations! How long have you all been married now?
WN: Twenty years! They said it would never last.
CEM: They did? Really?
WN: I don’t know, there’s 11 years difference may have had some influence there, but uh… we kid each other about that. It was a funny sorta situation, we were trying to be real clever and sneaky with everything, and it didn’t work very well [laughs]. She had a background in the arts, and taught art at the college, so she understood my quirks and I understood hers, and it was just a perfect match.
CEM: Do you have quirks?
WN: I don’t think I do! Now she, she will argue different. But probably I’m too much of a perfectionist. And I’m striving for something that’s impossible, really, and I think it shows in my work, people will comment on the detail.
CEM: Very, very realistic and almost photorealism in your…
WN: When I started out, no one was painting that way. And this was 41 years ago. I mean, I actually started out earlier than that, but in trying to make a living with the arts. Everybody was suggesting details, rather than painting it. And I admired that, but I could never leave it alone – I could never say “I’m through” without adding the detail. So I envy people that can suggest it, but I’m one of the people that I have to paint it. Anyway, that’s how I ended up doing… and I said that I started out, well, I’ve been painting 41 years, full-time professionally, but as corny as it sounds, my mother gave me an oil painting set one Christmas. And I sat down Christmas day and painted, copied, a reproduction we had on the wall. And I now have that painting in my studio, that my mother kept it all these years. Now, I really don’t know if I’ve improved a lot or not! [laughs] ‘Cause it was a good, honest, sincere effort at the time, and the best I could do, and there was a certain freedom to it that I’ve lost in the process.
CEM: Really? Is that… it’s probably easy to do, the more you train and the more you work on your art.
WN: Yeah, I talk to a lot of older artists, and they say, you know, it looks like the older you get, the easier it would become. And it just keeps on getting tougher and tougher and tougher. And I think it’s the fact that we’re more critical now, that we can see more wrong with what we’re… this friend of mine, well, it’s just like mountain climbing. Regardless of how many years you’ve done it, you’re still climbing that mountain, you’re still going up, and I think it’s the same thing.
CEM: It struck me before, when I’ve talked with you, that you are a little bit of a documentarian, and I remember you told me a story about a barn that we… that we included on the cover of our November/December Blue Ridge Country, as an example that you try to capture things before they disappear. I wonder if you would talk about that.
WN: Well, I feel like at times I’m a documentary painter, because so often I’ll go back to the same subject 10, 15 years later, and it’s no longer standing – it’s gone. And I feel like in a way I’ve saved that barn, or that subject. And in Wilkes County, where I’m from, the barn is such a familiar part of the landscape that they’re protected by the sense that they’re so common. People look at a barn and don’t think twice about it. But age does catch up with them, and I really feel like I’m doing something in a documentary fashion by painting that rural scene. I’m known sorta as a barn painter, which I said I’ve yet to determine if it’s a compliment or not, you know, but as people will say that because they’re so familiar with my reproductions, which are usually of a rural nature, because that’s what they want to buy, and that’s what you produce for the home décor and so on, but I really do a lot of other things that people would not recognize as my work at all.
CEM: I know you’ve done quite a bit of abstract work, too.
WN: Yeah, abstract, nonobjective – I’m into a real strange mood now, where I’ve done, I’m doing something I’ve never done before, and it’s people. Faces.
CEM: Who are the people?
WN: Nobody in particular. I invent ‘em. They’re based on people I know – you might end up in one one time [laughs]! But it’s just fun doing it. I’m not doing portraits at all. I call ‘em character studies. They’ve been a whole lot of fun to do.
CEM: When you start one, do you know who it is before you start, or who inspired it?
WN: No – I’m doing one now, and it keeps looking like Jack Nicholson – and I don’t want him to look like Jack Nicholson, you know! I don’t want people to look at it and can identify anybody. So I’m gonna have to add a moustache, or glasses or something to him [laughs]. But just in the back of my mind, I see Jack Nicholson in that thing.
CEM: Are you selling these right now?
WN: None have been exhibited. I’m having this show next month, in Wilkes Art Gallery, and I’ll have about 10 of ‘em on exhibit there – we’ll see what kind of reaction I get to ‘em! But the odd thing about ‘em is only half of a face. And as strange as that sounds, it came to me in a dream. I dreamed I had done a painting, and down in the lower right-hand corner was just half a face.
CEM: Like, what’s – is the other half just in shadow, or…
WN: In this particular one, the other half was behind the frame –
CEM: Got it.
WN: Just right in the corner. And I thought about that for a long time – why in the world was I dreaming that? And I keep coming up with different theories.
CEM: What are some of them?
