For the love of art

Published 8:50 am Saturday, April 21, 2012

Memories of Jean Lake sitting at her kitchen table painting and Pugh Windham whittling away in his “smokehouse” now belong to only a few.

Probably more people have memories of Jean Lake than of Pugh Windham because he was rather reclusive and most of his woodcarvings never left his workshop without money having exchanged hands. Lake, on the other hand, traveled widely, even as far as the Lone Star State, showing her work.

Whether one was aware of the other’s talents, no one is quiet sure.

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Windham whittled away his time in rural Pike County while Lake was at home on Orange Street in Troy.

Both were self-taught artists. He, as a wood carver and she as a painter.

Their work was recognized and respected while they were producing and much more so after their deaths.

“That’s the way it is most of the time,” said Charles Adams, who was a friend to both Lake and Windham. “Jean and Pugh both knew that their work was appreciated but, even if it had not been, that wouldn’t have mattered. Jean loved to paint and Pugh loved to carve so, if they had never sold a piece, they would have been happy to keep painting and carving.”

Adams said that Lake began her career as an artist very simply.

“She started painting these little cutesy, almost cartoon like figures, with sayings on them like ‘Glad to be home but glad I went’— stuff like that,” Adams said. “I believe it was Henderson Black that was making six-panel doors and Trigger (Lake’s husband) would get the rejects for her and she would paint on them. She painted, too, on Masonite.”

Adams said Lake’s early work was popular but her career as an artist really began to take off when she began to paint the scenes from the rural South that were soon to be forgotten.”

Lake captured the rural South with freshness and boldness.

“She painted what she knew,” Adams said. “A lot of what she painted was cartoon-like. The expressions on the faces of the dogs and chickens made her work unique. Made it fun. But she also knew what it was like to stand over a hot washpot and she captured that.”

Adams said that while Lake could capture a scene in an almost whimsical way, she could also capture the essence of her subject, especially in the faces of the older people she painted.

Back in the early days of Lake’s career as an artist, people didn’t exactly beat her door down for her artwork.

“Oh, we had to get out there and peddle what we were doing,” Adams said. “I had an old, and I mean old, station wagon and we’d all, me, Jean, Trigger and Ed Walter, would cram all of our stuff in and crawl in wherever we could find a place to sit and take off down the road like sardines in a can.”

Adams remembered one arts and crafts show when it rained cats and dog and their rain-soaked “stuff” ballooned and they couldn’t get it all in the wagon.

“I had to tie my glass on top of the car so we could stuff everybody in,” Adams said, laughing. “When we got back to Troy, Jean just opened the door and rolled out. Jean Lake was a lot of fun. She was a great artist and a great person. She was one of those people that we call ‘characters.’ She enjoyed life and she made it fun for all of us who know her.”

Pugh Windham was also a character. But in a different way.

Windham had no desire to travel more than a stone’s throw from his home or to be in the middle of a crowd of people.

Simply put, Windham was a farmer who loved to carve.

“Pugh never considered himself a woodcarver. He was just a whittler,” Adams said. “He and his wife lived a rather quiet life and that’s the way they wanted to live. They were the happiest when he was in the smokehouse/workshop whittling and she was in the house quilting.

“Mrs. Windham was an artist, too. She made some of the most interesting quilts out of polyester and with the oddest color combinations that I have ever seen.”

The Windhams lived modestly and enjoyed doing things the “old” way.

“They would dry apples in their kitchen where they had an old wood stove,” Adams said. “They would have strings strung all across the kitchen with apples hanging on them to dry.”

Windham wouldn’t allow his carvings to be display anywhere except at Adams’ annual Holiday Open House.

“Pugh was real curious about things like that,” Adams said, remembering the one time in the many times that he showed Windham’s work that he had to shell out money for a lost carving.

“A university professor walked out with it and I had to pay for it,” Adams said. “He had been to the show twice to look at the carving Pugh called ‘The Extortionist’ and the next time he came and left the carving was gone.”

That was the most that Adams said he ever paid for one of Windham’s carvings and the only one that he doesn’t have.”

“One day I was on the mail route and stopped by Pugh’s. He had just finished a carving he called, ‘Mammy’ and I bought it on the spot,” Adams said. “He did great work. Most of his carvings were catalpa wood and he also like apple wood.

“He cut his own wood and would dry it under his house for two years before he carved it. He made his own tools.”

Windham carved things that he knew and things out of his head. In his later years, Windham carved things from his dreams.

“His first carvings were of Indians,” Adams said. “He had a lot of respect for the Indians. Some of his carvings were realistic and others were … strangely interesting.”

Two of Windham’s carvings, Angel of Birth and Angel of Death, are in the Smithsonian.

“He was proud of that,” Adams said. “But he was also proud that people wanted his work. He didn’t do commission work. He just did what popped in his head.

“Pugh Windham was down to earth and he’d tell you what he thought. He and Jean were both interesting characters. They enjoyed talking and joking around. But they were serious about their art. They were primitive artists in the truest sense. They were Pike County art at its best.”