The old family house had been worn by weather and time. The floors and remaining furniture all covered in layers of dust and dirt. Teenagers left empty beer cans laying around. In the living room, next to the wood furnace, hangs a cross. It’s faded maroon and green patterns are made of folded cigarette packs weaved together. I could see the Surgeon General’s warning text wrapping around the folded packs. Centered on the back is a small leather string looped together that hung it from a nail in the wall. This handmade cross belonged to my Great Uncle who had just recently passed away and I knew I had to save it.
Sometimes known as trench art, prison art, or tramp art. These types of pieces have gathered a reputation as intense reminders of artists’ most challenging experiences. Click the following link for more on the genre of prison art. https://www.justiceaction.org.au/art-in-prison
My Uncle had been part of the large migration out of Appalachia that took place after World War II. Many mountain people went north seeking opportunities in industrial work at places such as car manufacturers. According to the Encyclopedia of Appalachia during the Great Migration of 1940 to 1970 millions of Eastern Kentuckians, West Virginians, Tennesseans and other Appalachians migrated to cities such as Cincinnati and Detroit (Abramson and Haskell 903).
While living in Michigan my Great Uncle went to prison after driving drunk and hitting someone. From what I’ve been told by my family his jail time would have been sometime around the 50s and 60s, dating this piece of art. This cross traveled from its creator’s prison cell all the way back home to Lee County, Kentucky. I took it down from the old family’s wall and brought it home with me. Christopher Miller, our curator here at the Loyal Jones Appalachian Center, was able to tell me this piece is made of two types of cigarette packs. The brown colors are Camel packs and the green are Kool. Every time I look upon this piece I’m struck by its many layers. From my Uncle’s life story, what it has meant to me, to the broader cultural context of such an artifact.
Even years after his death my Uncle’s cross continues to tell the story of a life and the story of a people. Pieces of family history such as this cross tell stories that span across generations. People from all cultural backgrounds have these types of heirlooms and artifacts. It is only through considering and learning about these pieces that we can come to understand those who interacted with them firsthand. It is then that we can appreciate the meaning of those seemingly ordinary objects in our own daily lives.
Consider your own life and family for a moment. What kind of objects, tools, or works of art have you interacted with today that will inform the people of tomorrow?
Article Written by Rick Childers