Above picture: “Frontier Nurses Coming Home” by Celia Benge Marcum, ca. 1960s
Sarah Lewis, an artist, teacher, and Northern Kentucky resident, grew up hearing her father’s stories about her great grandmother’s life, and her stubborn devotion to her art. Celia Benge Marcum (b. 1888-d. 1984), grew up in Clay County and, in her later years, resided with her husband in Lexington. Sarah had always meant to learn more about Celia, especially after her father passed away in 2013, but she had not dug any deeper to explore this family story.
With help from Boone County Public Library’s local history and genealogy staff, Sarah happily discovered a number of newspaper articles detailing Celia’s life and activities, from the early 1900s, to 1941, to the 1960s and after. The articles revealed that great grandmother Celia was both an artist and an activist.
Despite the cultural message of the period – that girls and young women didn’t have time to waste on frivolous activities, and that “art” is not “work” – Celia persisted in her creative pursuits. From the time she was a girl, Celia made time to paint and create.
After she married, Celia raised nine children and kept a household in the Marcum home in the hills along Red Bird River. In the Depression-era years of the early 1940s, Celia taught young girls farming and self-reliance skills as part of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration, Girls’ Resident Project. Celia also supported the Frontier Nursing Service for many years, and used it as subject matter for at least one of her paintings.
After her children were raised, Celia turned her full attention to painting. Remarkably, in an April 1964 feature story in the Louisville Courier-Journal, journalist Joe Creason described Celia, then in her mid-70s, as a kind of “Kentucky Grandma Moses.” In her later years, Celia also travelled by bus to teach art classes in surrounding towns like Manchester and Corbin. When Celia and her husband Grover Cleveland Marcum moved from the mountains to Lexington for health reasons, Celia turned to painting scenes of her new surroundings, such as Kentucky’s champion thoroughbreds and horses exercising at the Red Mile race track nearby.
Inspired by these discoveries, Sarah applied for a Kentucky Artist Enrichment Grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women in 2020. The small grant award permitted Lewis to work with Gatekeeper Press in Columbus, Ohio to have a professional-quality children’s book printed. Sarah’s book about her Appalachian great grandmother is titled Colorful Celia: The Davinci of Appalachia; Sarah drew all of the illustrations herself. Sarah is hoping to bring attention to her great grandmother’s life and art – she and her family believe there are likely many of her grandmother’s paintings dispersed throughout eastern and central Kentucky. She also hopes Celia’s story will inspire a new generation of creative spirits.
Sarah is currently enrolled in Northern Kentucky University’s Master of Arts in Teaching program, and teaches English full-time at Simon Kenton High School in Independence.
-Tracey Howerton is the Local History Librarian at Boone County Public Library