Ellen Elmes: Painting Mountain Soul

November 21, 2010

November 21, 2010

Walt Michael

"The Town of Clintwood, The Ralph Stanley Museum and Dr. Ralph Stanley requests the honor of your presence for the unveiling of a series of paintings.  Ellen Elmes, an art professor at SWVCC, has created a series of paintings depicting the songs and music of Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Stanley Brothers.  These paintings will de displayed in the Community Center adjacent to the Ralph Stanley Museum, as a permanent collection."

So read the invitation that arrived in my office here at Common Ground on the Hill.  At long last the moment had arrived!  I called longtime friend, Common Ground Advisory Board member and ace photographer Richard Anderson, inviting him to ride the nine hour drive with me deep into the heart of southern Appalachia.  We arrived to witness a glorious fall sunset over Jewell Ridge, spent the night with Don and Ellen Elmes in their mountaintop abode, and made the two and a half hour drive to Clintwood the next morning.

Milkweed Sunset on Jewell Ridge
Richard Anderson & Don Elmes

The event was to celebrate the unveiling of eight large paintings, depicting the lyric and story of the music of the Stanely Brothers.  For over forty years, Ellen Elmes has been painting southern Appalachia - its people, its flora, its moods, its hopes, its despair, in short, its compelling and complex beauty.  Her paintings reside in homes, museums and galleries, as murals in communities throughout the mountains, and in the hearts and minds of the countless people who are depicted in her work.  In a large sense, Ellen's work has been a joyous affirmative mirror to the people of Appalachia.

Ellen & Don Elmes unveiling one of eight paintings

As I wrote to our friend from Mississippi, Victor McTeer, "Ralph Stanley is to Appalachia as B.B. King is to the Delta."  Indeed, Ralph Stanley is the living epicenter of southern Appalachian music. Ellen's brush carried the heavy assignment of capturing the depth and range of the Stanely Brothers music, encompassing joy, love, exuberance, melancholy, despair, sorrow, faith, tragedy, the beauty of the mountains themselves.  This three-year project included interviews with Ralph Stanley, listening to the wealth of recordings of the Stanley Brothers as well as Ralph Stanley live concerts, and the huge task of telling the epic story of the heart of Appalachian music in eight paintings.  Ellen's amazing visual work now belong to the ages, illustrating the depth of the southern Appalachian experience. Common Ground on the Hill is proud to have commissioned this work.

Ellen Elmes

In the summer of 1966, I made my first visit to West Virginia as a student volunteer with the Student Opportunity Service of Western Maryland College (now McDaniel College, the residence of Common Ground on the Hill).  Ellen joined our teams in 1967, starting a life-long love relationship with the mountains and their people.  At the unveiling at the Ralph Stanley Museum, we were joined by our "Mountain Mother,"  Anna Bailey, whom we treasure beyond words.  She was our provider and protector as student volunteers, and continues to nurture us with her friendship, humor, kindness and wise counsel.

Anna Bailey & Walt Michael

Anna Bailey & Walt Michael

This was indeed a day to remember.  I hope that you will visit the Museum, enjoy its top-notch B&B, and spend some time with Ellen's paintings.  Be sure to sign up early for Ellen's painting classes at Common Ground on the Hill.   As you might imagine, she is a student favorite around here!

Ellen Elmes, Ralph Stanley, Walt Michael & Don Elmes
at the Common Ground on the Hill Festival 2008
where Dr. Stanley receieved the first of eight paintings
as the Robert H. Chambers Award
for Excellence in the Traditional Arts

Visit Ellen's Website
Visit Richard Anderson's Website
Visit the Ralph Stanley Museum Website