by Mike Templeton

***UACC is incredibly glad to have Mike Templeton, author of Chief of Birds, back for another blog post! Dive into the mesmerizing blend of folk-art tradition and contemporary commentary as Mike Templeton guides us through Ousley’s artwork inspired by the heart of Appalachia. From one-lane roads to exorcisms, Ousley’s paintings capture the raw essence of a region fighting to be heard.***

The Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is constantly promoting traditional Appalachian culture that is in direct contact with contemporary life. The artists, writers, and musicians that are of such importance to us are often those who preserve the old folk-ways while never shying away from the modern world. Mike Ousley is one of these artists. An Appalachian painter whose work is all about Appalachia, and whose subject matter is very contemporary. Mike Ousley uses the visual language of Appalachian folk-art to comment on and represent life in the Appalachia of today. 

One thing that is frequently said of Mike Ousley’s artwork is that it speaks of “the deep dark holler.” As he says himself, “I use the word holler a lot. I grew up in the holler. It’s a one-lane road that goes up in between the mountains. People don’t go there to visit for fun.” Ousley’s point is that he is from and represents those parts of Appalachia that are not on the tourist guidebooks. You are struck by two things even at the most cursory look at Ousley’s paintings: the folk-art style and the dark content. These two things merge to create something that is uniquely his own that seem to grow from his life in the deep dark hollers.  

Mike Ousley is indeed from the deep dark hollers. He is the son of a coal miner, and he promised his coal miner father her would not go into the mines himself. From Brush Creek, Kentucky, Ousley grew up hearing the wild tales of the region, and these sparked his imagination. He says he grew up “hearing stories… I was listening in and hearing them [adults] tell these ghost stories and strange encounters.” Ousley said even witnessed full-blown exorcisms at church. It was inevitable that these things would shape him in important ways.

The folk-art idiom Mike Ousley is working with is quite old, extending back to the great practitioner of the art, Grandma Moses. You can see the kinds of styles you find in outsider art from the likes of Woody Long. But in Ousley’s visual language, these traditions take some dark and ominous turns that squarely locates him in the Appalachia of today where the old ways are being forgotten and those who just want to be left in peace are fighting for that simple right. The images of the fantastic emerge amid the pressures of the modern world.

Ousley got his Master of Fine Art at the University of Cincinnati. While certainly a useful experience, he did not feel quite in place in the formal settings of UC. As Ousley explains: “I never really had a lot of technical art training. I was painting through college, and I took a few art classes.” But after kicking around trying to decide on what to do with himself, he put together a portfolio and got in the fine art program at UC. He said that in the 1990s, when he was studying there, it was an environment of conceptual art- not where Ousley was headed creatively. But meeting with some important mentors allowed him to return to what really does speak to him which is the life and imagery of the deep dark hollers of Appalachia.

Ousley takes the folk-art traditions and styles and uses it to frame some of the very contemporary issues that impact the part of Appalachia he knows. The “About” page on his website describes one of his paintings that depicts the way the tv show 48 Hours converged on some poor soul to exploit his image for a stereotypical idea of an Appalachian mountain man. It was one of an endless stream of ways that popular media and popular sentiments appropriate Appalachian life for an image of the dark underbelly of American life. This is the kind of thing he is responding to in his work. Mike Ousley’s work “tackles these class myths on a heroically mundane scale, setting his stage outside of local bars, high atop mountains, deep in the forest, along nameless rivers and on the shores of shadowed ponds.” As he says: “I tend to view my paintings as ballads for the rough living found in the Central Appalachian Coal Region […] a poetry for the underdog.” 

A poetry for the underdog indeed. One could make a case the much of Appalachian arts offer a poetry for the underdog as Appalachians continuously fight to be properly represented in American cultural life. Mike Ousley is an artist who is on the fore of this struggle as he takes the folk-art traditions of Appalachia and uses them to tell the story of Appalachia in the 21st century. Deceptively simple imagery, at times nightmarish visions, and the harsh realities of life in the hollers all find a magical expression in Ousley’s paintings. Perhaps one of the things so meaningful for the Urban Appalachian Community Coalition is the Mike Ousley found his artistic path here in Cincinnati and took it all back to Eastern Kentucky to make it happen. That pipeline between the urban and the rural homeplace remains alive with Mike Ousley and so does Appalachian art that is both traditional and relevant to the contemporary world.

Mike Ousley’s webpage can be found at this link:

You can look at Mike’s work and follow him on Instagram at this link:

Mike Templeton is a writer, independent scholar, barista, cook, guitar player, and accidental jack-of-all-trades. He is the author of the The Chief of Birds: A Memoir. Available from Erratum Press, and Impossible to Believe, forthcoming from Iff Books. Check out his profile in UACC’s new Cultural Directory. He lives in West Milton, Ohio with his wife who is a talented photographer. They spend their free time walking around the city and the country snapping photos. She looks up at the grandeur above, while Mike always seems to be staring at the ground.

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