The Jack Tales Wall
BRICK SCULPTURE—THE ART FORM
For many centuries, brick sculpture has been an art through which people could tell stories, convey ideas or otherwise express themselves. Intricate or simple, large or small, such sculpture has always been a part of architecture. It has added both beauty and interest to the temples, churches and government buildings of many civilizations during many different ages.
Brick sculpture first depicted figures of cultural and religious significance on monumental Babylonian and Mesopotamian structures about 600 B. C. Though its uses have changed over the centuries, the ancient art of brick sculpture has enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years.
The JACK TALES WALL at Southwest Virginia Community College is a Bas-relief sculpture. It is carved from brick that are thicker than standard 3 5/8 inches so that some of the design projects beyond the wall plane. This sculpture is unique in that its depth projects further “onto” the floor than is usual.
The process is very labor and time intensive and begins as the artist stacks the thick, soft “green” unfired brick directly on an “easel.” Spacers are placed between the rows of brick, both vertically and horizontally, where mortar will later take their place.
The design for the sculpture, enlarged on grid paper, is placed directly on the soft, green brick, where the artist uses a sharp instrument such as a nail, to punch holes to form the design pattern on the brick. The paper is then removed and the carving or sculpting begins, using various wood carving instruments and kitchen utensils. When the primary sculpting is complete, the artist adds texture to the piece. Throughout the carving process, the brick must be kept moist, being covered with plastic sheeting when the artist is not working on the piece.
When the carving is complete, the bricks are sand blasted to create a uniform color when firing. Each piece is individually numbered by course and position so the brick can be installed correctly after firing. The 750 square foot JACK TALES WALL sculpture was prepared in many different sections, since the “easel” used was only 10′ x 15′ in size.
Once numbered, brick are then taken to a commercial kiln laboratory to go through a three-day process of drying, firing and cooling. Cooled bricks are checked for chips and cracks and then returned to the job site. At this point, the mason becomes an artist as the sculpture is installed. The sculptor/artist is on hand to supervise and assist the mason in laying out the sculpture, following the numbering sequence and adjusting the shape, color and dimension of the mortar joints to get the proper finished appearance.
The JACK TALES WALL project began in the fall of 1992, when the decision was made to include a sculpture in the proposed Community Center at Southwest Virginia Community College. Johnny Hagerman, an SVCC gradate, was the sculptor, and Charles Vess, fantasy artist and illustrator, selected the theme and designed The WALL. There are over 8000 bricks in The WALL, which took thousands of hours to complete. Eric Cook, Richlands, and Eric Yost, Cedar Bluff, served as apprentice sculptors on the project. The mason was Tom Foley of Richlands.
The JACK TALES WALL was made possible by the families of Betty Anne Royall Shaner and Bill Shaner, Jessie White Rusinko and Bob Rusinko and Mary White Lawson. The JACK TALES WALL is given in honor of the lives of parents, Mary Belle Hyatt Royall and J. Powell Royall, Jr. and Elizabeth Hambrick White and Jesse F. White. Both families served the Richlands area community in business and civic affairs for many years.
JOHNNY HAGERMAN, a graduate of Whitewood High School in 1972, grew up in Whitewood. He graduated from Southwest Virginia Community College in 1974 and from Radford College with a B.S. in Art in 1976. He was a public school teacher before being employed by General Shale in 1991 as a muralist/sculptor. Hagerman is one of very few brick sculptors in the United States. He has work in numerous locations throughout the States including the Opryland Hotel, Ronald McDonald Houses, corporate office buildings, retail establishments and private residences. His first project was a student project at Whitewood High School and his first public work was the Sails of Freedom sculpture at the National Guard Armory in Richlands, commissioned by CART.
About the JACK TALES WALL, Hagerman states, “As the Jack Tales migrated into the Appalachian Mountains, by way of the Scottish immigrants, they became as much a part of life as the `down to earth’ ways of the people who told and enjoyed them. Bringing the Tales to life through the medium of brick proved to be a successful way to incorporate part of the earth into a work of art.”
CHARLES VESS, winner of the World Fantasy Award, publishes his own work in The Book of Ballads & Sagas featuring a section of short adaptations of old English and Scottish songs in a black-and-white format. He is a visual storyteller whose interests are in exploring and defining the “human experience” through his imaginative art. Sojourns through England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales to investigate the historical roots of his fascination with fantasy provide a background for his interest in the origin of Appalachia’s Jack Tales. He is inspired by the great children’s classics and the work of turn-of-the century illustrators such as N.C. Wyeth and Arthur Rackman.
