Lexington seems to be gaining a new appreciation for its famous Faulkner

Special to the Herald-LeaderApril 19, 2014 

It starts with an old mountain song.

Then, over black-and-white images of a country graveyard, an actor's voice, gentle as a Bluegrass breeze, reads the first passage from Henry Faulkner's unfinished autobiography.

"I was born in Franklin, Kentucky, January 9, 1924. Bessie Lee Persley was my mother and John Milton Faulkner my father. We liked music and the seasons, and my mother loved life and art and poetry. I am one of 13 children."

The film at this point is just a 15-minute demo, which producer Natasha Williams of Balagula Theatre and director Ed Commons of Red Barn Radio hope will attract funding support for a feature-length documentary about the late Lexington artist. The film likely would draw attention to Faulkner's life and work, and to Lexington's history as a home to artists and the arts.

The film-in-progress is just one of several indications that Lexington might be rediscovering one of its most important artists.

Faulkner, who died in 1981, was a prolific painter whose work was shown in cities around the United States and in Europe. Also a poet and singer, Faulkner had a talent for endearing himself to people, including the rich and famous. Playwright Tennessee Williams was a longtime friend; poet Ezra Pound took an interest in the young artist and poet; and actor Vincent Price, among other celebrities, collected his work. A Faulkner painting of Ernest Hemingway's house hangs over the writer's bed in the Hemingway Museum in Key West, Fla.

Faulkner enjoyed a well-deserved reputation for unconventional behavior, giving rise to a genre future scholars of Lexington's oral traditions might dub "the Henry stories." The man a Louisville art critic once called "a decorative pillar of the gay community" was well out of the closet at a time when many gays and lesbians were keeping their closet doors bolted from the inside.

Charles House's biography The Outrageous Life of Henry Faulkner traces the artist's unlikely journey.

A bohemian life

Faulkner's mother died when he was 2. He spent much of his early childhood at the Kentucky Children's Home in Louisville. After two failed placements, one in Western Kentucky and one in the eastern part of the state, he landed, at age 6, at a foster home on Falling Timber Branch in Clay County. He ran away as a teenager but kept going back to Falling Timber, in person and in his writing.

Then came what he called "the vagabonding years," in which he traveled around the country, doing odd jobs and spending some time in jail and more than a year in a psychiatric hospital. He lived in a series of cities during that period, including New York, San Francisco, and Lexington.

By the late 1950s and early '60s, Faulkner was working seriously on his art and on promoting his career as an artist. After a painting trip to Europe in 1962, he bought a house in Lexington and a farm a few miles south of town. Except for winters in Key West, he lived in Lexington for the rest of his life.

He died in 1981, a month before his 58th birthday, in a car crash with a drunken driver at West Third Street and North Broadway. He is buried beside his mother at a church cemetery in Allen County.

Beyond 'Henry stories'

In the years since his death, Faulkner often has been remembered as an eccentric artist who took his pet goat to gallery openings.

But recently there appears to be a revival of interest in Faulkner that goes beyond "the Henry stories."

During the past year, the Henry Faulkner House on Third Street has been under renovation; Transylvania University's Morlan Gallery mounted an exhibit that included his work; Balagula Theatre staged Tennessee Williams' The Two Character Play and dedicated it to Faulkner's memory; and The Kentucky Theatre hosted the premiere of a documentary chronicling the history of Lexington's gay culture, The Last Gospel of the Pagan Babies, one of whom was Faulkner. Late last year, more than 200 of Faulkner's paintings and drawings from the Greene Settle estate were sold to First Southern National Bank; a Georgetown gallery is offering prints from the collection.

Renewed interest in Faulkner, and the planned documentary, might send new readers to the biography that House wrote.

The Outrageous Life of Henry Faulkner, which is still in print, drew some impressive endorsements when was published by the University of Tennessee Press in 1988. James Leo Herlihy, author of Midnight Cowboy and probably one of the people who knew Faulkner best, called it "a stunning re-creation of one of the most bizarre and gifted men I've ever known."

