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Anna Oakes photo
Bus driver blues
Rob “Hound Dog” Baskerville of blues outfit The King Bees says his professions as musician and bus driver are a good fit: “Working musicians have to love to drive, first of all, because it comes with the territory.”
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A portrait of Hazel Dickens
East Tennessee folk artist Amy Campbell recently left her job as a college art professor to pursue art full time. “It was a scary decision, but I was pretty confident in it,” she reflects. “I just had to do it.”
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When opportunity NOCs
Pat Gleeson recently traded the cable airwaves for the rapids of the Smoky Mountains, joining the Nantahala Outdoor Center as director of sales after 10 years with Comcast in Atlanta.
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Ross and Coleen Miller create a Christmas card photo from their home and studio in East Tennessee, highlighting Ross’ wood sculptures and Coleen’s barn quilt squares.
Some folks do what they love and just happen to get paid for it—like that guy whose full-time job is to guide students on outdoor recreation excursions for the university, and that couple that runs a bed and breakfast in Maui. We all know a few…they’re those people. And some of us harbor an unbridled resentment toward them. There are those who believe that if they do what they love, the universe will provide, while for others, it’s not that simple, and finding their life’s path has been a matter of negotiating the tradeoffs of necessity and desire, work and play, and duty and freedom.
The Journey to Self-Supporting Artist
“I finally—at the age of forty-eight—said, ‘It’s now or never’,” said folk artist Amy Campbell of Maryville, Tenn., moments after placing a cobbler in the oven, explaining her decision to leave her job as a college fine art professor to pursue art full time.
“It’s only been the last four years, really the last year and a half, that I’ve solely supported myself on my art,” Campbell said. “I’m not making a great living, and it’s really hard, and not nearly the money. It’s been definitely a lot of sacrifice in order to do what I love. I’ve been at this for about 25 years.”
Although Campbell’s primary tool of her trade is a paintbrush, she views her role as one of a storyteller. Her artist statement best describes her work: “Pulling mainly from musicians, authors, and politicians of the Southeast, her folk portraits revisit and preserve the memories of lives colorfully lived.” Earlier this year, Berea College in Kentucky featured Campbell’s “The Nerve of Her,” an exhibit of women’s portraits—women who were pioneers is country, rock, bluegrass, and traditional music, from Mother Maybelle Carter to Dolly Parton. The works were gritty, made of paint, and wood, and recycled materials.
“I don’t want it to look fancy,” Campbell said. “It’s not a pretty thing behind glass—it’s something really approachable.” Campbell, who also hosts a radio show of bluegrass and old-time music on WDVX, says it’s important to recognize artists’ historic achievements that paved the way for others. “I’m real interested, when people cover those tunes, to remember the people who initially did it [so they can be] given their just reward for having such nerve,” she said.
Campbell’s journey to doing the work she truly loves rarely ventured outside of the artistic realm, but the tasks didn’t always suit her. The child of an art teacher, she grew up drawing and studied at an art college, originally aiming to be a fashion illustrator. In her first job at a department store, Campbell says, “I found out that the world of advertising was shallow, and I wasn’t like that. I don’t really want to push things on people.” Campbell made ends meet through freelance gigs illustrating books, CD covers, and posters, eventually obtaining a master’s degree in graphic design and picking up skills in Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator, “a great, great blessing to me,” she noted. Campbell’s folk portraits reach patrons across the country with the aid of social media, her website tennesseefolkart.com, and visits to area festivals, such as Merlefest—the bluegrass festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., that Doc Watson started—where her warm personality and artworks that showcase her talent, sass, and whimsy draw in customers. Some choose Campbell’s ready-made works, others place custom orders, and others still just get a kick reading her small-handpainted signs with slogans such as, “Lard, help!”
But it wasn’t help Campbell needed when she left a decade-long teaching career to become a full-time artist, as much as it was grit, which she’s got.
“It was a scary decision, but I was pretty confident in it,” Amy reflects. “I just had to do it.”
