For landscape painter John Beerman, beauty is everywhere

By Nancy Oakley

A sweeping lawn on a sunny day glistens in shades of greens and yellows, then blues and grays where trees have cast their shadows. You can fairly catch the scent of freshly cut grass, feel a faint breeze skip across your brow. Just as you might absently mop your brow from the scorching heat of a late summer day, while gazing at a dry and dusty country road that curves endlessly toward the unknown. Never mind that the scenes before you are of North Carolina and Texas, respectively. Or that you might never have visited either one of them. “It doesn’t have to be the actual place,” says John Beerman, painter of the two landscapes. He smiles, recalling traveling down a similar dirt road in the flatbed of a pickup truck, with his paints and easel in hand. “It’s not so much about the image as how it’s put together,” he says. And, of course, how the image makes the viewer feel. At some point, we’ve all experienced the elation of being alive on a sunny summer day, or weariness from its oppressive heat.

Eliciting such emotional responses hinges on the play of light in nature, a fascination for the artist and Greensboro native, who stands before the canvas of the summery lawn in his Hillsborough home that he shares with poet Tori Reynolds. “When you look at grass, it has all these things going on. At first you think it’s just a green stripe or a yellow stripe. There’s all this richness.” But capturing that richness in a painting is not about “flash” or a “horn blast,” Beerman insists. “Rich color is not the most brilliant blue you can get out of a tube.” Rather, it’s a matter of, “How do you enrich a gray to make it a full gray? How do you make these subtle nuances glow?”

In another painting of a cottage in New Mexico lit from within at dusk, Beerman has carefully applied several shades of blue, blue-gray, violet and aqua to replicate the building’s corrugated metal roof. He points out the telephone pole and wire in the scene, a feature he once included in a series of paintings of churches. “I’ve had several people come up to me and ask: ‘Why did you mess it up with the telephone wires?’” he laughs. “I just think it’s kind of fascinating the way it curves.” He was similarly taken with, of all things, a Rhode Island trailer park. “The light as it’s falling on the dreary old trailer in a certain way, that speaks to me as much as a beautiful mountainside,” Beerman says. “I’m not really concerned with the ‘beautiful.’ Anything can be beautiful.”

He couldn’t help but be struck by the beauty of the North Carolina mountains during his childhood. It was then that his artistic journey began. His mother had always encouraged art as a pursuit, buying her youngest son chalks and pastels, and enrolling him in private lessons. “I was taking art classes before first and second grade,” he recalls of the sessions with a family friend, Barbara Covington. “She lived on Princess Anne and taught out of the back of her house.” Beerman reels off other memories of the Gate City from those early years: Fisher Park and attending Irving Park elementary school. “I remember the old Lawndale Shopping Center. I’d go to the GI 1200, down from Roses. It was called GI 1200, because it was Government Issue. They had Army knapsacks and such.”

But it was those visits in the early 1960s to his grandparents’ cottage in the mountains that left an indelible impression. In those days, Beerman says the place had no TV, and with few children his own age in the area, he had a lot of time on his hands. He spent it in the company of a distant relation whom Beerman describes as “an amateur kind of a Sunday painter.” The young child was mesmerized. “I’d watch him paint on the deck overlooking this beautiful lake. I think watching him showed me: How do you make use of your time? Nobody wants to sit around. I like to do something. It seemed like a pleasant thing to do. It got me going.” He pauses for a moment, “Plus it was in this beautiful setting . . . maybe that’s what sent me to Vermont.”

The Green Mountain state is a long way from Greensboro, but it beckoned the budding artist as he was starting 10th grade at Page High School. Six weeks into the fall semester, he was working on an assignment in an art class. “At that time it was [called] commercial art,” Beerman remembers. “The first assignment was to go through a stack of magazines and make an ad for GM,” he laughs. But it was an advertisement of a different sort that would transform his life as he dutifully went through the periodicals, choosing one titled New York Times Magazine. “I’d never heard of it, at that point in my life,” says Beerman (ironically, now a loyal subscriber to the Times). “I started to cut stuff up in it, and I noticed in the back, they used to have these little ads for schools,” he continues. One of them, for Woodstock Country School, on a 300-acre farm in Vermont, caught his eye. As did its small size — only 60 people in the student body — and the curriculum. “That little ad said, ‘stresses the arts and humanities,’” Beerman recalls. “And that’s what really stood out to me. I’m not much of a science guy.” The school’s fall term started in early October, so Beerman figured there was still time to enroll; with money set aside from his grandparents, he could cover the cost of tuition.

He was ready to embrace change. His parents had divorced years earlier, his older siblings had all left home for college, and Greensboro in the mid-1970s held little appeal for the 15-year-old. “Downtown was dead; the big thing was Four Seasons Mall; that’s where everybody went. And for whatever reason, I never felt a part of that scene,” Beerman says. “There was not much to keep me around.”

So, he packed his bags and headed north, and for the next three years, he blossomed. “There were kids from all over the place, from out in the country. It was beautiful, Vermont.” Though not particularly outdoorsy, Beerman says he has always loved being outside. “I felt solace in nature,” he reflects. “It’s ever-changing, it kind of feeds my soul  . . . and I love light.” Particularly how it changes. He had ready inspiration in his rural surroundings, where he continued drawing and became involved with photography. So much so, that when it came time to apply to art school  — in Beerman’s case, the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) — he submitted a portfolio in photography and film.

But once again, his trajectory took a detour. “My first figure drawing class at RISD was just charcoal and newsprint. I loved the immediacy of it. I loved — I guess it was the hand quality,” Beerman says. In addition to requiring long, solitary hours in a darkroom, photography, he emphasizes, was “not a hand-to-hand tactile thing, and I loved the tactile thing.”