WN: [laughs] Well, one, one is I feel like we never know somebody completely. That everybody has their little secret, past or present, that we never know the complete person. So I’m not painting the whole person, I only paint part of that person that we might be familiar with. But there’s that other portion that we don’t know and probably never know. So that’s my latest theory.
CEM: Have you ever shown up in any of your pictures of people?
WN: Uh, no – I’ve done reproductions – I did one called “Sunday Morning” which was of a Civil War period home, and there’s a swing on the front porch, and I thought, “you know, it’d be nice to be in that swing,” so I put myself in that swing. But that’s as close as I’ve come.
CEM: Does it bother you to have to think about, when you’re painting, will this sell? Is this what my audience is interested in, or will…
WN: No, no. I never think of that. And it’s an ego thing, I know, but I’m trying to please myself. I’m painting what I want to. And for that reason, I think I’m probably the luckiest person in the world to be able to do that. But, no, I don’t think, is that gonna be successful? After I get it completed, I may think, this would be a good reproduction, or not, but not in, not in process.
CEM: How did you manage to make a living and survive from painting alone?
WN: I’ve wondered that same thing myself! I’ve been very fortunate to have a wife and a family that have been very considerate, that you know, just to come home one day and tell your family that Daddy’s going to be an artist [laughing] – you know – that doesn’t go over real big! But no, they’ve been very uh… sympathetic, we’ll say, and I’ve had two wonderful wives that were very considerate, and it meant a lot to them to see my success, and I’ve had a lot of help from people along the way, and just been very lucky, I think.
CEM: You grew up in the coal country.
WN: Yeah. I tell people I had a Norman Rockwell kind of childhood, ‘cause it really was a small town, about 5,000 population, and it was just, just ideally…
CEM: Which town was it again?
WN: Welch, West Virginia. Right down in the southernmost county in the state, the county seat… went into the service. I was never a very good student, and I was the first one to realize that, but I loved using my hands, art, drawing – I was drawing when I should have been doing other things. And I thought my future lay in drafting, probably – I wanted to become a draftsman. And the navy at that time had the finest drafting school in the world, out in San Diego, it was run by the United States Navy. So I enlisted in the navy to go to their drafting school, and I was in boot camp and they called me to the office one day, and they said, now, we’ve closed our drafting school, what else do you want to do for four years, you know? [laughing]
CEM: That’s awful. What did you do for four years?
WN: Well, they gave me an aptitude test, and I went into the supply department. But I was lucky – I spent the last two years in the service in Naples, Italy, and ideal duty. We worked five days a week and could go where we want to, and I went all over Italy, saw all the arts that it offered…
CEM: What a place for a painter to be…
WN: Yeah, a great influence. And I feel that’s probably why I do what I do today, because of that. I was always considered sorta strange when I was in the navy because I kept a watercolor set with me. And we’d go into a new port and I’d set up my set and I’d paint scenes. Our home port was down in Charleston, South Carolina and I’d rent a hotel room and paint whatever room, whatever view was out of the window. And, you know, guys just, that’s just putting yourself – [laughing] in all sorts of trouble. But it was fun, I enjoyed it.
CEM: I can imagine that might have been a little rough at times.
WN: It was, it was. I was always on the defensive, you know, about it.
CEM: Do you still have those paintings?
WN: Yeah, I still do. But I’ve given up watercolors. When I was starting out, I tried everything that would make a mark on paper, from prints to… anything. And I felt you eventually have to head one direction or another, and there’s just so much to learn about any of it, that I’ve been concentrating on oil painting now for 25, 30 years. And I’m still learning all the time.
CEM: Oil painting is – it’s not as common as it used to be, I mean, it’s a little old school, isn’t it?
WN: Well, acrylics have taken over so much.
CEM: Why is that?
WN: Well, I think they’re simpler to use. The turpentine smell bothers a lot of people, and you’re using water [with acrylics]. I can’t use acrylics – I’ve tried it. For one thing, I don’t care for the colors. The colors are different from oil, and they dry so fast, even with a retarder, you can’t slow down that drying time enough for my technique. So I’ve been on oil paints, now, I just gave up on acrylics.
CEM: Can you talk a little bit about that, how you do need a slow-drying paint for your technique – how do you use the brush, why is that important?
