Revised May 25, 2016.
Many people in the area where I grew up considered Tanner Wickham, known as E. T. Wickham in the art world, a bit of an odd duck during his lifetime. He was a “character,” an eccentric, but much more that escaped me and many others at the time.
Tanner, as he was known locally, is now a renowned folk artist years after his death. He lived maybe two miles north, as the crow flies, from where I was born and raised. While I never met him or even saw him as far as I remember, I heard about him often and knew exactly where several of his large concrete statues were along the gravel road that passed his farm a few miles southwest of Clarksville, Tennessee.
One of my high school classmates, Patsy Wickham (now Pat Wickham Bomba), a relative of Tanner Wickham, recommended that I look at AJ Schibig’s website for more information on Tanner Wickham. Mr. Schibig is an internationally known photographer living in Northern California, who just happens to be Tanner Wickham’s grandson! Learning this made me instantly think of the passing of art genes, or artistic abilities, within families, something that completely eluded me. AJ and Patsy are cousins, having lived close together for a time near Palmyra.
An email communication with Mr. Schibig produced a treasure trove of resources on the life and work of Tanner Wickham. You are urged to see a superb video of Tanner Wickham’s art, specifically Wickham Stone Park, which is also available for easy viewing along a roadside a short distance from where Mr. Wickham created his concrete statues.
Mr. Schibig included a link to a biography of Enoch Tanner Wickham written by Janelle Strandberg Aieta, Curator of the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center in Clarksville, Tennessee, a biography that was a real eye-opener for me. Among other things, she provided rich details of the appearance of the then United States Senator Estes Kefauver of Tennessee to speak at the unveiling of a World War II monument that Tanner had made to memorialize his son Ernest who was killed in France in 1944.
Faculty members in Austin Peay State University’s Department of Art deserve a lot of credit for calling the world’s attention to Tanner Wickham’s amazing art. They have studied it over the years and played a significant role in creating an exhibit at the 1982 World’s Fair that included Tanner Wickham’s folk art. The University has Tanner’s statue of WWII hero Sergeant Alvin York on display in the Department of Art.
Then there is a different story I have not found on any previous website. Several years ago a relative by marriage, Cragon Baggett, told me he had heard a funny story about Tanner Wickham. The story was that Tanner had acquired some fertilized turkey eggs, arranged them carefully in the center of his bed, and with proper padding proceeded to sit on the eggs himself pretty much around the clock to try to hatch the babies. Remembering this, I asked Cragon again a few months ago and he reaffirmed that he had heard that story but could not vouch for its truth.
So I asked Patsy if she knew anything about the turkey egg story. She did! She said the story was true, but did not know if Tanner succeeded in hatching the turkey chicks. When I asked Mr. Schibig about this, he had heard the story but suggested doubt about any eggs hatching because, as he put it, “I do know he never sat still for very long!”
As Patsy talked she called him “Uncle Tanner” because he was married to Annie, her grandmother’s sister. Patsy’s grandfather was Tanner’s cousin. So not only did she know Tanner, she knew him well and loved to visit him and her Aunt Annie.
She said Tanner loved people, loved to talk. This made me feel I had missed out in my youth by never meeting Tanner, probably out of some unease among my family and neighbors who thought Tanner was strange enough to avoid. Now I suppose this aversion I observed could have been due in part to Tanner’s frequent production of over-sized concrete statues, a habit that made him seem “different” from his neighbors, a habit that gave him some odd mystique that ordinary people didn’t quite know how to take. Again, this is a supposition; I don’t really know why Tanner wasn’t within the circle of friends my family knew.
On trips back to Tennessee I still revisit what is now Wickham Stone Park, and I will continue to do so with greater appreciation for the genius of Tanner Wickham. He was an unrecognized treasure in our midst as I was growing up.
There’s a lesson here for those of us who see people who are “different” with some sort of fear. Different is not bad, it is just different. Mark Twain extended this thought as follows: “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, and charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”
Knowing what I know now, if I could do my growing up all over again, I would have made an effort to know Tanner Wickham well. My life is poorer for not having known him personally. I wish I had.