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Painter Arlee Mains Passes Away, Leaves Behind Legacy of Appalachian History with Her Paintings

Arlee Mains with one of her paintings in progress.

By Hailey Blevins

Arlee Mains, a memory painter, passed away on Saturday night at age 83. Arlee was a native of Appalachia, born in Laurel Creek on May 3, 1935. Arlee surrounded herself with art her entire life, no matter the medium, but found her passion most in painting. Growing up in a such a rural area, Arlee’s family lived off the land and survived with their creativity.

Her journey with art started with making corn husk dolls. Parents taught their children to make their own playthings as a way for them to learn to be self-sufficient, as there was not much money for extra things like store bought toys. But though she enjoyed making the dolls, she didn’t feel that they were her artistic outlet.

She was often found drawing. They didn’t have paper readily available, so she drew most of her stories into the dirt, the inside of a book, or any other place she could put them. She first start drawing around the age of 10. One day, she received a drawing tablet and filled it almost immediately.

She once described her childhood as idyllic, living among relatives with numerous cousins for playmates. Although art for its own sake was a frivolity there, childhood creativity was encouraged, especially as diversions at family gatherings.

Her love for drawing quickly turned into a desire to paint. When Arlee was 12, her parents bought her a set of Sears-Roebuck oils that came without instructions. She painted on one piece of canvas over and over again as she tried to learn how to paint. To learn, she read how-to books and kept practicing. Despite the people telling her that women seldom were successful as painters, she persevered and refused stop doing what she loved.

Once she got the basics for painting down, she then had a new challenge: what could she paint that would satisfy her? She didn’t care for impressionism or for painting things like flowers. She stumbled upon her niche accidentally after deciding to paint the church she remembered from her childhood. From there, she knew that she needed to paint things that she remembered and others could relate to. By her 60s, Arlee’s oil paintings were selling faster than she could turn them out.

Now her artwork is extremely collectible and highly valued as an accurate representation of life in the Appalachian Mountains in the first half of the twentieth century. The work is touching to the viewer, creating a poignant dialogue between Arlee and her audience. Along with each painting Arlee prepares a handwritten story, her account and interpretation of the event.

Much of her work has been displayed in the Art Cellar Gallery of Banner Elk, which mourns Arlee’s death,

“It is with a heavy heart that we mourn the passing of a great friend and extraordinary painter, Arlee Mains. Arlee was born in Laurel Creek, outside of Boone in 1935. She captured her life growing up in rural Appalachia by creating memory paintings. A self taught artist, Arlee painted memories of her childhood and family in the mountains during the 1930s, 40s and 50s. True to her storytelling nature, Arlee would also write down memories to go with each painting. From church and school to how they lived during cold winter months, she created hundreds of paintings and stories. Arlee and her work have been published in books and are in private collections throughout the nation.” – The Art Cellar Gallery

Below are some of Arlee’s paintings, accompanied by stories that she wrote to go with them. The stories give more insight to Appalachian culture and Arlee’s childhood, making the pieces more relatable.