WN: I call what I do wet on wet, because I depend on the surface being wet all the time. When I do a sky, I have to do the complete sky at one sitting – there’s no stopping point where I can stop and start again the next day, which creates a lot of long hours. But at the same time I’m blending the whole time I’m doing it, so I depend on the paint being wet while I’m blending. And if I were to paint a leafless tree in front of that sky, and want the fine detail of those very fine lines, I can’t let the sky dry because the brush may only have five or six hairs in it, and if you try to paint over a dry painting with the brush with five or six hairs, it’s gonna drag, and sorta the texture of the paint is gonna skip little places and everything. But now if you paint while the paint is still wet, you can just glide right through that wet paint, in nice little fine lines. So I’m always fighting time when I’m doing a painting.
CEM: How long does a painting, a single painting, take you, then?
WN: Surprisingly, everybody considers me very fast. I’d say normally maybe a week. And I don’t think I’m really fast, I just put in a lot of long hours.
CEM: Do you paint all in your studio?
WN: Yeah, yes, all. You know, I envy the people that can go out in the field and paint out there, but I tried that, and you’re fighting the changing sun, you’re fighting the mosquitoes, you’re fighting the wind, and after a while it sorta becomes a matter of survival and the painting’s very secondary. So I’d rather paint in the studio where I have control of everything and I can concentrate on the painting.
CEM: So you take photographs?
WN: I do, more and more all the time. When I started out I didn’t, I really – it’s a matter of time. I don’t think there’s any way you can become more familiar with your subject than to sit down and draw it. I mean, you know it when you’re through drawing it. But it’s just a luxury of having the time to sit down and do that, that I’ll take a lot of snapshots – I’m a terrible photographer, but it is a good reminder of what I’ve seen that I want to paint.
CEM: You live in North Wilkesboro, the home of MerleFest…
WN: That’s right, exactly right! Love MerleFest.
CEM: Do you go every year?
WN: Yes, every year. I do artwork for ‘em occasionally, so I get passes to everything. You know, free parking, all that. I did a T-shirt for ‘em one year and all that. So yes, I go every year.
CEM: Are you a musician, too?
WN: A what?
CEM: A musician.
WN: No. I want to be. If I had my choice of any other profession, I’d want to be a jazz musician.
WN: I’m really not a country music fan, although country music is becoming more and more jazzlike in structure, a lot of improvis[at]ion all the time – that’s what I really like. And in high school I played in the band, when I joined the navy I was in the Great Lakes Naval Jazz Ensemble.
CEM: What instrument?
WN: And just loved jazz. But I was just outclassed – you know, little boy from the coalfields of West Virginia just doesn’t have the jazz knowledge that some guy from Chicago does.
CEM: Well, and trumpeters are competitive folks!
WN: [laughs] I guess so! But you know, if I had my choice… if I had my [d]ruthers, I’d be a trumpeter. In jazz. I love it. I turn on my stereo before I even turn on the lights in the studio, and it blasts away all day long while I’m painting.
CEM: Do you see connections – I mean, as you know musicians, and talk with them, do you see connections between creating music and creating art?
WN: Yeah, I see a lot. I have musician friends, and amazingly, I have potter friends, and we all share the same wants and disappointments, and the same emotions about what we’re trying to do. It’s amazing how familiar, how similar, it all is.
CEM: …As you said, you grew up in the coalfields of West Virginia – was there coal mining in your family?
WN: No, no.
CEM: It’s been in the news a lot lately, a lot of disasters – West Virginia and Utah – how do you feel about the coal mining, as an industry, and as a way of life?
WN: I think there needs to be a lot of improvements in safety features. They’re lacking in that, and I think it’s more of a traditional thing than, you know. The big coal owners have never given a lot of serious thought to the coal miners as individuals. They’ve treated coal miners, in mind, like they would a piece of machinery that goes down there and digs for them. And that’s about as far as it goes. If they can do anything to improve the efficiency of that piece of machinery, they’ll do it, but emotionally, I don’t think they’re involved at all. It’s just sad.
CEM: The Parkway exhibit. How many pieces do you have in this exhibit?
WN: Five. I’ve tried to take a different approach – I’ve been in John Cram’s shows before, and of course, the parkway being so close by, it’s just a natural to paint it. And it’s always been sort of a view from an overlook, and when John told me he wanted me to be in this in show, I was trying to think, well, I want to do a different approach. And I wanted to get up close and personal, so to speak. That I’d rather the distant views of distant mountains – I wanted to get something up close. And of course it’s been done before – I remember the last show here people did plant life, which I thought was a great idea, that you found along the parkway. So as a result, I did a little creek, as one of the paintings; I did a fence, one of the paintings; I did a – I have to stop and think what I did, too – a creek, and a fence, and a dead tree that I thought was sort of a different approach. For me, at least, it’s different.
CEM: Where did you find those spots and when did you know you’d found a subject for a painting?
