This Friday at Van Gogh's in Jasper, Pickens County author Jean Curran will sign her new book about local artist Billy Roper.
In My Dreams I Ride Wild Horses, a book newly released by Pickens County author, Jean Curran, paints a biography of local artist, Billy Roper. The book also gives analysis and definition to the term "folk art." With that method of expression Roper is most often tagged, though continuing innovation he brings to his work tends to surprise followers and defy conformity, Curran relates.
The book's title comes from a Roper poem:
"in my dreams I ride wild horses
i fly through the sky like the wind on a wheat field
in my life i ride plow horses
i move like a river always forward slow and fast."
Billy Roper was born "blessedly poor" in the Yellow Creek community of southeast Pickens County. By his reckoning, the place no longer exists as he knew it. During childhood and adolescence, Roper enjoyed tremendous freedom there. Socially reclusive then, he spent most of his time outdoors, observing nature in the woodland he ranged as a boy.
Though socially isolated at that time, Roper has since developed into a skilled communicator, both in graphic arts and the written and spoken word. One of the strengths of Curran's text is her frequent presentation of Roper in his own words. "When he left home after high school," Curran writes, "he headed for Suches and found a job cutting collards." She lets Roper describe it from there:
"Them migrant workers don't know anything I don't know. If you ain't cut collards for a livin', you ain't lived. My first day on the job I laid my finger open to the bone. It's a little bit of a handicap bleedin' on the collards as you go along. That sorta told me I didn't have that much of a future in farmin'.
"Then I went to work pavin'––asphalt pavin'. It was the worst job in the world. When you were gettin' ready, pickin' up rocks and such, it was terrible, but when you started pavin' you would get in the zone, and you would break out in a sweat.
"That winter I was gonna trap. There was just one problem with that trappin'. I caught a possum one time and absolutely broke mine and his heart both so I didn't do well at trappin' because to trap you must catch the animal and skin him, and I had a problem with that. And so the trappin' career was a lot more for show than anything else––and talk. Other than that one possum I never did catch anything, and I could have. That's like deer huntin'. I'd rather sit there and watch them go by. It was just bein' in the woods. But I worked at asphalt pavin' for two years, one summer and then off that winter and then all of the next summer. And then I worked a little bit one spring."
Curran adds "Billy was learning a basic lesson about freedom. No one is ever completely free."
Roper worked as a mill hand, a craftsman carpenter and cabinetmaker, and suffered a nervous breakdown on the pilgrimage that shaped him into an artist. A great love made that awakening possible. As Curran records, Roper's relationship with his wife, J.J., provides the steadying influence and safe environment where Roper finds freedom to create his art.
The art show that established Roper as a professional with a special gift occurred at North Georgia College and State University about a decade ago. At that Dahlonega showing, presentation of Roper's paintings included the artist's musings on each work, printed and included beside the painting.
The impact of Roper's color use and symbolism, paired with his own thoughts concerning each painting, connected with the audience. Some viewers wept at what they discovered.
"You've said what I thought, only you painted it," scribed one viewer in a written comment. Another wrote, "It is hard to tell which is more impressive––Mr. Roper's painting or his writings. He has a profound approach to life."
Roper's words paired with his artwork clearly moved some viewers to the core. He describes his writing as "words stripped of ever'thing except what it is."
Curran explains the importance of symbolism in Roper's work and its subtlety. While folk art often relies on symbolism, she says, it seldom speaks softly. Roper communicates with a lighter touch.
Many images of Roper art are included in the book, most captured by skilled photographer, David Akoubian.
A too casual observer can miss the message. Curran's book informs toward a deeper way of looking that opens Roper's art on a level you might not realize at first. Simply be advised that if a Roper work appears simple, it probably is not. There is likely much more to be found in a second look, a pondering.
“Folk art is a genuine art form that is sometimes misunderstood and underrated,” Curran writes. “But Billy's story, along with the growing popularity of folk art, is evidence that this unfortunate circumstance is giving way to interest, acceptance, and ultimately fascination. In the final analysis Billy Roper has become a successful artist because his art is unique, relevant, and skillfully and beautifully executed with obvious emotional intensity that speaks to the public as clearly as words can.”
Author, Jean Curran, signs copies of her book, In My Dreams I Ride Wild Horses, this Friday evening, September 9, from 6 to 8 o'clock at VanGogh's Hideaway. That is on D.B. Carroll Street one block behind Jasper's Old Jail and next door to the Sharptop Arts Center. With Curran will be artist, Billy Roper, the star of Curran's biography. Some Roper artworks will also be on presentation.
Curran's book is also available at Jasper Drugs and through AuthorHouse.com for $29.95.