Retired businessman turned folk artist
Oscar William Kitchens, or Pappy as he called himself, started painting in his 60s after owning a construction company, selling it and retiring. His daughter Bobby Jean had married William Dunlap, a prominent artist who taught art at a college in North Carolina where they lived. Kitchens talent for painting became evident in Dunlap’s studio, where he experimented. During the 1970s, he painted, traveled and promoted his works.
With no formal training, Kitchens was a folk artist whose use of color and visually striking elements in his paintings demonstrated a natural talent.
In recent years, he has become known through the University Press of Mississippi, which published a book featuring a series of 60 paintings that he started when he was 68 years old and completed between 1973 and 1976 – Pappy Kitchens and the Saga of Red Eye the Rooster. The 15-inch square paintings in three sets of 20 panels is a beast fable that tells a homespun Pilgrim’s Progress story about Red Eye from a foundling to his funeral. Red Eye’s quasi-human behavior gets him into trouble as he encounters violence, avarice, lust, greed and most of the other seven deadly sins. He maneuvers through the varied conflicts, but finally succumbs to his fatal flaw.
Kitchens produced other works, including a folk art version of the Last Supper. Many of them hang in museums and galleries around the U.S. Dunlap introduced Kitchens’ paintings to Jane Livingston in the 1970s when she was chief curator of the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC.
Kitchens died in 1986 following the death of his wife Ruth in 1982, and they are buried at Lakewood Memorial Park near Clinton, Mississippi, with their daughter Bobby Jean.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout the 2023 Copiah County Bicentennial year, Wesson News will feature sketches of past and present visual artists, musicians, authors and photographers who are natives of the county. They will be excerpted from Tricia Nelson’s reporting in A Shared History: Copiah County, Mississippi 1823-2023 edited and compiled by Paul C. Cartwright and available through Cartwright for $25 plus $5 for shipping at 3 Waverly Circle, Hattiesburg, MS 39402. Nelson is a Crystal Springs writer who contributes to the Copiah County Monitor.