WN: Well, my wife and I took a weekend off, and we traveled the entire length of the parkway, looking for subjects all along the way – we went from the beginning to the end, stopping at every overlook, at every feature there was, and photographing a lot. And it’s just a response, I see a particular thing, I know I want to paint that, like the dead tree. That was a hag grown out of a rock outcropping. And I thought there was a certain graceful feeling to it – fact, I named it “Graceful Departure” because the tree was dead but it still was looking good, in my mind. So, yeah, I thought, it would be neat to go that way! [laughs] But anyway, I was pleased with what I did, so we’ll see what sort of response we get to it, but that is, and may be an ego thing to say, but that’s really secondary – I’m trying to please myself here, you know. So. People will say, who in the world does he think he is? He should be trying to please me! But that’s the way I feel about it, anyway.
CEM: It seems to me you would lose a little bit of the art if you’re no painting for yourself…
WN: I think that’s important, I think that is important, that I can’t see the point in it all, if you’re not trying to please yourself. I’ve never done portrait work. I do very few commissioned works at all – I’ve done six in 40 years. And then they just make me an offer I can’t refuse.
CEM: What were those six?
WN: Well, the last one, they wanted to send me to Germany, to paint a painting of the Gutenberg printing press, which is in the Gutenberg Museum in Meinz, Germany. And it was just first class all the way – and they turned the museum over to me at night, and I was up there painting this printing press. And they paid me well and it was a terrific vacation, and I just couldn’t say no to that offer! Plus the fact that I had printing in my background, and it meant a lot to me. I was destined to become a printer, but it just didn’t work, you know, I was supposed to be…
CEM: With the draftswork that you wanted to do.
WN: Right. I was a printer’s devil, they called ‘em, an apprentice – they call ‘em printer’s devils – for years, learning to operate the hand-feed presses – it’s a wonder I have all my fingers, ‘cause most printers don’t. They just get their hands caught in those presses. It just wasn’t meant to be.
CEM: What did you love about printing?
WN: I don’t know. There’s a certain orderliness – I don’t know the word – an organization, everything in its place, everything nice and neat on a white sheet of paper, black ink on white, everything balanced and even columns – you know, it’s like a, a painting in a way, that if you just forgot about the words and made black areas where the words are, you’d have some really nice, weird-looking paintings that way!
CEM: I never thought of it that way, but yeah. Have you ever regretted not going in that direction?
WN: No. No. No, I’ve never regretted it, just considered myself lucky that I’ve been able to go the way I have, and raise my family, and take care of everybody, have a nice home, and – been very fortunate. In fact, people, they come to my home, and I just discourage that all I can, but they’re always I think a little baffled by the home. Painting the rural scenes that they’re familiar with, they picture me being in a farmhouse, old abandoned farmhouse, you know – and I live right in the middle of a housing development, in a contemporary home, and it’s always sort of a disappointment to them.
CEM: I remember you telling me that. Why do you live in the middle of a development?
WN: Well, actually everybody goes to work every day, and I got the whole place for myself! People say, well aren’t you distracted? And the answer is no – there’s nobody around, everybody’s gone. It’s convenient, you know, and no, it’s a great place to be.
CEM: If you were living, if you couldn’t live in the Appalachian mountains for some reason, where would you live and what would you paint?
WN: I would probably live in Denver and paint, paint the, uh – [ starts laughing]
CEM: Paint those mountains!
WN: Paint those mountains, yeah! [laughing] There’s no doubt, you’re influenced by where you live, I mean, by what you paint, and one problem I had in West Virginia was finding things to paint. I couldn’t find things that really appealed to me. And when I would come to North Wilkesboro, to visit my wife’s family, everything was clean and green and rural – it was a whole different world, you know, that I thought, “wow, this is really nice!” And I could find all sorts of things to paint. And I still haven’t run out of subjects, after all these years. So I feel I’m where I belong – where I want to be, I know that.
The funny thing, when I first came down there, I was looking for galleries to represent me, and I went to Boone, to the regional gallery of art, and they handled my work. And at that time I had done a linoleum print of an outhouse, a little outhouse with an antenna on top. They had TV in the outhouse, you know [laughing]… And they were having their snow festival, and Governor Scott was there, and he saw it and bought it. And I thought, you know, this is going to be great! I had the governor of the state buy one of my linoleum prints. And oh, a couple of months after that I saw an interview with him and it was hanging on the wall behind him in the interview. It made me really, really think all the more of North Carolina, with the governor owning one of my little linoleum prints! [laughing] So that was my introduction to North Carolina, and I thought I was doing pretty well.
CEM: That’s a good start! What… a linoleum print? I don’t know what that is.
