Southern Strange: Lexington photographer Guy Mendes ‘walks to the Paradise Garden’
Institute 193’s forthcoming book, Walks to the Paradise Garden is their production of the last unpublished manuscript of the late poet and provocateur Jonathan Williams, with photographs by Roger Manley and Guy Mendes.
Taking its name from the famous artwork by Howard Finster, Walks highlights images and stories of Southern artists and creators while they were still anonymous, before they were famous, or in some cases, infamous.
The book chronicles Williams’ road trips across the Southern United States with photographers Guy Mendes and Roger Manley in search of the most authentic and outlandish artists the South had to offer.
According to Mendes, readers of the new book will meet, “Evan Decker, of Delta, KY, who carved a 15-hands-high horse so he could climb on it and sing Home On the Range…and there is a host of wonder-makers from right here in LEX: Cowboy Steve Taylor, Gene Meatyard, Captain Kentucky, Bradley Harrison Picklesimer and the Fabulous Little Enis.”
Williams said, “The people and places in Walks to the Paradise Garden exist along the blue highways of America…. We have traveled many thousands of miles, together and separately, to document what tickled us, what moved us, and what (sometimes) appalled us.”
Mendes says, “It’s a big helping of Southern Strange through the lens of outsider artists, many of them, like Jonathan, gone now, I’m sad to say.”
Lexington photographer Guy Mendes apprenticed under the late James Baker Hall (author/ photographer/UK faculty/and former Kentucky poet laureate) in 1971, and went on to teach photography at UK himself for 14 years. His day job was at KET, where he was an award-winning documentarian as a writer/producer from 1973 until he retired in 2008.
Asked the biggest influence by a Kentuckian on his work, he explains the sequence, “Poet Wendell Berry introduced me to Gene Meatyard, who, in turn, introduced me to photography as poetry. Big Ed McClanahan made me laugh when he first appeared at my front door in 1969, and he has made me laugh ever since. And James Baker Hall taught me about putting words and pictures together, something I have enjoyed doing for a long time.”
Asked the most famous photo he’s ever taken, he adds, “Speak of the devil! That would be my portrait of Little Enis and the Go Go Girls of Boot’s Bar, which graced a page in the the March 1974 Playboy, page 117, illustrating Ed McClanahan’s epic story “Little Enis Pursues His Muse.”
Asked to give us a guided tour of the pivotal 80s-era road trips chronicled in the book, Mendes tells us, “Among the wonders, and the conjurers who summoned them up, you’ll find Mirrell Lainhart, a retired Madison County minister who spotted his house, outhouse and
anything else he could find; and Henry Dorsey, of Brownsboro, who fashioned an elaborate, crank-activated landscape of discarded objects and appliances across the front of his house; then up Toller Holler there are the Kinney Brothers, Noah & Charlie, makers of things they saw in their heads; and Carl McKenzie, of Nada, KY, who trafficked in angels and devils; the greatest gourd artist ever, Minnie Black, of E. Bernstadt, and her senior citizen All-Gourd Band; Mayfield’s Martha Nelson Thomas, who flat-out reinvented the doll; and Evan Decker, of Delta, KY, who carved a 15-hands- high horse so he could climb on it and sing Home On the Range; there’s Austin Coe, down in Russellville, who turned two big front yard trees into Adam and Eve, the latter of which he adorned with a bra and skirt after the grade school next door complained; and, of course, Campton’s favorite son Edgar Tolson, whose own Adam and Eve rivals any of the great depictions ever made of the First Couple; and there is a host of wonder-makers from right here in LEX: Cowboy Steve Taylor, Gene Meatyard, Captain Kentucky, Bradley Harrison Picklesimer and the Fabulous Little Enis.
Ten years ago, Mendes told us “old school is on the endangered disciplines list, but there are plenty of us practitioners still out here, looking at the world through gray scale glasses.”
“Some of the materials have disappeared, and some, like Polaroid Pos/Neg Type 55, are making a comeback. There’s still a lot of interest on the part of students. When UK SAVS was built five years ago, a large black & white gang darkroom was included in the renovations. And now every semester we have three sections of AS 380 Darkroom Photography, each with a max of 18 students. It’s still fun to watch a first-timer unspool their freshly-developed film to find that they have indeed fixed some shadows”
Ace’s Bonus Lightning
Round with Guy Mendes
Okra-eater? Non-okra eater?
Dredged and sautéed, battered and fried, and most of all, in Gumbo!
Quick: Is Lexington the South or the Midwest?
Having traveled all over KY for 30 years for KET I can say unequivocally that Kentucky is Southern, and some of that is great, fabulous, wonderful, but some of it’s still awful, dispiriting and angrifying.
Your most treasured possession?
I used to have an original Frisbee pie pan from New Haven, CT, but I’m not sure where it is now. I love our paintings by Ann Tower and Bob Tharsing, and the Gene Meatyard and James Baker Hall prints we have. But what I hold dearest and nearest to my heart are the simple pictures of my wife and sons.
What’s in your top right desk drawer right now?
Pictures of my wife and sons. And a FloraCliff flyer with a note from Beverly James, the director. And some picture wire and some Ooks, hand lotion, toothpicks, checkbook logs and a Father’s Day card from about five year ago, in which Jess wrote: Daddy-O, Thanks for all the years of service.
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