In the fall of 1992, I was commissioned by Southwest Virginia Community College in Richlands, Virginia, to conceptualize a monumental 30′ x 50′ brick wall sculpture that would be placed in a new campus building. The wall’s theme was to be my choice, although the college did ask that I choose something indigenous to the four counties that SWCC serves: Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell and Tazewell. However, after extensive research into the history and character of these counties, I was still undecided as to a `theme’ that would exemplify their many unique attributes.
It was then that a young man named Jack seemed to plant himself squarely in front of my path to research. Jack of the mountains, Jack and his brothers, Soldier Jack, — the Jack Tale. Who better to represent the people of these four counties than young Jack, the hero of hundreds of lively tales, indigenous to the Appalachian Mountains? These very tales were brought by the Scots-Irish and German immigrants from Europe into the southwestern Virginia region during the mid 1700’s. Much as the early pioneers adapted themselves to this mountain environment, so did their stories adapt along with them. Thus, tales that were first transmitted orally throughout the British Isles and written down by the Brothers Grimm in Germany, mutated here into stories with an intrinsically `American’ hero. A hero who possessed limitless optimism and a trust in his absolute ability to control his own destiny.
The wall’s theme then, would be one that celebrates a character whose fulfillment is achieved through kindness, by a bit of luck, and most importantly, by wits and intelligence — all characteristics that truly represent the people of this region.
With the theme chosen and agreed upon by the SWCC `Wall’ committee, I was able to quickly sketch out a design that was both aesthetically pleasing, as well as practical, in terms of the materials to be used in constructing the wall: thousands of red clay bricks. This design, with a few modifications for practical considerations, was accepted by the committee. Now, nearly four years later, with the completion of the SWCC Community Center, The JACK TALES WALL has been translated from a flat pencil drawing into vibrant three dimensional life by the capable and talented hands of Johnny Hagerman.
—Charles Vess, September 1997
On a warm, early summer night, three figures rest under a tall spreading tree recounting stories born from the diverse and culturally rich inheritance each has to offer the other. A woman, born of Irish/Scots/German pioneer stock, begins her tale, almost as old as the hills that surround them, to a rabbit. He is Br’er Rabbit from the Uncle Remus tales, and represents our region’s Black American heritage. The third listener is one of the America’s first inhabitants, a Native American. They both sit back comfortably and wait to begin their own tales.
Behind them rises the bean tree, the storytelling tree, and as the woman spins her tales, the thick verdant branches fill with images from the multitude of Jack Tales that are indigenous to the first wave of white pioneer settlers to this region.
Populating the tree is a huge giant holding his wooden cudgel (Jack and the Bean Tree). Further along are the daughters of a witch woman—the first with only one eye, the second possessed with two eyes just like you and me, while the third has three (Jack and the Bull).
Beneath them is a one-eyed beggar (this is Woden/Odin wandering in from Nordic and Germanic mythology), who figures in many Jack Tales, always giving, in return for some natural kindness from Jack, just the right gift that will eventually see the youth safely through to the end of that story (Fill, Bowl, Fill, Hardy Hardhead, and Jack’s Goose). The beggar man is talking to a small mouse (The Never-ending Tale) about young Jack and whether or not he’s worth all the trouble they’ve gone to on his behalf.
Above them, nine cats scamper across the tree limbs on their way to a haunted mill (A Sop Doll). Flying past that same limb is a magic boat carrying seven brothers: Hardy Hardhead, Eatwell, Drinkwell, Runwell, Harkwell, Seewell, and Shootwell. Every one of those brothers is going to help in Jack’s rescue of a princess from the clutches of an evil witch-woman (Hardy Hardhead or Jack and the Flying Boat).
Below them on the last limb are three preachers and three dancing girls stuck fast to the enchanted goose that the Jack figure holds. Their frantic efforts to break free help bring laughter and joy into another young princess’ heart, thus winning for Jack, her hand in marriage and a happily-ever-after ending to that tale, at least (Jack and the Wood Chopper).
It is early evening as the pioneer woman pauses at the end of her last story. She settles herself, and smiles back at her two companions, and waits eagerly for them to begin their own stories. The telling lasts far into the night and is going on to this day. Be still. Calm your heart. Listen. Their stories are full of wonder and delight . . .