Cover Artist: Billy Edd Wheeler
Story by Paul M. Howey
Okay, this was a first. When I contacted our January cover artist, he suggested meeting up with him when he was performing with a local group of Elvis impersonators. While unfortunately that didn’t work out, it introduced me to Billy Edd Wheeler, a talented and obviously multifaceted individual.
He was raised in his grandparents’ home in Highcoal, a small mining camp deep in the heart of West Virginia’s coal country. His life might have remained unchanged had an itinerant Bible school teacher not made her way up the hollow to Highcoal when Billy Edd was 14.
“Hearing her describe Warren Wilson College—surrounded by high mountains, with a farm, a fair, a woodworking shop, and a baseball team—I was hooked,” says Billy Edd. She said he could go to the college, if he wanted, and work out a large part of the tuition.
Because he’d been having some trouble at home and had long dreamed of getting out of Highcoal, he applied to the college in 1948 and was accepted. “I got on a Greyhound bus, with 20 bucks in my pocket … and arrived in Asheville … and saw bunch of nice buildings and lots of beautiful grass. We had no grass in Highcoal. We swept our yards instead of mowing. I tried to get off (but) the driver said, ‘Hold on, kid. That’s the VA Hospital. I’ll tell you when we get to the college.’”
At Warren Wilson, he worked in the dairy, cut chigger weeds in the pasture above the barn, and delivered milk and cream around the campus. He also learned to lay stone, do carpentry and wood carving, acted in school plays, and played baseball and basketball.
After graduating from Warren Wilson, he enrolled at Berea College in Kentucky, where he continued pursuing his new-found interest in the theatre. It was there he also learned to play the guitar and sing folk songs.
Following a tour of duty as a Navy pilot, Billy Edd pursued graduate studies at Yale University where he majored in playwriting. But it was his music that has provided him the most income. Over the years, his songs have been recorded by Judy Collins, The Kingston Trio, Johnny Cash, Neil Young, Kenny Rogers, Elvis, and others.
His career as a writer has also been fruitful. He’s authored more than a dozen plays and written several books, including Laughter in Appalachia.
Painting now occupies most of his time. He says that he and Mary, his wife of almost 50 years, have enough income to support his artistic pursuits. Besides, he adds, how many music stars “want to collaborate with an 80-year-old? It’s a fact of life, and I accept it.” He has his studio in Swannanoa, connected to his home by a 60-foot covered breezeway.
“In my man cave (a new term for me), I have a fridge, bathroom, microwave, and TV that I can play as loud as I want when taking breaks. I’m having a ball!”
He says that almost every day, he sees something that strikes him as a potential subject for a painting. “Guitar legend Chet Atkins told me once that ideas for songs are right in front of your face. You just have to learn to recognize them. It’s the same with painting.”
Although he’s done a few paintings from sketches he’s made—plus a self-portrait done while looking at his reflection in a mirror—his favorite thing is to work from photographs. “I’ve had several great photographers grant me permission to do works based on their photos,” he says.
“The late Hugh Morton, owner of Grandfather Mountain, told me I could paint anything in his first book … and he did not want a percentage of the sales price.”
Billy Edd is also writing a memoir. I asked him how it was going.
“Not well,” he replied. “Every time I get in the mood to write on it, something comes up that I can’t put off.” He added, “It seems mundane, and I ask myself, ‘Why do you think your life is that interesting?’ I have no answer.”
After learning about his many and varied accomplishments, I think we’d all beg to differ.
An exhibit of paintings by Billy Edd Wheeler opens with a reception from 5–8 p.m. on Thursday, January 10 and runs through March 2, at Blue Spiral 1, 38 Biltmore Avenue in Asheville. For more information about the artist, visit billyeddwheeler.com.
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