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Reflections on a Winslow Homer Painting

On our living room wall hangs a print of a painting by famed artist Winslow Homer. Before it hung in our house, it adorned the bare, white-painted, concrete block wall of my first office when I was a fledgling editor at the Oak Ridge Y-12 Plant and was awaiting the arrival of my security clearance. I had to put it on that wall or go stark raving mad. Staring at four blank walls of an office isolated in the catacombs on the third floor of a biological laboratory is enough to drive the sanest person absolutely batty.

But that painting, “Snap the Whip,” was more than a sanity-maintainer for me. It reminded me of three special people: my grandfather, my father, and teacher-author Jesse Stuart.

First, the painting reminds me of my grandfather because my father handcrafted the frame using boards from my grandfather’s old barn, which stood in the pasture between our house and my grandfather’s apple orchard. We kids spent many hours playing in that old barn and more hours playing baseball in the pasture in front of it.

Second, the painting reminds me of my father because he had attended a small, clapboard Fort Sumter School at the corner of Hill Road and Fort Sumter Road, just half a mile from where I grew up and similar (though perhaps not so rustic) to the school shown in the painting. Looking at the students playing in the schoolyard in the painting reminds me of stories my father used to tell us kids about his own school experiences. In fact, one of the boys making up the “whip” in the game looks eerily like my father. (I always thought he looked grown up even in photos taken of him when he was just a kid. Living during the Depression had a way of making kids grow up faster.)

Finally, the painting reminds me of Jesse Stuart, who began teaching in a one-room schoolhouse in which he struggled to teach his students not only the daily lessons of the curriculum but also, and more importantly, the life lesson that learning is critical to success in any and all life endeavors. One of the ways he instilled that principle in his students was by using games to make the lessons fun. Even the most tedious work can become tolerable if one can make a game of it.

I cannot think of Jesse Stuart, however, without also recalling his writing life. He had a burning desire not only to learn and teach but also to share his enthusiasm for those activities through writing. His children’s books are especially enjoyable and instructive, including such titles as The Beatinest Boy, A Penny’s Worth of Character, Red Mule, and Huey the Engineer. His short stories are just as interesting, such stories as “Nest Egg,” “Split Cherry Tree,” “Men of the Mountains,” “Sylvania Is Dead,” and “Dawn of Remembered Spring.” Inspired by Stuart’s writing style and subject matter, I’m tempted to follow my book Look Unto the Hills with a sequel titled, like one of Stuart’s novels, Beyond Dark Hills.

All of Stuart’s writing success came as a result of his having a dream and refusing to give up on it. It all began when he took to heart one of his college professor’s advice: “Go back to your people. Go back and write of them. Don’t change and follow the moods of these times. Be your honest self. Go back and write of your country. Your country has your material.” (You can read the full account in my articles “The Beloved Country,” The Writer, April 2016, “Rediscovering the Children’s Books of Jesse Stuart, Christian Library Journal, Winter 2000.)

As writers, we should take our inspiration wherever it comes and continue to mine those depths to the fullest. Homer’s painting is a constant reminder to me of three rich “veins” of inspiration for me: my grandfather, my father, and Jesse Stuart, all exemplars for me.

What is your “mother lode” of inspiration?

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