Local artist, longtime teacher passes away
Magoffin County had to say “goodbye” to a well-known and loved artist last week, with the passing of Thomas J. Whitaker.
Whitaker, 74 years old, of Puncheon Creek, passed away on Thursday, January 23, after a long battle with cancer.
Born in Knox, Indiana, to Herald and Thelma Whitaker, Whitaker joked that he moved back to Puncheon Creek when he was just one week old because he, “couldn’t take it anymore.”
The man described by Kentucky poet Al Stewart as “America’s Greatest Appalachian Artist,” spent many years as a student, first at Swampton and Royalton, before heading on to high school in Salyersville. After graduation, he attended Eastern Kentucky University, where he received a bachelor’s degree. He continued his education at Morehead State University, where he earned his master’s.
Whitaker found himself in the classroom, again, as a teacher, teaching in practically every town in Eastern Kentucky before finally ending up at Prestonsburg Community College, where he taught for over 35 years.
Whitaker, often described as humble and kind, was known for his love of people, his works of art, his music, and, of course, his personality, making his mark on everyone he met.
Betty Williams, local librarian and fellow artist, told the Independent, “From the first time I met Tom in 1992, I was hooked! As he came into the classroom at PCC, with his hat askew, books and papers in one hand and Pepsi in the other, his tie-dyed shirt and bell bottom jeans and his ‘Hello peoples!’ He had my attention.”
She said that as he taught the class about different forms of art, famous artists and the history of art, it was undeniable that he truly knew what art was.
“Tom taught us that all art matters and helped us see art in nature by listening and really looking,” Williams explained.
The pair joined forces in 2004 and coauthored a book about Appalachia, “As the Crow Flies Appalachia Speaks,” which intertwines both of their histories with tells of sayings, from “arn to zinc,” home remedies, music and games and more.
“Not only was Tom a great artist, he was a good friend, and a humble and accepting individual,” Williams said. “He loved the Lord, loved all people and loved life.”
Much of Whitaker’s work depicts life in this region, particularly Puncheon Creek, where he lived most of his life, often using watercolors, but in a way that was uniquely his own style.
“Tom’s art depicts Appalachia and our area in a way no other artist ever had,” Williams explained. “His God-given talent and insight show our county in its many seasons and phases - from quilts and old houses to wildflowers, from animals, coal tipples, Bibles and self-portraits- Tom painted them all to perfection.”
Tom also was a singer, musician and entertainer, playing with local musicians in an Appalachian folk and bluegrass band known as “Creeker,” which was also the name that he referred to most everyone he met.
“His CDs with other local artists are wonderful,” Williams said. There is so much more I could say about our Creeker brother, but suffice it to say, ‘Though you are gone, you will never be forgotten.’”
In a recorded interview between Whitaker and then-Superintendent Don Cecil, posted by Sam Miller, who did the A/V and graphics for the video, roughly 10 years ago, Whitaker explained that his artwork is not just his own and that his Appalachian heritage was an asset to him.
“I don’t look at it as I painted that painting,” Whitaker explained. “It was my grandmother and I. It was Julie Ma Risner and I. Those kinds of people and those kinds of neighbors. Abe Wireman and I. Those people you hold in high esteem as you grow up as a child.”
As to how he landed on being an artist, he said he always knew he had a great need to do something that would help people, bring people together, and spread love, compassion and care.
“Nothing seemed to fulfill that need other than the different arts and it was an outlet for me,” Whitaker described in the interview. “I needed something to get out that hurt, or that pain, or that suffering, that so many of us feel. I tried bowling and that didn’t work. Rooster-fighting didn’t work. Player poker, well that worked one time. Nothing else seemed to work but the arts.”
While he said teachers could help artists refine their skills and techniques, he said the greatest influence in his art was his childhood.
“I think being an artist means being a child,” he explained in the interview. “I think that childhood is probably more important – growing up on Puncheon Creek, walking across the hill to Royalton, knowing the people at Salyersville, knowing the people at Magoffin County High School, I think that plays a greater roll than any teacher you’ll ever have.”
Whitaker’s art, music, and lectures always showed the importance of Puncheon Creek in his life. His cabin on the creek might have looked like a mess to the general public, but it was filled with his treasures from which he drew inspiration.
Even though Whitaker was a public figure in Magoffin County, he was also a family man. A trip to Michigan as a young man led to meeting his wife, Jessie Neal Arnett. The two were married and came back to Magoffin County, and had two sons, Mike (wife Teresa) and Matthew. Tommy was also blessed with a daughter, Stephanie (husband Brandon). Stephanie gave Tom a grandson, Aaron, one of the great joys of his life. Tom was also close to his extended family— he was a loving brother, uncle, and cousin. In fact, he probably claimed kin to most people he knew.
Whitaker had a knack for making everyone he was around feel like the most important person in the room, and will most definitely be missed, not just in the art world, but throughout the community.
Jincy Bailey told the Independent, "To visit Tom’s art studio was an unforgettable experience. If you didn’t know him, who might be amazed at the disorganization. His treasures and works of art were mixed in with an array of things he loved to collect, like old lunchboxes or musical instruments. Every time I visited, I felt right at home. His tremendous presence, personality and zest for life was infectious! I was so blessed to have him as a mentor in my life and blessed to sing and record with him, as part of his band 'Creeker.'”
The full interview between Don Cecil and Thomas Whitaker is available on Sam Miller’s Facebook page is definitely a must-watch for all Thomas Whitaker fans.
Whitaker’s obituary can be found on page A4 of last week’s paper.