It was a beautifully warm day in the year 1989 when myself and my two friends, Connie Stewart and Catherine Hardwicke, followed the back roads near Winston-Salem, NC to visit a famous folk artist named James Harold Jennings. We had called ahead to speak with his sister before getting on the road that morning. We wanted to make sure James Harold would be home, but mostly we wanted him to know we were coming so he wouldn’t start shooting at us with one of his many shotguns.
He greeted us at the grand entrance to his home with open arms and smiles. Despite the propensity for shotgun salutations, James Harold was a sweet and fragile soul. His mannerisms were childlike and very playful. He was elated to have company, especially what he termed as three pretty gals, and so proud to share his work with all of us.
We toured the three school buses he called home. He lived simply and without electricity or telephones. Each of the buses had a designated purpose. One bus was where he slept. He was also an avid reader and based much of the art we could see on some of the stories he read about ancient history. Another bus was where he ate all of his meals and cooking was done on a fire pit which he kept burning all the time. The third bus was his art studio, unless the weather was nice and he could work outdoors.
We wandered around outside so we could view his hard work and his visions. My friend Catherine was interested in many of the pieces he had for sale, so he spent some time with her while she picked out the perfect art to purchase and take back to California.
I have an entire photo album of pictures I took that day. It is one of the most colorful and whimsical photo albums I own. How incredibly fascinating to be able to strike out on your own and be exactly who you want to be, without a care or a hoot what anyone else thinks about it. How mind boggling brilliant was this man that had a smile and a giggle for his guests and yet produced some of the most challenging and intricate works of sheer fancy. I was blown away!
A few years ago I was looking him up online to share his location with another friend that was interested in making the journey to his outdoor art studio, and I found James Harold’s obituary. I was shocked and saddened to learn that such a talented and unique artist was taken from us way before his time. But it was reading his obituary that really brought some things home for me. It was why he died that truly astonished me.
Y2K was just around the corner when James Harold was turning 69 years old. I remember all of the terrifying newscasts and warnings leading up to the year 2000. I was scared and I don’t know of anyone that was looking forward to the ball dropping in Times Square that year. They predicted horrific events, like planes dropping out of the sky, mass power failures and nuclear meltdowns. Essentially, they predicted the end of the world.
James Harold Jennings took his own life on his 69th birthday in 1999. He was too frightened by the Y2K predictions to hang around to see if the world ended, or not.
I have thought of this often, and especially when I scroll down my Newsfeed on Facebook. It’s one of the reasons I have backed off from posting as much as I used to. Now I am more careful about what I share and if I am posting something I feel is inflammatory, I do my own due diligence and base it on pure facts and not on hearsay. If I can’t back it up with intelligence, I just don’t post it anymore.
I wish other people would do the same.
I wish they would stop and think about the fear they put out there into the world.
I wish they had met James Harold Jennings and I wish they knew how much the world needs more people like him.
If all of us reading this can make one promise, one deep commitment, to honor my friend James Harold Jennings, let it be to take care and be vigilant of the frail and fragile souls that walk among us that they should never be frightened by something, that in the end, can not hurt them.
Take care with what you share…please.