Beerman quickly changed his major to painting, which provided him with the opportunity of “actually building something. You’re making something with your hands, and I like that. I liked it a lot. Still, to this day, I try all these different papers and linens and supports,” he says. In another landscape, featured in a recent exhibit at Anne Neilson Fine Art in Charlotte, olive and cypress trees on a Tuscan hillside glow in tones of green, yellow and silver, and appear to sway. “This is an egg tempera painting,” Beerman explains, adding that the simple mixture of egg yolk and pigment produces a translucent effect. “It adds a complexity to the color,” he says — as opposed to some of his oil paintings that create what he calls a “mushy” effect.

Beerman discovered egg tempera during his training at RISD. “Craft,” he says, “was really important to me.” At a time when Abstract Expressionism was de rigueur, he felt he had to explore other avenues to inform his painting. “I had to go into the illustration department and take egg tempera classes,” he recalls, “because in painting it’s really frowned on; craft was academic.”

He likes the medium because it dries quickly once it’s applied to a surface primed with gesso [pronounced “Jess-OH”] that he makes himself, with rabbit skin glue and calcium carbonate. “Same thing they used back in the old days before oils came in,” Beerman says of the Italian Renaissance painters. And indeed, another of his Tuscan landscapes is reminiscent of the stylized backgrounds one might see in Piero della Francesca painting. Or perhaps 17th-century French master Nicolas Poussin. “I’ve been all over the place,” Beerman allows. “I had evolved through influences, from Modern to Ancient, and somehow it filtered through me. It’s kind of a mystery because you don’t know it till you see it.”

He saw it clearly in the East Hampton Library while he was living in an artists’ enclave of Springs, on the south fork of New York’s Long Island, following his tenure at RISD and Maine’s Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. “I discovered the Luminist School, which I’d never known about, had a lot of influence on me.”

Considered among art historians an offshoot of the Hudson River School, the Luminists came later, in the mid-19th century, directing their attention to the effects of light on landscapes. Unlike the Impressionists, who followed a similar quest with diffuse brushstrokes, the Luminists tended toward more precise renderings, their works more muted and reflective. Or as Beerman observes, “The Hudson River School was more dramatic — drama with a big ‘D’ — whereas the Luminists were not melodramatic.” Their subdued paintings, particularly those of Fitz Hugh Lane and John F. Kensett resonated with him. “That’s when I really got married to the landscape,” he says.

Borrowing his father’s VW camper, he retraced Fitz Hugh Lane’s travels through Maine and produced works for his first show in Manhattan — at a time when landscape painting was not in vogue among the intelligentsia. “It was not considered cutting-edge,” Beerman acknowledges. “I don’t like it when art becomes like an echo chamber of a very small group of people. I don’t want art cut off from most people.”

Just as he forged his own path in his youth, leaving Greensboro for Vermont, or exploring those illustration techniques at RISD, Beerman made his singular mark on the art world, his works ultimately finding places in the permanent collections of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh.

Based in Nyack in the Empire State’s Hudson River Valley, he relished being only 30 minutes from Gotham’s museums. “Frederic Church did oil sketches when he was traveling. I got to go to Cooper-Hewitt and pick them up — put white gloves on my hand and look at these paintings,” Beerman remembers. “I was like, ‘Oh my God!’ It was great!” He maintained close ties with his professors at RISD, where he also taught, and painted his environs, such as a large horizontal of the Hudson River, its imposing cliffs rendered in shades of violet and dwarfing the town of Yonkers in the distance. “Yonkers is an industrial town, factories and all that stuff,” Beerman explains. “And right across are the Palisades — basically the same thing Henry Hudson saw 400 years ago, which is really cool.”

The painting hangs in the hallway of Beerman’s home in Hillsborough. He had heard about the small burg after returning to North Carolina in 2009 when his marriage ended and rented a place there. It was a challenging period, but Beerman reconnected with his roots. His brother Bob, who with his wife, Teresa had established the Bass Violin Shop near downtown, and as Beerman concedes, “The silver lining was, my father was in Well-Spring [retirement community] and dying, and I got to spend the last three months with him.”

There have been other silver linings, as well. After his 40-odd-year absence, North Carolina proved a revelation to the artist. “It’s a wonderful place!” he says enthusiastically. In the 10 years since his return, he’s rediscovered his old hometown, serving on the board at GreenHill for a time, and getting to know a revived downtown with new places, such as Scuppernong Books, which has become a favorite, along with the Greensboro History Museum and, as one would expect, Weatherspoon. Most important: “We’re surrounded by this beautiful landscape.”

A landscape that has been a prolific muse. A frequent subject is Chatwood, the Hillsborough estate of friend and writer Frances Mayes, and where Beerman painted that large expanse of grass in summer. (Mayes also lent him the use of her property in Cortona, Italy, where he painted the Tuscan landscapes.) Beerman likes to revisit the same locations on Chatwood’s grounds season after season: the barn in summer, snow-covered in winter; a pasture bristling with greens in one panel or in somber gray and brown hues of a November day in another. He’ll often make oil sketches, or notes or drawings in a sketchbook and then refine them in the larger paintings in his studio, sometimes working on multiple paintings at different times throughout a given year. Until such time as a proper studio is completed in his house, he uses his garage, where among several neatly labeled crates full of paints, brushes, rags and other materials, he produces a small sketchbook. Its pages contain blocks of color and drawings of trees, studies for a larger painting, commissioned by Rex Hospital in Raleigh.

The artist has also conducted painting workshops at Chatwood, and in other locations around Hillsborough, as one former student recalls. Greensboro painter and interior designer Bill Crowder says he learned to “look at things and see things better” under Beerman’s tutelage. “How blue wasn’t just blue, but many colors,” Crowder explains. “The main thing I learned: How things aren’t what they seem necessarily, and seeing what we don’t perceive as being there.” Beerman uses the example of the tufted titmouse to make the same point. “It’s the most gorgeous bird. It’s just subtle grays, that’s all it is. Most beautiful color ever. But you’d be hard-pressed to say, ‘What color is it?’ That’s what’s so fascinating to me about color.”

