She found herself in Matewan
by Tyler Clendenin
It’s a dreary day at the Matewan Depot. Next to a window framing a gray sky spitting freezing rain onto the naked trees, Vera Kay Hankins is on a beach with two twin girls playing in the sand.
“The lady I’m drawing this for, I’ve already made one with her other four grandkids before these two came along,” she says holding up the two photos she’s crafting together for the drawing.
For Vera, art has been a part of her life, her whole life.
“Do you wanna hear the whole story?” she asks with a laugh.
“It was Christmastime. Mom bought a little toy horse with a saddle. It was sitting in the sunshine with a shadow on the floor.”
Five-year-old Vera loved horses.
“All I knew is I wanted to draw it,” she says. “Then I laid a piece of paper over the shadow and worked all day on drawing that horse from its shadow.”
Once she was in school, her love of horses continued to foster her natural abilities.
“I was always aggravating my librarian,” she says. “Makin’ sure she always had a horse book for me. I didn’t even want to read. I just wanted to draw the pictures.”
Vera graduated from horses to portraits in high school and eventually went on to create murals for churches. Today, because of carpal tunnel, she sticks mostly to pencil drawings.
It turns out, artists run in the family. It just wasn’t realized. After Vera had honed her craft, she taught her mother how to paint.
“She had the talent, but didn’t bring it out until her thirties,” she says. “My mom would give me ideas. Even sometimes she’d pick up a paintbrush.”
Vera spent time breaking into the artisan community outside of Lexington until she moved back to care for her ailing mother who passed away two years ago.
“When my mom died, it brought out all the good memories,” she says. My mom was always proud of me—and I always wanted her to be more proud. Same with my dad. He was the best dad in the world.”
Wherever Vera or her art goes, she takes her family with her. She now has two boys of her own and a grandchild.
“When I move up in the world, it’s like they’re moving up with me,” she says.
Today, Vera spends her time driving a school bus for Pike County or painting under the skylight at the Southside Mall to curate work for her business, Art by Vera Kay. About a year ago, she was invited to bring her artwork to Matewan.
Originally from South Williamson, Ky., Vera now spends time working at the Historic Matewan Depot Replica Museum and Welcome Center. The Depot serves as a hub for work produced by the Tug Valley Artisans group. A part of the depot houses crafts and artwork centered on Matewan’s history.
“The history itself will expand the art,” she says. “History of Matewan will be passed on through our art.”
After bringing her artwork to the community, Matewan has grown fond in Vera’s heart.
“It’s just like home over here. Everybody’s just trying to help out one another,” she says. “I’ve been to Matewan more in the last year than I have my whole life.”
As the artisan community grows, it has expanded past only works of art. Members of the community are producing soaps, instruments and jewelry. And according to Vera, many of the artisans still follow practices handed down from generations to create their work.
Vera says she found herself within the past ten years, and as for Matewan, they’re doing the same.
“I think they’ve done found themselves—they’re just working on making it better,” she says. “I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for all the good I see Matewan is doing.”