Today’s article features an autobiographical sketch of Sharon Chesta Webb Brown, a 1960 Whitesburg High School graduate. She is a retired arts and humanities teacher who grew up in the Appalachian mountains of southeast Kentucky. She taught in Louisville, and then eventually moved to far western Kentucky where she retired four years ago. She is an artist and a writer, and her favorite subjects to write about are the mountains and wildflowers of eastern Kentucky. She says that they are very nearly her favorite subjects to paint, too. “Truth is, I left my heart back in those mountains.”
Most people in the mountains, if they remember me at all, call me by my first name, Chesta. I was born in November of ’42 when my dad was serving his country in the Philippines during World War II, and my mother named me for him. But my grandfather, G. Bennett Adams, had added the middle name of Sharon. The older folks called me by both names. When I was in college and away from the mountains, I realized my first name was creating a perilous journey. I was assigned to the boys’ dorm first, then next I found myself in the boys’ P.E. class, and at one point I received a notice from Uncle Sam that it was time for me to enlist in the military. I survived those particular hurdles quite intact but in order to do so I had to drop my first name. I became Sharon when I started teaching in Louisville in 1964 and I have been Sharon ever since.
I always wanted to teach. That desire came naturally because I was from a family of teachers. My grandfather had been a teacher, I had aunts who were teachers, my dad had taught before the war and my mother was a teacher. Actually, I was more influenced by my own teachers than I was by my family. In school I had the very best teachers. So I became a teacher and I wanted to be the best, just like those I’d had in Bottom Fork, Mayking, and Whitesburg schools.
I was fortunate in that I had inherited some creative abilities from my family and those abilities opened many doors for me. Against my dad’s advice I majored in art with areas in English, French and history. Dad thought since WHS had never had an art teacher at that time, and since I’d never had any formal art training in my life, I would never get a job teaching art. I kept telling him that I could teach English or French or history just as well as art, but still he thought I was wasting my time in all those art classes at Georgetown College.
I taught art for 37 years. I wish my dad had lived long enough to know that.
My life has been an adventure, one right after the other. I always taught high school and most of the time I averaged teaching about 150 students a year. I figure I might have taught several thousand students during those 30 years, and I swear I’ve kept in contact with the majority of them. I loved teaching, and I loved art. Someone recently asked me if I’d do it all over again, and I can for sure say ‘yes’ about that. I was right where I was supposed to be, teaching art.
I married Bob Brown when I was working in Louisville. He was in data processing in the school system there. When he was given the opportunity to work in far western Kentucky in 1973, we moved to Marshall County and I immediately began teaching again. Marshall County had just built a new high school, and I was given the job of teaching art. The only problem with moving to western Kentucky was the flatlands. I was too far away from my mountains, too far away from my roots. I couldn’t move my mountains to western Kentucky, but little by little I began moving plants that I had grown up with. My ancestors not only taught, they also gardened. I grew up knowing a lot about plants. My mom not only had a garden at the house on the hill in Mayking where she grew up, but she also had a garden at the house on Bottom Fork where I grew up. I think I must have the offspring of most of her plants growing in my yard here in western Kentucky.
I mentioned earlier that it was my Letcher County teachers who inspired me. They are too numerous to mention one by one, but I was so influenced by Virginia Combs. She not only encouraged me to write, but she also created ways for me to incorporate art into everything she assigned. Then there was Joy Wray Breeding who sent a poem I had written in her class (about a big yellow school bus driving along a mountain road) to Grit magazine, and it was published! I was so excited, I’d been paid a whopping $20 for the poem. That was the first payment I’d ever received for anything I’d ever written. There was Bonnie Day who challenged me to stay awake at night and watch the light from Sputnik cross over the little expanse of sky I could see between the mountains that surrounded my house. That was in 1959. And there was Walter Enlow who told me if I could draw the perfect square I could surely figure out algebra. And I finally did, thanks to him. And Mr. Edgar Banks who told me I could never raise an ear of corn if I only planted one seed, I must at least plant two. Fond memories.
And so I taught. And as I taught I had many opportunities to paint and to write. My paintings are scattered north to Baltimore and New York, south to Florida and Texas, and west to California and Oregon. And there will soon be one in Alaska. I love to paint.
My writings were more educational than creative at first. I wrote curriculum guides both for Jefferson County in the ‘ 60s and again in Marshall County in the ‘70s. They continued when I wrote a series of lesson plans in the early ‘90s when the state of Kentucky implemented the study of arts appreciation in the required curriculum for high school graduates. It wasn’t until I retired that I fell back into creative writing.
So I raised my family, a son and a daughter in western Kentucky. I retired after 37 years of teaching in 2006. My children were grown and gone. My son was a lawyer up north, and my daughter was in the restaurant business in Florida so my husband and I decided we would spend a lot of our time traveling, both north and south.
When I first retired our county judge/ executive asked me to create a community art gallery in the old courthouse in Benton. It is a beautiful old brick three-story building right in the middle of town, but it had been replaced by a new judicial building leaving only a few offices to fill the old courthouse. The courtroom on the second floor was large, containing a small law library in back and many old handcarved wooden benches. We decided to turn the old courtroom into the gallery and the county provided the men and the materials that were needed. I still oversee the gallery, and we have continuous shows of work from various artists in the community. Sometimes the judge holds state meetings in the gallery so it gets a lot of exposure. It’s called ‘The Courtroom Gallery’, and there is an iron plaque on the outside entrance of the courthouse that includes those words.
In the fall of 2006 I was asked to write articles for a gardening website so I started my venture into creative writing. I’ve written some 200 articles for davesgarden.com and they are all about growing up in the mountains of southeast Kentucky and the plants I found there. Most of them are about medicinal plants and how they were used historically, and how I was taught by the older women in my life to make healing salves and soothing teas from those plants.
We live within 10 miles of both Lake Barkley and Kentucky Lake. We boated extensively on both lakes and on the Ohio, the Tennessee and the Cumberland Rivers when our children were little. As a result of all that boating, I also sometimes write boating articles for a nautical newsletter.
More recently, I write for another website, Cubits.org, and those writings are about many things, including old furniture that was handmade by my ancestors and hooked rugs that my mother made. I seem to write more about growing up in Letcher County than about anything else. That’s because my heart is still there and everything I learned throughout my life was influenced by those who raised me there in the mountains.
My husband died suddenly in April 2007. We had not yet traveled as we had planned to do, so I turned to writing and painting to fill the void his death had created. My writing has taken me to Alaska where I was asked to create a memorial garden for an online friend I had met through my gardening articles. I spent 10 days there and grew to love the diversity I found in that faraway state. I also enjoyed time watching the Midnight Sun.
In May, I’ll travel to Iowa to explore what used to be the Amana colonies, another trip that will come about because of my writings.
It’s hard to believe it’s been 50 years since I graduated from WHS. Last June I went back for my 50th high school reunion, and it was so good to renew old friendships. My brother still lives on Bottom Fork, and there is nothing better than being able to go home and spend time with him and his family.
So my life has been an adventure. I have been a wife, a mother, a teacher, an artist and a writer. I wouldn’t change a thing. I suppose I’ll write and paint till the day I die, and that would suit me just fine. Maybe someday there’ll be a book. I don’t feel 68, though I passed that birthday in November. But sometimes, when I pass by a mirror, I catch a glimpse of my mother and reality hits. I think: ‘That’s me and I really am this old.’ I got many gifts from my mother, her love of teaching, her creativity, her green thumb. I hope I got her genes, too, because I always thought she was such a pretty woman even as she aged.
Sharon Webb Brown, January 20, 2011.