He’s constantly experimented with color in a number of projects since his return home: still lifes of Jugtown pottery, the shadows of a clapboard yellow house next to his old studio in downtown Durham, studies of Reynolds, one of the few figure paintings he’s done. The two have collaborated on a poetry project, a volume of broadside verse, one of which Beerman illustrated with a brilliant red Tuscan poppy that seems suspended in time. Another depicts a shaded garden where, in a touch of whimsy, a black cat is stretched out on a patch of grass. “My dealer in New York said, ‘Love the painting, but can’t do the cat.’ That’s the problem with New York,” Beerman says, shaking his head. “Why do you have these rules and stuff? Cats are like, soft and cuddly and not cutting-edge, I guess. But, no way I’m getting rid of that cat!”

And, of course, Beerman revisited the place where it all began, the mountains. There, for an entire month, he created “a whole mess of paintings from one spot” — the porch of a house that a collector had made available to him. The experience proved challenging. “I’d get it just right, go away. And then that moment would not just come back the next day, or the next day. That’s the trick, as a landscape painter: It’s never the same twice, and how do you work on a painting for a long time and somehow keep focus for that moment you originally set out to do?” Beerman posits. One solution is to go the mythic route, as in Mountain, New Moon, a standout in the recent exhibit at Charlotte’s Anne Neilson gallery. In it, an oversized orb dominates a shadowy peak of the Blue Ridge. “I sometimes fool with nature,” says Beerman. “The moon was not that big, but I felt I should go ahead and make it that big. It’s not always literal.”

It’s a testament to a master in full command of his art, this North Carolina native son with the light of his native sun — and moon — at his fingertips . . . that shines from within.  OH

Nancy Oakley is the former senior editor of O.Henry.

POEM: January 2019


The moon was particularly beautiful tonight

standing there looking almost spellbound

the artist in me creative juices starting to rise.

I thought about getting my camera set up

to capture the narrow, slivermoon

just over the mountaintop ridge,

treetops shimmering with the steady wind . . .

just enough light left

to make a great shot.

Then the 24º windchill reminded me

of how beautiful it is to be warm.

Now the creative juices are cooling down

my socksfeet warming beside the fire.

That moon will have to reside in my memory

as well as all those stars.

— Raymond Whitaker


Wheezy Does It

Listen for the distinctive call of the pine siskin this winter

By Susan Campbell

Each winter I hear from folks who encounter small brown birds they cannot identify, sometimes visiting their feeders, other times pecking around on the forest floor. Some are American goldfinches in their dull, nonbreeding plumage. Others end up being identified as female house finches through their gray-brown coloration and their distinctive streaked breasts and bellies. But there are other possibilities — especially this season: That finch-like, striped visitor just might be a pine siskin.

In the Sandhills, these feisty little birds frequent evergreens with, as their name implies, pines being their favorite. They can often be seen clinging to the cones, determined to pry out the energy-rich seeds from within. However, they will not hesitate to search far and wide for other abundant seed sources. During the summer months, pine siskins usually are found breeding in the open, coniferous forests of the boreal region throughout northern states of the United States. They also range into southern Canada, as well as higher elevations of the Rockies and western mountain regions. Nondescript, with brown streaks and splashes of yellow on the wings and tail, these small birds are easy to miss. But the wheezy call coming from their little delicate bills is quite distinctive and hard to miss once you’ve heard it. Another tip for spotting them is to remember that pine siskins associate closely when breeding as well as foraging.

This winter we just may have an abundance of pine siskins here. That is because siskins are a species that ornithologists term “irruptive.” Like red-breasted nuthatches, cedar waxwings and purple finches, pine siskins are nomadic and move farther southward in winters when certain seed crops are in short supply across the northern forests. When these gregarious invaders find feeders offering sunflower or thistle seed, they will take up residence by the dozens. Most people maintaining a feeding station, at least in the Sandhills, have almost certainly hosted at least a few of these little Northerners during the last big irruption, which was five years ago.

As numerous as they may become in the weeks ahead, it is unlikely siskins will attempt to breed here. We have actually documented them staying through April in the past. But remaining individuals have always vanished with the early summer warm-up. Southern forests that mimic the usual northern habitat, such as our tracts of longleaf pine, certainly do have the necessary components for the birds to successfully breed, and attempts to be successful by other irruptive species have been documented in our area previously. The most remarkable of these were a few red crossbill pairs that bred in the area back in the mid-1970s.

The numbers of feathered winter visitors is surely on the rise now that natural food sources are becoming scarcer. After a summer that produced a bounty for wildlife, the inevitable depletion of seeds and berries is occurring. So definitely keep an eye (and an ear) out and keep your feeders full — a siskin or two just may drop by!  OH

Susan would love to receive your wildlife sightings and photos. She can be contacted by email at

Scuppernong Bookshelf

Mark Your Calendars!

2019 is a banner year for good reads

Compiled by Brian Lampkin

It’s difficult to plan. The future is uncertain. Things change, fall apart, reassemble in strange configurations. But over the next six months we can count on these great books finding the light of day. The following recommendations come with an understanding: I’m wrong about many things, but I’m typically less wrong about books than I am about the future of the stock market. Go ahead, plan your reading for the first half of 2019 and include these gems. You can thank/curse me later.

January 15: The Far Field, by Madhuri Vijay. Last year the American Booksellers Association asked a handful of independent bookstores across the country to read a long list of books by first-time authors to be published in 2019. Collectively we chose a top 10, which included The Far Field, but this novel was No. 1 with a bullet on my list. Vijay provides that alchemical mix of political examination with personal journey that deepens many great novels. The Far Field plays out along the India/Kashmir border and follows a young woman’s awakening into the dark realities of her family and her country. As a bonus, her mother is one of the most memorable characters in contemporary literature. At times brutal, but always tuned to the desperately sweet longing for human connection.

