By Katie Benfield
The Blowing Rock Art and History Museum is hosting an exhibit based on the art and stories by Gail Haley from now until March 25, titled “Everyman Jack: Stories and Illustrations by Gail E. Haley.”
The exhibit started out focusing on Haley’s Jack character from Jack and the Bean Tree, but upon discovering her other works and talents, BRAHM decided to display her other accomplishments, such as her wood carving, her marionettes and her awards.
Haley came from London, England to the High Country because she became aware of important the Jack stories were to the origins and unity of humankind.
“I grew up hearing and reading Jack stories,” Haley said. “Stories about Jack are ancient, and they have come from all over the world and have remained intact.”
According to Haley, the Jack stories have existed and have been passed down for over 200 year simply through the oral tradition of storytelling.
“It has survived being told, eye-to-eye, for hundreds of years. The sense of the story is still there,” Haley said. “All stories across time, that was all anyone had.”
Haley has written and illustrated two picture books centered around Jack: Jack and the Bean Tree and Jack and the Fire Dragon. Along with this, she also had a compilation of 12 different Jack stories that can be found in 10 other countries around the world.
“Although they were passed down orally in the mountains of North Carolina,” Haley said, “these stories are so important that they are told in ten other countries.”
Although the exhibit was mainly based off of the importance of the archetype of Jack, a hero that molds and grows in all of us and the origins of worldwide unity, several other aspects of Haley’s work and life were brought in.
“I was raised in the segregated south, and I witnessed horrible things,” Haley said. “I knew things weren’t right, so I promised myself that I would change things. I had race guilt.”
In order to escape the segregation and racism of the south, Haley moved across the Pacific to London, England in search of a home that would hold no prejudice against anyone, regardless of race. Unfortunately, she found that such a place didn’t exist.
Haley has also traveled and lived in Africa, the Caribbean , Virginia and New York — and each place offered her a new view on life and humanity and inspired her work in several different ways.
“When I was at the University of Virginia, I was in the first class of women that was allowed at the university,” Haley said. “I took some art classes, and that’s when I discovered wood carving, and I loved it.”
Haley uses wood carvings to illustrate some of her books, her first wood carving illustration for a book taking place in the 1960’s. According to Haley, it took her an entire year to carve each of the blocks, considering she had to do a separate block for each color.
“It has brilliant colors. If you don’t separate the black out from the other colors, then it all melds together,” Haley said. “By separating them, I got beautiful African colors.”
She’s also tried her hand successfully at creating marionettes for storytelling. Both the wood carvings and the marionettes are on display at the BRAHM exhibit, along with original illustrations and the two awards Haley has won.
“I’ve won the Caldecott award here in the United States, and the Kate Greenaway award in England,” Haley said. “I’m the only person worldwide to have won both of those medals.”
Haley spent a long time feeling race guilt from her upbringing the south, and she carried that with her everywhere she went. She involved herself in African traditions, such as storytelling and dance, and she etched in her memory all that she could remember about them. Eventually, she began to let go of the guilt she felt.
“I had no idea what color anyone was, they were just people,” Haley said. “That was the day I had realized I had been able to let go of all of the race guilt I felt from childhood.”
On Thursday, Jan. 19, Haley did a speech at her exhibit about Everyman Jack, discussing it as an archetype and an example of traditional oral storytelling that is still having an impact on today’s society all around the world.
“The exhibit is a retrospect of all of my work. I’ve written about 40 books, but only about eight of them are represented,” Haley said. “I’d really like for people to come see my work and what I’m wanting to bring to the High Country.”
Tomorrow, she will be doing a live storytelling at 3:30 in the exhibit at BRAHM, where she will be reading a variety of different stories from her books, including a couple of Jack tales. Along with this, she also wants to do a speech with her main character, Poppyseed, whom she based off of her grandmother.
For more information about the exhibit and upcoming events, visit BRAHM’s website.