Balagula Theatre's Natasha Williams said recently that the book was "a major accomplishment, the major source of factual information about Henry Faulkner. Without it, Henry might have been forgotten."

Q&A with Charles House

House, now 71, is the author of five books. Last year, he won the Kentucky Historical Society's Award of Distinction for his work on Clay County history.

In a recent interview, he talked about his work on Faulkner's biography. Though most of that work was done some 30 years ago, he still warms to the subject. This is an edited transcript of that conversation.

Question: What do you think gets left out when people talk or write about Faulkner?

Answer: There was way more to Henry Faulkner than one generally reads or hears about, and his importance as a Kentucky artist goes way beyond his fanciful paintings.

Not many people I interviewed knew much about his poetry or prose, his fairly extensive and high-level art training, or especially, what Falling Timber Branch meant to him and his writing and art.

Q: Did you ever meet Faulkner?

A: I just missed him. I decided to do a story on a Faulkner show that was mounted by a bank in London using Greene Settle's extensive collection. (House was then managing editor of the London Sentinel-Echo newspaper.) I was most impressed with what I saw and wanted to do an interview. Mr. Settle gave me Henry's number, and I called but got a message. Next day, Henry called me back, but he got the message treatment, too. We came that close.

The next morning I awoke to see a banner headline across the top of the front page of the Lexington Herald announcing Henry's death in a car accident. I felt all the requisite chills, and right there, the news story I had planned to write became a book.

Q: As you researched and wrote that book, what understanding of Faulkner did you come to that you didn't anticipate when you began?

A: No one could have been more wrong than I was when I started, thinking Henry Faulkner would not be the type to have left much of a paper trail. I thought it would be an anecdotal account, what his acquaintances would tell me in interviews. I had no inkling of the incredible amount of documentary material that was available or of the deeply complicated person those documents revealed.

Q: Tell me about Faulkner's papers.

A: His "papers" — that needs quotation marks around it — were found at the various properties he left to people in his will, often in great disarray, in piles of animal pee-stained detritus of every sort imaginable.

They included countless letters, poems, excerpts from a novel in progress, essays, limitless financial records and receipts, books and magazines, and news clippings local, regional and national.

It was a strange journey, finding and assembling the pieces of the puzzle of a strange life.

Q: What do you think it is about Faulkner's paintings that people find compelling?

A: They're charming, and they're beautiful, with stunning colors that would melt the heart of J.P. Morgan. And they're very accessible, sort of Chagall fantasies with a commercial delivery.

But until you realize that these pictures are graphic representations of his writing and poetry you can't grasp the real value.

Q: But so many of his paintings look like celebrations of life and beauty and imagination. And the poetry is so dark, so full of pain.

A: Some of the poetry is dark. Granted those are the passages that stick. The overwrought odes to butterflies and the beauty of Falling Timber Branch tend to be pushed into the back of the mind as lightweight stuff. But if you look at the work as a whole you find there were quite a lot of these kinds of observations, and those are the ones I believe are graphically represented by the paintings.

Unlikely as it may seem, what you get in the book is only a small portion of his writing output.

Q: So he was prolific as a writer and as a painter?

A: As I was researching the book, I made an estimate, based on gallery receipts, financial records and various other documents and information, that Henry probably painted in the neighborhood of 5,000 paintings.

Q: So now, more than 30 years since his death, more than 25 since your book came out, what are your feelings about what's happened since, in terms of Faulkner's reputation?

A: The same as Henry's would be, I imagine.

I think Henry would be extremely frustrated that the Faulkner legacy has devolved to include only the painting and "Faulkneresque" behavior. He put extraordinary effort into chronicling in writing his literary, spiritual and world views. But none of that seems to be part of the legacy now.

And gratification, too, that he's still out there, still selling, still being talked about.

Anne Shelby is a Clay County writer.

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