Painting Petros, One Portrait at a Time

[imgbelt img=Bear_Beene.jpg]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.

[imgcontainer left] [img:Bear_Beene.jpg] [source]Photo by Shawn Poynter

Rickey “Bear” Beene outside his Petros, Tennessee, studio.

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.