February 5: Black Leopard, Red Wolf: Dark Star Trilogy Book 1. by Marlon James. Perhaps the most anticipated book of the new year, Black Leopard, Red Wolf has the entire literary world on edge. James won the Man Booker for his previous novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, and he describes his new work as an “African Game of Thrones.”

March 19: What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance, by Carolyn Forché. This one’s personal. Forché’s early book of poems, The Country Between Us, helped me fall in love with poetry and exposed me to the brutality of the powerful. Writer Garth Greenwell says, “This luminous book stands beside the memoirs of Pablo Neruda and Czeslaw Milłosz in its account of a poet’s education, the struggle of a great artist to be worthy of her gifts. Carolyn Forché’s prose is shamanic: It sees both the surface of things and their inner workings, it animates the inanimate world.” 

April 30: Cape May, by Chip Cheek. Another novel from our list of the best first books, Cape May exposes the unsettling power of sexual discovery. Painful chaos ensues as sexual desire leads people in unplanned directions. Cheek’s writing about sex is so powerful and thrilling that the chaos and pain all seem worth it. This is a novel that might make you think uncomfortably about your own life. Be careful!

May 14: Once More We Saw Stars: A Memoir, by Jayson Greene. I don’t suppose any of us need to be reminded that the world can be brutally unfair. Nevertheless, Jayson Greene’s exquisitely moving memoir of his 2-year-old daughter’s shocking death brings us freshly face-to-face with unimaginable loss and grief. Sometimes books can bring us so close to pain that the books themselves seem to tremble in your hand until you realize it’s your own sobbing causing the sensation. Once More We Saw Stars is an emotionally raw work that finds its way through grief to remodel something like a life worth living again.

June 4: The Dishwasher, by Stéphane Larue. An argument I lost, The Dishwasher was left off the top 10, but I’m putting it here because I love it. Translated from the French, this novel of Montreal back-of-house restaurant life is raw and filled with a kind of back alley energy that propels you constantly into the steamy abyss of the dishwasher’s life. It’s a little bit of the pieces Anthony Bourdain couldn’t show you (which is saying something) and a lot of high octane heavy metal power.

A Bonus Recommendation: On February 5, the paperback of Zadie Smith’s collection of essays, Feel Free, will be published. Smith is the author of Michelle Obama’s favorite novel, White Teeth, and the recent novel, Swing Time. The essays display Smith’s wide-range interests and literary enthusiasms. I can’t yet tell you why it’s such a good idea to read Zadie Smith right now, but you’ll be glad you did!  OH

Brian Lampkin is one of the proprietors of Scuppernong Books.

Life’s Funny

Gate City Synchronicity

The cafe and the coffee shop

By Maria Johnson

The name of this column allows a lot of flexibility, which is good because sometimes life is ha-ha funny, and sometimes it’s hmmm funny . . . like this story.

A few months ago, Greensboro saw a first: the simultaneous birth of two open-to-the-public businesses staffed mostly by people with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

Here’s the kicker: The local women who spearheaded these enterprises — a downtown cafe named Chez Genèse and a coffee shop called A Special Blend on West Market Street — didn’t know each other until their plans were well underway.

Hmm. Was that just a nifty bit of synchronicity —two seemingly unrelated things happening in different places at the same time — or a sign of larger societal change bubbling up right here in the ’Boro?

You can read about Kathryn Hubert, the spark of Cafe Genèse, on page 48.

For Deedee Ungetheim, who chairs the board that oversees A Special Blend, the inspiration is her son Bryce, born 21 years ago with a rare condition called Charge Syndrome.

Bryce had about 25 surgeries in his first five years. Deedee homeschooled him, and she worried as high school graduation approached; 80 percent of adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities are unemployed.

“You want them to have a place where they can get hope and live happy, thriving lives,” Deedee says.

Then, in May 2016, while in Wilmington, Deedee and her husband, Jeff went to Bitty & Beau’s, a coffee shop that was swimming in national publicity for hiring lots of disabled people.

“There was this wonderful interaction between the customers and the employees,” Deedee says. “I’ve never been any place that had such a fun atmosphere.”

She left caffeinated and bent on replicating the idea.

“I’m glad nobody told me how much work it was going to be,” she says.

She spent the next year presenting the project not as a question, but as a fact: She was going to open a self-sustaining, nonprofit coffee shop focused on employing adults with disabilities arising from autism, Down syndrome, cerebral palsy and a slew of other conditions.

There would be lots of training and support.

There would be volunteer slots, too, for people with significant challenges, people such as her son Bryce, who communicates with American Sign Language.

Deedee, a marriage and family therapist, was stunned by the number of people who wanted to help. Many of them had disabled family members or friends, which is not surprising because 13,000 folks in Guilford County have intellectual or developmental challenges.

Powered by 150 supporters, Deedee and company raised $250,000 in less than two years, a staggering feat for a team with no fundraising experience.

VF Corp. gave a chunk of money. Their Wrangler brand donated uniforms and embroidered aprons, lending an air of professionalism to the staff of 44 — 21 disabled employees, 19 disabled volunteers, and four paid managers who are NT, or neuro-typical.

A volunteer committee with serious design chops handled the metal-and-wood decor, hence the live-edge wood counters in the front windows and a private meeting room with barn doors that roll on heavy rails.

“People say, ‘We expected it to be a nice coffee shop, but this is a really nice coffee shop,’” says Deedee.

Both A Special Blend and Chez Genèse boast beautiful settings and top-flight food and drink. Deedee and Kathryn — who stay in touch via text and cross promote on Facebook — don’t want your pity; they want your repeat business.

Along the way, you’ll interact with folks who are different, which is key.

