Slide Show

Commissions come steadily for formal oil portraits, and probably McKinney’s most prominently displayed is one of Carl D. Perkins completed in 1995, hanging in the U.S. House of Representatives in Washington, D.C.  Congressman Perkins, a native of Hindman, Kentucky, was commemorated with the painting as the longest reigning chairman of the committee for education and labor.  In the painting, Perkins stands next to his desk in his office.  Behind him on the wall is an American flag as well as the state seal of Kentucky.  His gaze is direct despite his smile, and the skin tones are high-lighted by the contrast of the muted colors in his suit and law books.  This is a formal technically rendered memorial portrait, and McKinney compares this type of work, more formulaic and dependent on skill, to playing a classical piece of music, where the amount of personal expression is subordinate to the talent required.  The wall behind Perkin’s head is more loosely rendered than the objects, and energizes the painting as a whole.  Though this type of work, like classical music composition, is not what typically comes to mind when referring to the art of Appalachia, it is work by an irrefutably legitimate Appalachian with deep roots and loyalty to the region, portraying an important Appalachian political figure.  The social contribution that portraiture as well as public works provides is no coincidence; art, historic and contemporary, is a necessary process and product, within the region, and without.


Sam McKinney was born in Lexington, Kentucky in 1951, where his parents lived briefly after World War II.  His father, a paratrooper who had jumped at Normandy, was training in Lexington on the G.I. Bill to be an electrician.  After his educational training was completed, the McKinney family returned to their hometown, Fleming-Neon, in Letcher County, Kentucky.  For over a decade, his father worked for an electric company before becoming a self-employed electrician and repairman in the small coal town.


Fleming-Neon (“Flaming-Neon,” it was jokingly called by some) was built around the coal mining industry, and in fact, a financial investment by John D. Rockefeller helped found the town.  He was interested in developing self-sufficient towns, complete with their own means to generate electricity, all for coal mining purposes.  This type of influence and pressure by rich organizations and industry has shaped Appalachia for over a century, in some way devastating.  The political agenda behind Rockefeller’s investment is still quite clear in the aims of later heirs.  In the Forward of Michael Bradshaw’s 1992 book, The Appalachian Regional Commission:  Twenty-Five Years of Government Policy, the Honorable John D. Rockefeller IV, a U.S. Senator at the time, stated, “…special assistance to Appalachia not only benefits our region; it benefits the entire nation because of the access it provides to our plentiful natural resources of coal,” (page x of Forward).  This political influence and emphasis on money shaped local policies and populations in Eastern Kentucky to an extent that the indigenous culture became unique.

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