A Return to Youth’s Love to Retire Happy
Over the phone, it’s easy to mistake Pat Gleeson for a thirty-something thrill-seeking adventure fiend, working at the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, N.C. Pat, however, is pushing sixty—an energetic and enthusiastic sixty that revels in his new gig. It helps, of course, that Pat’s office is on the Nantahala River, a recreation destination for whitewater rafting, fishing, kayaking, and other activities. Since January he has been vice president for sales for the NOC, a guide and outfitter business, after leaving a sales position with Comcast in Atlanta.
“I’ve been in the media business for a long, long time,” Gleeson said. “A unique set of circumstances…allowed me to transition.”
Early in his life, Gleeson worked as a fishing guide in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area of Minnesota. “Then I had to get serious, so I went in the restaurant business,” he said. He ended up in the advertising field—where he has remained since 1980—first in billboards, then starting his own billboard company, then selling that billboard company to a larger group in Atlanta and going to work for them. Next came sales positions in the radio business, followed by the job with Comcast, where he spent the past 10 years running the cable company’s sales division.
“But the one thing that never sort of left me was a belief system and passion around the outdoors,” Gleeson said. “Every non-working moment that I could, I tried to develop that, and I became a real avid fly-fisherman.” He fished the waters of north Georgia, North Carolina, and Montana, and each year led the company trip to Colorado. “I just kept coming back to North Carolina,” he said.
One day in church, Gleeson, who traveled 42 weeks a year, was battling severe jet lag when a man approached him. The man remembered Gleeson was a fly-fisherman and asked him to visit an operation in Western North Carolina—the NOC. “Last October 4, [2012,] I took the red eye back from Salt Lake City, ran home, took a shower, got in my Subaru, and drove up here,” Gleeson said. “Christmas night they offered me a job.” Now, instead of hawking commercial space, Gleeson’s offerings include rafting operations on seven different rivers, the largest paddling school in the United States, two large aerial adventures, camping, hiking, biking, and training in orienteering, wilderness survival, and swift water rescue.
“If you think about all those products that I get to represent now, I’m just amped up,” Gleeson said. But he readily admits he never hated any of his previous jobs. “I’ve always been really, really blessed to never have to sell anything that I really didn’t like or that I really didn’t believe in,” he said. “What did I trade? Not being in traffic for two hours. Not being able to go to the gym to some goofball class—instead I just take a hike with my job, or on lunch break, I get on the river and get my fly rod out.” Gleeson, who says this post will take him through the rest of his life, also plans to become a raft guide and obtain his CDL license.
“I’ve never been a guy that worries about money; money will take care of itself,” he said. “Like any other business, there are problems and challenges, but they’re all fun problems, and they’re all fun challenges.”
On the Road to Perfect Balance
Entertainment write-ups on Rob “Hound Dog” Baskerville and wife Penny “Queen Bee” Zamagni’s band, The King Bees, rarely fail to mention the anomaly of a blues band in the North Carolina High Country, where bluegrass and old-time reign supreme. It can’t be easy eking out a living as a blues musician in Doc Watson’s backyard, but Baskerville feels he’s found the perfect combo in his dual persona: bus driver by day, rocker by night.
The King Bees are no amateur act, and to Baskerville, playing the blues is no hobby. After forming in 1987, The King Bees hit the road to apprentice under the world’s greatest blues musicians, sitting in and backing up such titans as Bo Diddley, Tinsley Ellis, Billy Branch, Mojo Buford, Big Jack Johnson and Ronnie Earl. They spent years on the road with legends such as Jerry McCain and Chicago Bob Nelson. In the process of honing their own sound, they hit the road on countless tours, from American juke joints to European festivals to prestigious concert halls.
Baskerville is recognized as a Blue Ridge National Heritage Area artist, and each September he and Zamagi produce their labor of love, the New River Blues Festival in Jefferson, N.C., showcasing the region’s smokin’ singers and musicians.
And since he was a college student, Baskerville has driven for AppalCART, the Boone, N.C., area public transit authority. “My bosses have always been supportive and flexible,” he said, on the phone from the Charlotte airport en route to a recording session. In the past, Baskerville has twice quit his job to go on extended tours and was rehired upon his return. “I’m sober, relatively dependable, and don’t crash buses,” he said with a laugh. Baskerville, in fact, finds his two chosen professions to be each other’s ideal complement: “Working musicians have to love to drive, first of all, because it comes with the territory,” he said.