Deedee says most people feel awkward interacting with disabled individuals: “People say, ‘Hello,’ and they move on.”

“The cafe and the coffee shop require us to swap more than a hello, and allow us to see people’s abilities, not just their disabilities.”

Deedee downplays the significance of the two businesses opening at the same time. Honestly, she says, she hasn’t seen much movement in attitudes about disabled people in Bryce’s lifetime. She’s old enough, at 59, to know that real change comes at the pace of barely perceptible tectonic shifts, such as the slow inclusion of disabled workers at restaurants, discount stores and grocery stores.

Still, she’s fielding inquiries — one from Colorado — from people who want to open disabled-dominant businesses. At the same time, a steady parade of parents bring disabled children into the Greensboro shop to see what’s possible for people like them.

So maybe Greensboro’s twinning moment is not a quake but a tremor, one that gives 56-year-old Grey Cockerham, a barista at A Special Blend, the confidence to invite Greensboro Mayor Nancy Vaughan for a visit.

“Do you think she’ll come?” he says.

Betcha a cup of coffee she will.  OH

Also on Maria Johnson’s recommended reading list: Top 25 Reasons Your Dog Follows You to the Bathroom.

Drinking With Writers

Pulling the Thread

In Asheville, learning the untold story with Denise Kiernan

By Wiley Cash     Photographs by Mallory Cash

My friendships with writers are unlike other friendships I have. Most solid, enduring relationships take years to build. This is true of my longest friendships, but it is not true of my friendships with writers; these relationships are intense and honest from the moment of inception. I have often wondered what sets writer friendships apart, and I have decided that it is a combination of our solitary work and our inclination toward inquiry. People who spend so much time alone have a lot to share when they get together. All of this is true of my friendship with New York Times best-selling author Denise Kiernan.

I first met Denise in Asheville, North Carolina, at a literary festival in the summer of 2014. Her book The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win WWII had been released the previous year, and at the literary festival in Asheville she was easily the best known writer in the lineup. You could not mention her name without someone exclaiming, “Oh, she was on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart!” Denise’s fame and success appeared instantaneous, but like nearly every other writer I have befriended over the years, her journey has been long, circuitous and interesting.

On a chilly day in early December, Denise and I sat down at Little Jumbo, a cocktail bar on Lexington Avenue in Asheville’s Five Points district. The bar is housed in a building that has served a number of purposes since its construction in the 1920s: general store, office space and delivery service, among them. Regardless of what has come before Little Jumbo, co-owners Chall Gray and Jay Sanders have managed to marry the feel of the Prohibition speakeasy to a flair for Gilded Age indulgence. The ceiling is composed of original tin tiles, which reflect the soft light of sconces and chandeliers. The glass-paned front door is set between two huge display windows that house wood-topped tables and leather-wrapped benches. Past the imposing bar, where dozens of bottles hover above dark-stained wood countertops, elegantly appointed sitting areas featuring period appropriate armchairs and sofas await patrons. Little Jumbo has a sophisticated, mysterious feel that is also welcoming and warm.

Chall Gray was behind the bar during our visit, and after Denise and I ordered and received our drinks — an old-fashioned martini for her and a whiskey for me — we found seats by one of the display windows.

“Something just dawned on me,” I said. “I know you as the friend who published The Girls of Atomic City and The Last Castle (the story of the Biltmore House), but I don’t know much about your life and work before those books.”

Denise looked out the window as if she were opening and closing the drawers and cabinets of her memory while searching for a way to respond. The weather had turned dreary. It was raining. Cars rolled by, and people on foot passed our window with their collars upturned. Denise smiled and looked back at me, whatever she had been looking for apparently found.

“That’s a long story,” she said. “But it all started with me playing the flute right down the road in Brevard. I was a rising high school junior, and I was at a summer camp at the Brevard Music Center. Someone there suggested I attend the North Carolina School for the Arts. I did, and it changed my life.”

From there, a story I had never heard and never could have imagined unfolded over the course of the afternoon. After high school, Denise moved to New York City to pursue a pre-med degree from NYU. While there she fell in love with the city, especially its arts scene.

“All of my friends were artists,” she said, “but something was telling me to pursue a practical career. I had decided to apply to medical school, but I wanted to spend the summer in Europe before studying for the MCAT (Medical College Admissions Test).” That summer in Europe extended to more than a year abroad.

“When I came back to the States I wasn’t interested in medical school anymore,” she said. “I was interested in environmental education, so I enrolled in graduate school at the University of Washington.” It was there that a flier for the university’s student newspaper caught her eye. “I had no journalism experience,” she said, “but I had always written, and I wanted to do something with my writing. That was enough for the editor to give me a chance.”

After graduate school, her love for journalism won out over her love for environmental education. “I pursued an internship with The Village Voice,” she said. “And I mean I really pursued it. I called and learned there were no internships available, so I traveled across the country and showed up at The Village Voice’s New York office and asked them in person.” What happened next changed her life. 

“I worked under a legendary investigative reporter named Wayne Barrett,” she said, her eyes growing misty. “He passed away a few years ago. He was one of the last great investigative journalists. He didn’t care who you were; if there was a story to be uncovered, he was coming after you.”

Denise, a doggedly determined young person with a nose for news, had met her match: a similarly dogged, seasoned journalist who, like her, did not take well to being told no. Over the next several years as an intern and then as a freelance reporter who regularly published investigative stories in The New York Times, The Village Voice and Ms. Magazine, Denise found herself covering the 1995 United Nations Women’s Conference in Beijing, shooting pool with The Cure, writing about the Beastie Boys, and organizing her own crew as a field producer covering European soccer for ESPN.

“All of those experiences taught me how to chase down leads, to pull at the thread of a story, to organize and focus my work.”

