A visual artist teaches himself to paint by capturing the images of the people in his small, East Tennessee town. More than a decade later, the project continues to give the community a new vision of itself.
In this video, Rickey Beene describes the connection between his art and his home in the unincorporated community of Petros in East Tennessee.
Rickey A. Beene, or “Bear,” as most everyone calls him, has worked as a prison guard, a school teacher, a poet and a gardener. In 1993, he unwittingly began another career – as a portrait painter and unofficial archivist for the town of Petros, Tennessee.
Petros, an unincorporated town in Morgan County, abuts a forested state park on the edge of the rugged Cumberland Plateau. Historically, the town was supported by coal mining and Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary, which opened in 1896 and was the oldest operating prison in Tennessee until it closed in 2009. At the time of its closing, the prison housed 584 inmates, a number roughly equal to the population of Petros itself.
Beene has lived in Petros for most of his life and has witnessed the town’s struggles since he was a child in the 1950s and ’60.
“There were actually only two stores here when I was growing up,” Beene said. “Now there’s really not a store downtown. Downtown is a misnomer, sorta, ’cause all it is really is a wide place in the road.”
Besides Petros’ economic decline, Beene says the town has changed socially. When he was young, Beene says, “Everyone was like your parents. For the most part you felt a huge world of comfort and protection.” He says people are more isolated now.
“I understand that the world goes on and the world changes. That doesn’t mean it always goes on and changes in the best ways, I don’t think.”
Beene started to reconnect with his community almost by accident. In 1993, Beene’s wife gave him a digital camera, and he began taking photos of the residents of Petros. His daughter taught him to manipulate his photos on a computer and play with color and composition.
This gave Beene an idea – he decided to teach himself to paint by photographing and painting 100 portraits of people in Petros. But once he’d finished the 100 paintings, he found he’d only just begun. He has now been painting for more than 10 years and has completed hundreds of portraits.
Beene works at a nearby plant nursery but spends much of his free time painting in the rustic studio he built himself, where huge windows provide plentiful natural light and the exposed frame walls are packed with his portraits. The studio is just a short walk from the home he and his wife, Carol, share. He built his home, too, and like his studio, it boasts windows that look out on his wooded property, vaulted ceilings and a lofted second floor.
“In my dwelling house I wanted to invite the world in, and certainly in the studio,” Beene says. “It’s a wonderful thing to be painting and to turn around and realize there’s a deer standing in the yard.”
Beene had little experience in house construction when he started to build his home, but had a vision of what he wanted and figured out how to build it as he went along. His entree into painting was similar. Beene decided he wanted to learn how to paint, and so he simply began painting. An experienced poet, Beene applied the “write what you know” maxim to painting and began painting the people of his small town. Soon he found himself more engaged with his home and the people who live there.
“I think a lot of people knew I lived in Petros for a long time, but they didn’t ever see me. I got up in the morning and I went to work and I came home in the evening,” he says. “Once I started painting the people of Petros, it was a call to me to reinvest with people in ways I hadn’t done in a long time.”
Beene has painted more than 300 portraits: mothers and daughters, great grandfathers and their grandsons. He’s painted the same person multiple times over several years, each portrait portraying the man’s descent into drug addiction. He’s been asked to photograph a man on his death bed, and plans to create a painting from those photographs.
“When I’m painting, I may be looking and thinking a whole lot about color, but I’m also thinking about other things as well – the tragedies of the people’s lives I’m working on or their victories, or a combination of the two, and how sometimes one is hard to be delineated from the other.”
In 2006, he shared his art with the world for the first time at the Oak Ridge Art Center. Beene says hanging his art on a gallery wall validated the importance of his work. Since then he has exhibited his work at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Oak Ridge and the Emporium in Downtown Knoxville. Every time he has a show, Beene says, the people of Petros try their best to see it. Beene says they feel a sense of pride that someone in their community paints – and wants to represent them.
Most people he paints are pleased and honored with his portrayals, Beene says, though he has received some criticism.
“Well, one fellow told me he thought he was better looking than that.”