In mid-August, Baskerville had just finished up two gigs in Connecticut, with the Blues Fest to follow the next weekend, a date in Georgia the next week and a trip to England planned this fall. “Blues musicians—you go where the work is,” he noted. “It’s always thinking weeks ahead.” Years ago, The King Bees played more than 200 dates a year, but these days, the band has pared the annual schedule down to about 100 gigs, which suits Baskerville just fine. “I was younger then,” he said. “I just turned 50. I’m at the point of finding that balance. There’s only so much Waffle House you want to eat.”
But Baskerville, who earned a degree in anthropology, said he would never trade in his career as a working blues musician for a more stable 9-to-5.
“No, that would drive me completely crazy,” he said. “I could have done probably something different, but I would not be happy. I would much rather work long hours and have some independence and some control over what my life is.”
Mapping Out a New Course
Coleen Miller’s career as a travel agent carried her all over the planet to new and exotic corners of the world. Her love of travel was nurtured at a young age, when her grandparents toured the Caribbean and South America. On school vacations, she would ship out to whichever tropical locale her grandparents happened to be visiting. “When I got to high school and the guidance counselor said, ‘What do you want to be when you grow up,’ I knew,” Miller said.
But being in the travel industry, Miller grew weary of spending so much time away from home. “I always had a suitcase packed,” she explains. “I probably worked 50, sometimes 60 hours a week, every week. If I was escorting a group, I had to be the first one up in the morning and the last one to bed at night.” And then, several years ago, an earth-shaking family event triggered a shift in Miller’s work-life paradigm. “My mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s while she was still working at the age of 65,” Miller said. “My mother never got to enjoy retirement. She was robbed of what could have been a much longer life. It scared me into quitting my 9-to-5 job and concentrating more on making each day more precious.” Miller doesn’t regret her years in the travel biz, but she said, “I’d rather stay home now. Life is too short to work until you’re dead.”
Around the same time, Miller and her husband Ross found it increasingly difficult to afford to live in New York state, home to their families for generations. One week’s worth of Miller’s monthly salary went solely to gas expenses. The couple decided to move to the South and four years ago relocated to Powell, Tenn., northwest of Knoxville. Ross kept his job as an auto glass technician while Miller began her retirement, though she still books trips from time to time.
But Ross also has a secondary career— carving wood sculptures, typically of bears and other animals, fashioned by chainsaws and other tools. The passion began as a hobby 20 years ago when, as a carpenter often laid off during New York winters, he couldn’t afford to buy Christmas gifts for family members. He started carving small wooden crafts for presents. Seven years ago he picked up the craft again. The first few of these larger sculptures again were destined to be gifts, but then, after moving to Tennessee, Ross sold a piece of his art for the first time.
“It felt awesome. Really great. I couldn’t believe that I had found something that people valued enough to be willing to pay for it, to purchase it, and that I actually liked doing it,” Ross said. “I never had a job that I loved. I did jobs that I had to do because I had to make a living.
Ross spends an hour or two each day and most Saturdays carving. In addition, he volunteers for a “10 and 2” furlough program at work, which gives him two months off in the summer to dedicate to his craft and work his home garden. A lust for detail precludes him from making great profits on his works, each of which take between 20 and upwards of 80 hours to complete. Most of the money made from sales of his sculptures is reinvested in his equipment and tools. “Eventually I am going to retire and go full time with carving,” he said.
While looking for ways to promote Ross’ work, Miller discovered the Appalachian Quilt Trail, a program that supports heritage arts and agritourism through self-guided trails of old barns and other buildings that display colorful quilt squares. She endeavored to paint her own quilt square for display, which would earn her husband’s studio (and their home) a stop on the trail map. But there was only one problem: “We say in our family that we didn’t get the painting gene,” Miller said, with a laugh.
Nevertheless, Miller was inspired to recreate a pattern from a tattered quilt her grandmother made her in the ‘70s: “I felt terrible that it was just packed away in a box.” Now, the piece of art gives Miller a “double pleasure:” “Not only do people come here to see the barn quilt, but every time I pull in my driveway now, I think of my grandmother.” Today, she paints custom quilt squares for sale at any size. No barn? No problem. She’s even created a square small enough for a doghouse.