These skills clearly served her well in writing her two best-known books, the aforementioned The Girls of Atomic City and The Last Castle, both of which dig into the backstories of American history that most of us never learn. Girls explains the largely unknown role of the women in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, who helped develop the atomic bomb. Castle plumbs the lives of George and Edith Vanderbilt in the years before and after they built America’s largest private home.

During our conversation, Chall had left the bar and delivered a setup known as the Jumbo Service. Ours was a special chilled Manhattan accompanied by elegant stemware and a side of maraschino cherries, all literally served on a silver platter. Denise and I poured another round of drinks and toasted to stories, both the stories we have written and the stories that have made us writers.  b

Wiley Cash lives in Wilmington with his wife and their two daughters. His latest novel, The Last Ballad, is available wherever books are sold.


Waiting for the Muse

The near-perfection of Dave Ray Cecil’s songs

Outlaw country singer David Allan Coe wrote the perfect country song. That, according to the late, great folk-music singer-songwriter Steve Goodman. While Goodman’s proclamation may be open to debate, his prowess as a superb tunesmith is not.

Likewise, there are more than a few judges of talent on a national scale who contend that Dave Ray Cecil may have written the perfect Americana song, or something close to it. Again, that is open to debate, but only because musicologists cannot agree on which Cecil composition is the closest to being perfect. There are at least four contenders so far — and likely several more that the public is not yet privy to. Add to that the very real possibility that he may not have written it yet.

“But I’m working on it,” says the soft-spoken songcrafter. “I’m always looking for the record. Sometimes I think I’ve got it, but then another one comes along.”

Unlike Nashville’s finest, Cecil does not crank out formulaic three-minute ditties on demand. There is a spiritual, ethereal quality to both his music and the process by which he creates it. Trite though it may sound, The Muse, he insists, descends only of its own volition: “You can’t force it,” he maintains. “The song is going to have its way with you, you can’t navigate it. It’s not something I can control.”

While the 48-year-old Greensboro native and Grimsley grad has been writing songs since childhood, only recently have the accolades begun coming his way. In the past year he has been a finalist for two of the most prestigious songwriting competitions in the country: NewSong Music Showcase and Competition and Kerrville New Folk Songwriters Competition. He was one of eight finalists (from over 5,000 entries) invited to perform in the Lincoln Center in New York in the NewSong Competition, and one of 16 finalists from 800 entrants in the Kerrville Competition, appearing at the Grassy Hill Kerrville (Texas) Folk Festival.

“I don’t worry about results; I just need to know that I swung at the ball,” Cecil explains. “I’d never done this before and was actually pushed into it, but I must say there’s a sense of validation. It’s really been an enjoyable experience.”

In December Cecil was interviewed nationally on Sirius Radio in Kingsport, Tennessee, and made a nearby club appearance that night. Buoyed by his recent success, he also entered the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest. This month he will appear locally at Doodad Farm on January 13. He performs solo, as a duo with guitar whiz Jack King, and as a trio with King and drummer Wiley Sykes. He is putting the finishing touches on his fourth album, recorded at Eastwood Studios in Mount Airy.

“We’ve got 23 songs tracked, so now I’m trying to winnow it down, and maybe add a mandolin and female vocalist to some of them,” he notes.

Dave Ray Cecil is still flying a bit under the radar as both a singer and songwriter, but with the body of work he continues to amass, it seems inevitable that a bigger stage awaits. After all, the Lincoln Center and Kerrville are two of the biggest. — Ogi Overman  OH

Omnivorous reader

Facing Fate

When the law of averages strikes

By Stephen E. Smith

Your risk for developing pancreatic cancer is about 1 in 65. The odds of your dying in a car crash are 1 in 100. If you’re about to undergo a hospital procedure, you have a 3 percent chance of experiencing a mishap. But, then, if you consider all the odds for all the possibilities, your chances of avoiding every disease, every mishap, is zilch. This law of averages spares no one.

Judy Goldman’s first memoir, Losing My Sister, a finalist for Southern Independent Booksellers Alliance for Memoir of the Year, worked, in part, from the above premise, and her latest memoir, Together: A Memoir of a Marriage and a Medical Mishap, is also the product of grim statistics, detailing a medical accident and the accompanying physical and emotional consequences that tested a marriage.

Life-altering calamities can begin with the best of intentions. Goldman’s husband, Henry, happened upon a newspaper ad for an outpatient procedure that would alleviate the persistent back pain he’d suffered for years. It all sounded reassuringly straightforward: a simple injection or two and an immediate resumption of a normal life. The doctor would use a fluoroscope to guide his injection of steroids and an anesthetic into the epidural space between the spine and the spinal cord. But when Henry was wheeled out from the procedure, his expression was “flat and abstracted.” He was paralyzed from the waist down.

The doctor assured Goldman that Henry’s reaction to the procedure was normal: “Your husband is going to be all right. It’ll just be a matter of time,” he said, reassuringly. But he was mistaken, and the consequences of the botched treatment unleashed in Goldman a desperate avalanche of emotions — depression, guilt, hopelessness, anger, fear, despair. Adding to her anguish, there was no explanation for Henry’s sudden physical disability. With the exception of the doctor who had administered the treatment — and he was not forthcoming — a faceless medical community offered few plausible answers. After the struggle and joy of four decades of marriage, after raising children and pursuing successful careers, after leading a responsible life together, the Goldmans had suffered a mind-numbing and perhaps irreversible catastrophe that would test their relationship to its core — a predicament in which Goldman had to assume the role of patient advocate in the complex medical morass America has created for itself.

Interspersed with the chapters detailing Goldman’s struggles with her husband’s sudden disability, she weaves the story of her early life, her marriage to Henry, their years together, all of which lend perspective and poignancy to their predicament. When she’d said yes to Henry’s marriage proposal, Goldman had already mapped out the path their lives would follow. “I was not only in love with him, I was in love with the idea of a husband and wife moving through life together, youth falling away, both growing slightly stooped, hard of hearing, Henry carrying my purse for me the way old men do, our soft, imperfect last years together.”