WN: Well, you know what a wood print is.
CEM: Right, like a –
WN: Where you carve –
CEM: You carve, and then you st—
And then ink. You do the same with linoleum. It’s just easier to carve than wood is. No planing or anything. It’s a legitimate art form!
CEM: Oh, I believed you!
WN: I’m not improvising or anything – it’s really done [laughs] –
CEM: And the term sounded familiar, but I just couldn’t think of exactly what it was.
WN: Just like the wood, but you’re using linoleum.
CEM: Well, that’s harkening back to printmaking a little bit.
WN: Yeah, it is. I enjoy it. But I wanted detail. And I wanted color. Even though I’m partially color blind.
CEM: Really? And yet you’re able to –
WN: People say, “how do you paint if you can’t identify colors?” And I just try to match what I see. When you really think about it, when you look at the blue sky and I look at the blue sky, are we seeing the same thing? You know? We really don’t know. But if a tube of paint has “green” written on it, I say, “ah, grass!” [laughing] ‘Course that’s an exaggeration, but – if it says blue, that’s got to be sky.
CEM: Are you red/green colorblind, or – ?
WN: I can really tell colors pretty well. It’s the subtleties that I can’t tell, some of these off colors that are sort of greenish gray, say – I have no idea what that color is.
CEM: But you can match it to what you see.
WN: Yeah, yeah.
CEM: Just it’s a matter of you can’t identify it and say this is what it is.
WN: You see these color tests, I guess, they’ll give you a little picture that has dots all over it? And in those dots of all different colors are a number, all red dots, and you’re supposed to pick out that number. I could never do that. And when I joined the Navy, I remember the recruiter must have had a goal, a quota, and I couldn’t see any of the numbers and he just closed the book, he said, “you don’t understand what we’re looking for here” and approved me. So when I had the physical to be discharged, he said, “how in the world did you ever get in the Navy?” So I don’t know if I’m seeing things the way you are or not.
CEM: But then maybe none of us are, anyway.
WN: We might not any two of us be seeing the same. We really don’t know.
CEM: Well, your work is beautiful.
WN: Well, thank you very much, thank you.
CEM: Is there anything else you’d like to say?
WN: No! [laughing] I’ve rattled on here for a half an hour – I think I’ve pretty well covered everything.
CEM: About half an hour, yes. Thank you, very much.
WN: Been my pleasure. Good meeting you. And, of course, it’s always, to me, it’s always good for your ego to have a microphone stuck in front of your face, you know!
CEM: It doesn’t make you nervous!
WN: No, I’ve sorta gotten over that. I love to tell stories, and people that know me say, “Ward, heck with your art, you’re gonna be remembered for the stories that you tell!” So maybe so, but it’s been great having all these stories, and they’re all true, and mostly unbelievable. My kids call me, uh – aw, what was that movie, was it Tom Hanks was in, sorta a slow Southern boy that –
CEM: “Forrest Gump”?
WN: Yeah, yeah! Yeah, my kids say I’m like Forrest Gump, that I know all these celebrities, met all these presidents and so on, and they say you’re just in the right place at the right time! [laughs] So I’m just Forrest Gump to them.
CEM: Who else have you gotten to meet?
WN: Oh, a lot of celebrities, and it’s all just sorta been bein’ in the right place at the right time. I’ve met four presidents, from Johnson, Truman, Kennedy and uh, uh, I can’t even think of the fourth one. When I worked for my dad in office supply store, was part of the printing department, we were setting up a typewriter display in a hotel in Bluefield, W.Va., and Kennedy was coming through campaigning. And one of his aides came down and said “Mr. Kennedy would like to borrow one of your typewriters.” Would I loan it to him? I said sure. So when I had to leave I went up to his suite to get my typewriter and talk to him for a few minutes, and it’s just a real pleasure to – and Harry Truman was coming through campaigning, and they needed somebody to decorate a reviewing stand. Well, I decorated the reviewing stand, and I was the president of the Jaycees at the time, and they had all the local leaders for a luncheon, and I sat opposite Harry Truman. And we had good conversation. It’s just been strange things.
CEM: That’s wonderful, though. Great memories.
WN: Yeah, they really are. Oh, I could go on and on, anyway – it’s been a lot of celebrities.
CEM: I don’t mind!
WN: No, it’s been fun. It’s been fun.
CEM: That’s wonderful. Well, thank you, very very much.
WN: Anything else you want to know?
CEM: No, not unless you want to tell me some more celebrity stories!
WN: No, no – I want to know where you’re from. Where are you from, Cara?
CEM: I’m from Harrisonburg… (and the conversation continued after we stopped recording…)