LAUREL COUNTY, Ky. —
For the past few months a local artist has been at work painting the historic Pennington House for posterity.
Barbara Willingham saw a business opportunity and took pictures of the house a week before it was torn down to make room for a parking lot. When she finishes the oil painting, she will sell it and the prints.
“This work interested me, not just because it was old architecture, but because it was important to London and the community. It was the beginning of Saint Joseph Hospital. It was our heritage. I would be lying if I didn’t say, ‘Well, I might make some money, too.’”
There was much debate over the demolition of the 130-year-old Victorian house because it was originally owned by Dr. Henry Vincent Pennington and was either the first infirmity in London or his home. Pennington founded Pennington General Hospital where the London branch of the First National Bank of Manchester is now located. Many wanted the house to be preserved. The house was sold in December 2010 to the Laurel County Fiscal Court by its owner, attorney Tom Weatherly, because the house had issues that not only were costly but would require renovations and construction that would further desecrate the historic value of the home.
“I’m going to paint a doctor walking up the steps with his bag,” Willingham said. “I have photos from Mr. Weatherly that shows the doctor and his family with the type of clothing they had at that time.
“My photos didn’t show the front yard very well and I wasn’t sure about the colors, so I had Mr. Weatherly come look at the painting and give me his opinion. He brought a folder of photographs of the house so that I could get the front right and the steps in proportion to the house. I couldn’t have done it without his help. I was so unsure about it, I couldn’t proceed with it.”
Willingham hopes to have prints available by Easter. She is going to have some showings at different businesses to get an idea of how many prints she needs to order.
Willingham, 63, came to Laurel from Harlan County when she was 6 years old. Her family had relatives “roots” here and her father wanted to work in the coal mines.
“When we moved here, it was on Sallys Branch and I went to Rough Creek School in my first year,” Willingham recalled. “Then we moved to Lily and I attended Lily School my second year to a junior in high school. I liked art and then public schools in the area didn’t have art, that I know of. I was told I could take art at Annville Institute. When I was a junior in high school, I started Annville Institute and graduated in 1968.”
Willingham boarded at the school because her parents couldn’t afford to come get her every weekend.
“I boarded and worked my way through high school,” she said. “I did weaving and different jobs around campus. Kids had to earn their tuition. It was a good experience. I learned a lot over there.”
After she graduated from Annville, she worked at Warner Brothers lingerie in London, got married and moved to Louisville where her husband worked. Since she didn’t like the big city, they moved back to Laurel County. After getting a divorce, she married Larry Hill and they have a son, Darren.
In 1985, at age 35, she started college at Cumberland.
“I was just so hungry for education that I had missed out on through the years,” she said. “I hadn’t felt like I could do college work. I took a few courses and just went from there. I finished college at Cumberland. Art was my major and English was my minor. I took education classes and got a masters in art, English, and education. I got a job teaching in Corbin in 1990 as an elementary art teacher. I taught for 20 years. I got divorced from my second husband while I was teaching and I retired in 2009.”
After retiring Willingham started to build her gallery in her house, which was built in 1917, because she had a lot of free time.
“I love old architecture and I’ve done several paintings that involve old architecture, like old London Hall. I was interested in that because my mother worked there as a cook in the late 50s. Her name was Thelma Willingham.
“I feel like I’m moving forward with my art this year now that I’ve got started with this one (Pennington House).”
Willingham prides herself as being a coal miner’s daughter.
“I’m going to start a new one in a little while, memories of children in the coal camps. I have one memory I want to paint so badly. I’m one of eight children. We lived in the mountain area in coal camps in Harlan. A train would come around the mountain and the engineer would throw us kids a block of fudge. I want to paint that engineer throwing the candy and the children raising their hands up and waving.”
Willingham is one of the founders of the London-based Mountain Heritage Artisans Guild and serves as correspondence secretary. There are now more than 60 members in the Cumberland Valley region.
Willingham can be reached at the Mountain Laurel Gallery at 862-9529.