A second misadventure produced a catharsis. Two years after Henry’s debilitating procedure, Goldman was confronted by a ski-masked man pointing a pistol at her abdomen. She made a quick getaway. Henry, who was recovering from a shoulder operation precipitated by his back injury, was sitting beside her in the car’s passenger seat. “All of a sudden, I get it. Because somebody threatened me with a gun, I can finally cry — really cry — over what threatened Henry in that outpatient clinic two years ago. As though the holdup and the epidural are one thing. One single reminder that we’re all in danger every second. The world is waiting to trip us up.”

And there you have it: The world is waiting to trip us up. All that’s left is the long way back and the truths that such struggles reveal about relationships and the limits of human determination.

After intense rehab, Henry recovers much of his ability to walk, albeit with a cane and the constant attention of his faithful advocate. But Goldman was left to ponder an inescapable list of “if-onlys” — if only her husband hadn’t seen the ad in the newspaper; if only they’d tried other remedies; if only he’d decided to live with the pain; if only she’d waited with him before he received the epidural; if only she hadn’t made things worse by over-reacting. Mostly she had to question the very beliefs that formed the foundation of their marriage — the possibility of losing Henry and the notions she had early on about how they would grow old together. She became irritable, naggy and intensely introspective: “Maybe I’m really angry with Henry for threatening to fail physically. For even obliquely threatening to die. As though he has to earn my forgiveness for what happened to him. As though his medical condition is a betrayal.” Finally it all comes down to forgiveness — forgiving her husband, forgiving herself, forgiving the doctor responsible for administering the crippling epidural. Forgiving the world for tripping her up.

What we have in Together is a blueprint for coping with “mishaps.” Goldman skillfully articulates the communality of human experience, and she’s startlingly frank when relating the difficulties a patient advocate encounters. Finally, Together is about being married, about becoming a part of another person and building on the long-term relationship we enter into when we take our marriage vows. If Goldman doesn’t offer easy answers to the vexing questions of life, she does outline a process by which we can puzzle our way into the moment and make the best of what fate offers us: “We must scrap the illusion that marrying that one perfect person will end our suffering, bring endless bliss, fix everything.” What could be more honest than that? b

Stephen E. Smith is a retired professor and the author of seven books of poetry and prose. He’s the recipient of the Poetry Northwest Young Poet’s Prize, the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Prize for poetry and four North Carolina Press awards.

Short Stories

Murder Most Foul

Who’s the culprit? No, not Col. Mustard or Miss Scarlett of Clue fame, but the fitness instructor, perhaps? Or the barmaid or used car salesman? Don your deerstalker’s cap and grab a magnifying glass for Community Theatre Greensboro’s Whodunit Mystery Party at 7 p.m. on January 25 at O.Henry Hotel (622 Green Valley Road). Start with a cocktail and then roam through the hotel, partaking of tasty eats courtesy of Chef Leigh Hesling, as you try to solve the case of the guest who was, er, iced at the hotel bar. For info call Community Theatre Greensboro at (336) 333-7470, ext. 205. Tickets:

Hitching Post

Just say “I do,” to the Wedding Fair, which acts as a matchmaker on January 6 at Embassy Suites/Greensboro (204 Centreport Drive). The one-stop shop — or browse — helps brides and grooms plan ahead and avoid breaking the bank, thanks to the on-site gurus who will give the 411 on wedding gowns and tuxedos, venues, florists, music, photographers and more. Can’t make this show? Not to worry: You can catch it on January 6 at the Winston-Salem Fairgrounds (300 Deacon Boulevard) or February 2 at Greensboro Coliseum (1921 W. Gate City Boulevard.). Tickets and info:

Wheelin’ and Dealin’

What happens when a veteran with a questionable past gets ahold of a ’39 Ford — in postwar Alabama? Why, White Lightning, of course. The play by Elyzabeth Gregory Walker, is an homage to the roots of NASCAR. Its protagonist is Avery McAllister, a World War II vet determined to put his past behind him, which he does by ripping down Alabama’s road unblushingly running moonshine — until he meets Dixie. So buckle up and enjoy the ride from January 27 through February 17 at Triad Stage (232 S. Elm Street). Tickets: (336) 272-0160 or

Passing the Mantle

Or rather, manteau. As the mercury goes down, it’s time to bundle up . . . but what about those who haven’t any cold-weather gear? Time to dig through your closets for outerwear to donate to the Give a Kid a Coat campaign, which kicks off January 4 at A Cleaner World in High Point (2527 Eastchester Drive) with food and fun. If you miss the big event, you can still drop off a gently used coat until February 9 at any of Cleaner World’s locations, which will mend and clean the garments before handing them over to the Salvation Army for distribution. What better way to start the new year than by keeping a child warm outside . . . a gesture that will make you feel warm on the inside. Info:


Ever have any trouble reading old handwriting with its elaborate loops and flourishes (think: John Hancock’s signature on the Declaration of Independence)? Well, on January 14 at 6:30 p.m. just drop by the Morgan Room at High Point Public Library (901 N. Main Street, High Point), where historian Larry Cates will help you decipher slants, serifs, sans-serifs of handwriting styles from bygone eras. You’ll be better equipped to read historical and genealogical documents — and mind your p’s and q’s. Info:

Perfectly Frank

Meaning, Frank Harmon, architect, faculty member of the NCSU College of Design and author of Native Places: Drawing as a Way to See. A collection of thoughts, hand-drawn sketches and watercolors, the book explores the importance of examining places and buildings. Harmon will be on hand at Scuppernong Books (304 S. Elm Street) at 7 p.m. January 27 to discuss the tome and his life’s work. Info:

Porcine Scene

Go hog wild on January 26 for an early Lunar New Year’s party celebrating the Year of the Earth Pig. From 1 until 4 p.m., the Greensboro History Museum (130 Summit Avenue) will offer snacks, crafts and other family-friendly activities to give a nod to the community’s Asian heritage showcased in its exhibit, Second Generation: Asian-American, which closes February 3. Info:

Worth the Drive to Winston-Salem

Calling all Mozart fans! Since its inception in 1978 the Mozart Birthday Concert has become one of the most popular events on UNC-School of the Arts’ calendar. Come wish Amadeus many happy returns at this year’s faculty performance, which goes onstage on January 27 at 2 p.m. at Watson Hall on UNCSA’s campus (1533 S. Main Street, Winston-Salem). Tickets:

Simple Life

Kid Up a Tree

Because of a father who loved the Old North State

By Jim Dodson

Half a century ago, my dad was on a creative team from a High Point — based ad agency that produced perhaps the state of North Carolina’s most iconic travel and tourism campaign.

It declared the Old North State to be “Variety Vacationland” and featured beauty shots of our blessed land from the Outer Banks to the Blue Ridge Mountains, along with a catchy theme song that sounded like a college fight song sung by the Fred Waring Singers.

It was called the “North Carolina Vacation Song.”

North Car-o-lina, friendly mountain breezes,

North Car-o-lina, with its sandy beaches,

Wonderland of Variety . . .

Coast to mountains it’s great to be

Right here in North Car-o-lina

Love the pines around in North Car-o-lina,

Get your cares behind you

Livin’ is right in ho-li-day bright


If you’ve reached a certain threshold of age, you probably know this classic and clever jingle word for word. In fact, you probably can’t get the dang thing out of your head six decades later. It’s stuck in there playing on an endless loop with Speedy Alka-Seltzer (“Plop, plop, fizz, fizz, Oh what a relief it is . . .”) and Mighty Mouse pitching Colgate toothpaste as he battles Mr. Tooth Decay.

My old man couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, but he was a whiz at writing witty light verse, clever limericks and jingles in the style of Ogden Nash, the poet laureate of Light Verse, one of his literary heroes, the author of such timeless gems as:

My garden will never make me famous,

I’m a horticultural ignoramus,

I can’t tell a string bean from a soybean,

Or even a girl bean from a boy bean.

Or for you First Amendment Fans:

Senator Smoot is an institute

Not to be bribed with pelf;

He guards our homes from erotic tomes

By reading them all himself.

And lastly, a reassuring post-holiday ditty for those anxious about the post-nuclear age in which we reside:

At Christmas in olden times,

The sky was full of happy chimes.

But now the skies above us whistle,

With supersonic guided missiles.

This Christmas I’ll be modern, so

Here comes my guided mistletoe.

I suspect my clever papa had something to do with the lyrics of North Carolina’s wickedly infectious “Vacation Song” because he wrote lots of other memorable copy and commercials — print and television — that prompted large agencies in Chicago and Atlanta to try to lure him their way.

He always politely listened to their pitches, but in the end stayed at home, his home, in North Carolina. Some of his favorite subjects, in fact, were rural counties he promoted with spots that illustrated their timeless qualities of life. My brother and I both wound up being models for a couple of these promotions. Brother Richard, circa 1964, is shown bird hunting with his “father” in a harvested cornfield on a beautiful autumn afternoon, revealing the rustic charms of Stanly County.

Yours truly, roundabout age 10, wearing jeans, sneakers and a buzz worthy of a Parris Island recruit, is shown sitting on a large tree limb staring dreamily off into the firmament over the green hills of Old Catawba, an ad for Olin Paper Company that found its way into several national magazines. I worked cheap; the sneakers were brand new, though I’m still waiting for my residuals.

Most of all, our ditty-loving daddy, a product of the Great Depression who never finished college but went off to war and steeped himself in poetry and literature and history for the rest of his days, believed that effective advertising had to be both honest and true, which are not always the same thing. He worked on Terry Sanford’s gubernatorial campaign, for example, largely because of Sanford’s strong commitment to higher education, but turned down several other politicians he sensed were “too smooth to be believable,” as he liked to say.

I spent much of this past year thinking about (and sorely missing) my old man’s infectious good humor and belief in the power of humility, honest words and decent language — something that seems quaintly out of fashion in the time of a President who tweets insults on the hour, grades himself superior to Abe Lincoln and seems to have only a passing acquaintance with the truth.

As a new and hopeful year dawns, and I wish my dad were still around to pick me up with one of his funny verses about the worrisome state of affairs, perhaps his muse Ogden Nash will have to suffice:

The American people,

With grins jocose,

Always survive the fatal dose.

And though our systems are slightly wobbly,

We’ll fool the doctor this time, probly.

But wait — stop the presses!

On an even brighter note, my daughter Maggie, who turns 30 this month and actually works as a senior copywriter for one of those large ad agencies that tried to lure her grandfather to the big city half a century ago, just sent her old man the pick-me-up he needed — three clever video spots she wrote for, of all things, Keebler Crackers.

Her “other” life is writing beautiful short stories, screenplays and a witty newsletter for her Book Drunk Book Club. But as her cracker videos clearly prove, genius skips a generation.

Judge for yourself.

Somewhere off in the firmament over the state he dearly loved, I’m guessing my old man might be grinning. Maybe his friend Ogden Nash is, too.

In any case, so you’ll never get it out of your head, I shall leave you with the rest of the famous vacation song. You can Google it, too.

North Car-o-lina, would you like to roll along scenic highways?

Let your travels bring you,

Face to face with history,

For new excitement . . . you’ll agree!

It’s all in North Car-o-lina

Bigger land of pleasure,

Life can be fine-er,

You’ll discover treasure

Where the moon shines through tall green pines in . . .


Contact Editor Jim Dodson at