Born the son of a coal miner in Southeastern Kentucky, Ousley’s paintings are, at first glance, simple stories told in the folk tradition—tight vignettes of a memory, some odd anecdote or an old Appalachian tale. Upon further reflection, they represent a broader struggle of the Appalachian peoples to secure their collective identity via a rich heritage of storytelling.
In popular media, Appalachia suffers from an essentialist narrative that holds the region as one of desolation of mind and spirit. There is an infamous segment of Dan Rather’s 48 Hours from 1988 in which he visits Muddy Gut, a community in Floyd County, Kentucky. Depicting broken-down cars and dilapidated buildings while describing poverty and ignorance, the narrative of the program was one of inability, dependence, and need. People of the region were rightfully inflamed. Not only did 48 Hours generalize their existence, but it was also, in many ways, an affront to their humanity, as the Kentucky governor stated in a later interview. Notably, the program added a banjo to their theme song for the episode, a cue for the viewer signaling that they are entering a place that exists outside of place and time. Though a lot of work has been done by anthropologists focused on the region, this myth of Appalachia persists.
Old enough to have seen the 48 Hours segment on TV, Ousley feels that, “some people look at Appalachia to remind themselves of what they are not.” Ousley tackles these class myths on a heroically mundane scale, setting his stage outside of local bars, high atop mountains, deep in the forest, along nameless rivers and on the shores of shadowed ponds. “I tend to view my paintings as ballads for the rough living found in the Central Appalachian Coal Region [...] a poetry for the underdog.” His canvases are unrelenting; his figures face the world with confidence, taking each moment in stride no matter the situation. They are often haunted by supernatural creatures, many of whom seem just as hardscrabble as the human denizens with which they commingle.
Though trained in academic techniques, Ousley made a conscious choice to return to the style of his youth, feeling it more true to his history and the stories he wanted to tell. For him, it was a matter of pride, and the playfulness of his work belies its serious intent. For example, The Ballad of Omie Wise illustrates a popular 19th century murder ballad, a story of two young lovers from opposite sides of the track that ends in the discovery of a pregnant, drowned body; Back Road Nip Joint depicts a type of illegal, nomadic bar prevalent in the region; and in Last Mountain Man we see a small camera crew interviewing only what one can assume to be the last of his kind.
Myths in ancient civilizations are known only by virtue of the fact that they became part of a written tradition, and many of these more contemporary tales would be lost were it not for the same inclination. Similarly, Ousley records an oral tradition in paint, aligned with the powerful folk tradition he was born into: “Sometimes when family would come in, as many as fifteen might gather in a room and tell stories and drink coffee. I can’t say all paintings should tell a story but for me it’s essential to the practice.” Through his work Ousley seeks to reclaim the Appalachian folk narrative, and position it as one of toughness and resourcefulness, of roots and pride that run deep.
About Mike Ousley
Mike Ousley (American, b. 1976) paints a direct commentary on Appalachian life and folk traditions, though their simplicity belies their depth. Ousley has painted since childhood, and though trained (MFA, University of Cincinnati), he foils Western European traditions with the folk style of his youth. Having grown up in a small coal town in Southeastern Kentucky listening to stories told by friends and family, he credits the visionary artists and rich heritage of the region as his primary influence. Recent exhibitions include Nine Lives at Fortnight Institute, NY; From These Hills at the William King Museum of Art, VA, curated by Michael Rooks; and, Something on the Wind at Morehead State University, Morehead, KY. His work was featured in ArtMaze Magazine Issue 22, selected by Fabiola Alondra and Jane Harmon. Ousley has been a resident at the Huntington Museum of Art, studying with Alfred Leslie; Arc of Appalachia; and, North Mountain. His work can be found in numerous private collections, as well as the public collections of Ashland Community College, Highlands Regional Medical Center, Morehead State University, and Ohio State University.