Obituary: James Harold Jennings

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
I WAS at a garage in Pinnacle, North Carolina, getting the mechanics to look after some ghastly rattle under the VW Rabbit. So I asked: "Do you fellers know a local man named James Harold Jennings?"

"Red Jennings, why sure! Listen, Red's a sight-and-a-half. Lived here all his life. His mother left him a right nice farm out there on Purch Road. How come you know him?"

"Well, he's a very good artist. I like those things he makes."

"Oh yeah, well, I wouldn't know about that art stuff. Used to see him a lot, he'd come by on his bicycle, pickin' up bottles and cans along the road."

"Well, now, he makes art out of scrap wood and stuff. You ought to go have a look. Many thanks for your help, boys."

It's such a common story. The boys down at the garage, they haven't paid attention to James Harold - or anybody else "strange" - for a month of Sundays. If a person's strange-harmless, there's still just about enough room in rural America for him to be left alone. Scare the neighbours, and it's off to the funny farm or the pokey. It's two, protective miles from the garage south-west to the "Art World of James Harold Jennings".

By now, there are four orange and yellow decrepit school and bible-church buses clustered by the road, intermixed with jerrybuilt structures like miniature tobacco barns. Every day, including Sunday, you will find the Artist of the Sun, the Moon, and the Stars, always at home and hard at work, cutting up plywood and painting, making his unique pieces. James Harold's constant companions are 10 or so cats. He used to live across the road in the old family house. Now he chooses to live in one of the buses, that way the cats don't have to cross the road and risk getting killed by the car jockeys who speed by.

James Harold tells his visitors that he enjoys living "kind of low", like the Amish people, in the old style. He has no running water, or electricity, or car, or telephone, or television. He sleeps on a pallet in the yellow bus, upon which he unrolls an old sleeping bag. He goes to bed when it gets dark and gets up when it's light. He has a kerosene stove on which to prepare his simple meals. He likes country ham, pinto beans, vienna sausages, saltine crackers, canned chicken and dumplings, and coffee. I imagine he must make a little corn pone now and then in the skillet. While he works outside on his art, he listens to country music on his portable radio, smokes Hav-a-Tampa cigars, and enjoys Miller Sandwiches.

"Miller Sandwiches - what are those, James Harold?"

"Boys, that's when you take two Miller beers and put a third in between 'em."

What to say about James Harold? I would venture to say that he is one of the most charming and delightful artists in the world. An equal, say, to Joan Mir. He's endlessly inventive and the pieces have a rare lilt and twang about them. And here he is, working away almost unknown in Stokes County, about 25 minutes north of Winston-Salem. Luckily he lives at the "country end" of his road. Around Mr Jennings a few people still live in log cabins and keep tobacco barns. The closer you get to the city the more gentrified the houses are becoming. They have decorated mail-boxes, some of them, but the usual flying geese and ploughs and minstrel-show jockeys are nothing quite so wild as J.H. "Red" Jennings, the "crazy" man down the road.

James Harold votes Republican but doesn't like George Bush or that ornery sumbitch, Jesse Helms, he's just afraid the Democrats will ban all tobacco products and what else can a poor man find for enjoyment but a smoke and a beer or three?

What does he make? Brightly coloured scrap-wood constructions painted with enamel and day-glo latex. Some are ferris wheels, some are whirligigs, some are like shooting gallery constructions, or like billboards, or Burma Shave signs along the old highways ("HARDLY A MAN IS NOW ALIVE / WHO CROSSED A HILL AT 75"), or tableaux, featuring processions of pussy cats and dinosaurs; rough, tough women beating on little male bullies and devils. "Ah-MAY- zahn women," James Harold calls them.

Though he only went through five years of grade school, James Harold is a prodigious reader. He has stacks of Popular Mechanics and National Geographic magazines, plus books on astral projection, electro-encephalography, and metempsychosis - "Them's dictionary words, boys." Back in 1986, James Harold told Steve Litt, reporter for The Raleigh News & Observer, about some of his sources:

"What truth there is in the Bible is astrology. You can get down on your knees and pray for what you want to, and, if it comes, it comes, but it won't come from God."

James Harold Jennings says his work is often inspired by religion - but not the mainstream kind. He believes in The Goddess. Which one, he's not sure. It might be Diana, the Roman moon goddess; or, Lillith, the mythical creature who preceded Eve in the Garden of Eden.

He began after the death of his mother, who had taught him, as he says, all he needed to know about the outside world. His father, a veterinarian, died when he was three. I was visiting with James Harold the other day when two collectors from Michigan drove in. There were dazzled and delighted by what they saw. One of them, Richard Ginger, a blueberry grower from Bangor, Michigan, asked James Harold: "How long have you been at it; and, how come you started to paint and make things?" The answer was very simple and very moving. He said it was about eight years ago, and: "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 somethin' they call visionary art."

To this point you have been reading excerpts of a portrait of James Harold Jennings in an unpublished book of mine called Walks to the Paradise Garden, with photographs by Roger Manley and Guy Mendes. And now we come to 1999 and lapse into the past tense. Early on the morning of 20 April, his 68th birthday, James Harold put a pistol to his head and shot himself. This was the same 20 April when the Trenchcoat Mafia were celebrating the 110th birthday of Adolf Hitler in Littleton, Colorado, by killing 14 high-school students and a teacher.

Though James Harold had said "I never get lonely", his sister-in-law, Normie Jennings, tells me that recently he was being treated for depression and was taking medicine. He seemed very nervous and agitated by the coming of the Millennium, and afraid that vandals and lawless mobs would come and wreck his Art World. Y2K has claimed an early victim, a sadly vulnerable one, celebrated as yet only by the world of Outsider Art.

It was William Carlos Williams who said that "the pure products of America go crazy". No longer true. Half the people you see today look scary, on television, at the mall, or driving around like bats out of hell. And there are 250,000,000 handguns in the USA, at least one for every citizen.

James Harold Jennings, artist: born Pinnacle, North Carolina 20 April 1931; died Pinnacle 20 April 1999.