Hillbillies lovingly depicted

Sonia Emmons

In his collection of photographs titled “Hillbilly Heritage,” on display in the Mudd Gallery, Nick Olson applies fresh polish to a bucolic farmhouse in southern West Virginia while exploring the anachronisms of a contemporary existence there.
The 37 black and white photographs of still lives and portraits reveal a world suspended in an earlier time but speckled with modern sentiments. In the artist’s statement, Olson reflects that the photos “have an interesting quality of being almost un-dateable.”
Indeed, while the people and equipment appear to have been delicately preserved since Olson’s ancestors were first photographed there in the early 1900s, clues to the present day can be spotted.
In one portrait, the family members smile and drape their arms around one another, in striking contrast to their traditional dress. In another shot, a box of tissues bears a modern Kleenex logo, decipherable in spite of the dark shadows in the room.
It is fitting that the first of Olson’s photographs displayed in the gallery is one depicting a large, traditional white farmhouse. Despite the attractive grainy quality of the photograph, it is clear that this homestead rests upon solid foundations. The house is the physical embodiment of the cherished family values of hard work and appreciation of the land.
The photographs that follow show various components of rural farm life, from work and family to love and leisure. Work is embodied by a man kneeling beside a robust-looking sheep, the source of his livelihood.
Love and its offspring, marriage and family, appear in the form of two older couples who appear repeatedly, sometimes approaching casual, bashful contact while other times standing rigidly apart as though emulating the tired farm couple in Grant Wood’s “American Gothic.”
Entertainment is exhibited in a shot of a man holding a fiddle under his chin, and leisure by a young girl emerging from a field of daisies, presumably after a long day of fashioning necklaces and headbands out of the dainty flowers.
The still lives in the collection – splintered fences, empty church pews, a rusty Chevrolet pickup, and bare rooms with cracked walls – are more than weathered objects from around the farm. The photographs convey the rugged perseverance that accompanies the countless struggles of farm life.
While only half of the photographs include human subjects, both the young and the old are lovingly rendered. On one side of the gallery, a wrinkled, weather-beaten farmer in plaid smiles across the room to his eventual successor, a young Tom Sawyer figure resting on his side as though modeling his starched white button-up shirt for the camera. The old man appears worn and wise, while the young boy exudes youthful vibrancy and freshness.
Olson writes, “The medium of photography allows for the preservation of a moment in time and the rediscovery by future generations.” The hillbillies in his photographs are lucky to be preserved with such grace and beauty.