(HOST) The Green Mountains have had their share of strange characters. Recently, commentator Joe Citro ran across the true story of a very unusual farmer from the North East Kingdom.
(CITRO) In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, people traveling along a certain road in Kirby, Vermont would experience "magic". In front of a weathered old barn, they’d see a transparent row of ghosts.
Upon closer examination they’d realize they were paintings, life-like works of art rendered with conventional house paint. They’d recognize neighbors, local dignitaries, politicians. Occasionally people would see themselves.
The scene of this extraordinary strangeness was the Russell Risley farm. In addition to the barn paintings, Mr. Risley carved faces on firewood. Fashioned heads atop fence posts. Transformed ordinary field stones into busts or wildlife. He painted a mermaid above the manure pile and an attractive young woman, perfectly proportioned and perfectly naked.
Apparently Mr. Risley could not stop creating. Every surface inside his farmhouse was covered: Landscapes between pantry shelves. Faces peeking over countertops. Carved animals occupying every room.
Russell Risley was born on that farm in 1842. He lived there most of his life with his two sisters Achsah and Hannah. None of them ever married. They were timid people and didn’t care much for visitors or the curiosity seekers that arrived to fuss over Russell’s art. In an effort to keep the uninvited away, Rus kept a hand painted sign on the gatepost of the road leading up to his house. Typically taciturn, it said simply "SMALL POX".
As a consequence of all this, his neighbors judged him "a tad peculiar". But Mr. Risley was an eccentric genius, a self-taught artist who studied foreign languages in his spare time, and built wild inventions to make farm work easier. For example, he created a system of pulleys that whisked him back and forth between house and barn. A similar contrivance transported heavy milk pails. In addition to dairying, his vast sugar bush contained a system of pipes to carry sap to the sugarhouse – possibly Vermont’s first tubing system.
Today few people remember the Risleys. Nor is there much written history. The few accounts I found suggest they were quintessential Vermonters: hardworking, thrifty, and loath to venture far from home.
One neighbor – quoted in an old account – said, "Rus Risley was a temperamental old codger. Sometimes he would talk and sometimes he wouldn’t, but chances were ten minutes after you left his place he would have your face carved on a piece of wood!"
Today I want to recall this extraordinary artist who worked his magic in an era when no-nonsense Vermonters didn’t place much value in such folly. The result, it seems, is that every single Risley painting and piece of sculpture has vanished from the face of the earth.
But then again, maybe that’s exactly how Russ would have wanted it.
(TAG) You can find more commentaries by Joe Citro at VPR-dot-net.
Web note: Thanks to Pat Swartz of the Fairbanks Museum and Carla Occaso for research support.