Hartford native James Wimsatt, 103, has had a long-time mission to build up Kentucky through his artwork.
Wimsatt, born in 1918, was one of 13 children. He spent his early years in Hartford before moving to a small town near Natural Bridge, then, eventually, to Owensboro, where he graduated from Daviess County High School and met his wife, Trudy, who was a cheerleader.
He spent most of his time as a young child playing outdoors and began working with his father at a young age.
“My father helped build the oil fields in eastern Kentucky,” he said.
Wimsatt said he attended a one-room schoolhouse where his teacher rode to school on a horse every day, and he spent much of his time drawing. He said he had wanted to play basketball in school, but was too short. He stuck with his art.
Wimsatt has been drawing and painting for as long as he can remember. He is self-taught and has never taken any classes.
“I don’t remember when I didn’t (paint),” he said. “I’d draw all day in class. I’ve never had a lesson in my life. It’s a gift from the master.”
Following high school, Wimsatt left in 1941 to serve in World War II, remaining overseas for around three years. While it was difficult to be away from home, he said letters from Trudy are what helped get him through to make it back home in one piece.
“I didn’t like it worth a darn,” he said. “Some of that was pretty nasty.”
What kept him going, he said, was eventually returning home to his future wife, who wrote him letters nearly every day, though sometimes, it would take several days or weeks to reach him overseas.
At one point, he said, he received around 40 letters at once.
One of his most impactful moments while at war, he said, was watching the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1944 while serving in Italy.
“I saw it and was looking at it,” he said. “Back then, I didn’t have a camera. I was close; not close enough to feel it really.”
Once he returned to Owensboro in 1944, Wimsatt said he finally married Trudy, who he has been with ever since. The two now share a room together at Chautauqua Health and Rehabilitation in Owensboro.
One of his goals upon his return, he said, was to share the beauty of Kentucky with the world. During his time away, he said he had heard regular criticism about his home state and wanted to show people that Kentucky was much more than what it was made out to be.
“Everybody puts Kentucky down; I said, ‘Damn that,’ ” he said. “I wanted to build Kentucky up; I wanted to make it shine, so I gave it all I had.”
Wimsatt said he could not say exactly how many paintings he has done, but it is likely more than 100.
He traveled throughout the state, taking photos of beautiful places and things in Kentucky and creating oil paintings of his photos, sometimes even venturing outside the state and painting scenic spots he has visited, including in Florida, Oregon and Idaho.
One of his first Kentucky paintings, he said, was the Wolf Pen Branch Mill in Louisville.
“It’s a beautiful place,” he said.
A volunteer at the nursing home recently found one of Wimsatt’s paintings at Consumers Mall in Owensboro and brought the painting in to have Wimsatt sign it.
The 1969 painting pictured Switzer Covered Bridge, a nationally-recognized historical site in Frankfort that was built in 1855 and is still standing.
Wimsatt said he is proud of his home state and of the work he has done to help show others how beautiful a place Kentucky is.
“There’s nothing I don’t love about Kentucky,” he said. “This is me, and I wouldn’t want to be somebody else.”
Though Wimsatt has seen and done many things in his life, he said one of the best things has been marrying his wife, his favorite place being, “right by her side.”
“It’s been a long, eventful life.”
Christie Netherton, email@example.com, 270-691-7360