Silver Dagger

A faded red barn in Madison County, its sides hung with raccoon skins. The nailed pelts remind me of the sinister French fairy story ‘Bluebeard’- a Breton folk tale that, like many of the ballads, has its source in an actual crime.

The young, new wife disobeys Bluebeard’s warning to never enter one locked room in his castle. When curiosity overcomes her, she finds a room scarlet with blood and the hanging corpses of her husband’s past wives.

But the song this painting refers to is not a murder ballad. It is ‘Silver Dagger’ (“Katy Dear’ and ‘Drowsy Sleeper’ in older versions).

All men are false, says my mother

They’ll tell you wicked, lovin’ lies

The very next evening, they’ll court another

Leave you alone to pine and sigh.

My daddy is a handsome devil

He’s got a chain five miles long

And on every link a heart does dangle

Of another maid he’s loved and wronged.

Go court another tender maiden

And hope that she will be your wife

For I’ve been warned and I’ve decided

To sleep alone all of my life.

Study (Oil on butcher block)

In the face of real, or imagined, competition, this girl has given up on love. She fears her heart will be nailed up like some trophy, but I paint her as though she may already be hanging from the barn. In her grief, she has stood so long that the grasses have grown up around her, threading through the folds of her skirt.

I got consumed in painting the pelts, and the buckled boards behind her- all those textures provided opportunities to convey her turbulent, churning thoughts.


To the patina of age, the Japanese give the word ‘saba’, which literally means rust. Time explains the essence of things. ‘Saba’, as an element of beauty, embodies the link between art and nature.

In this painting, unlike others in the series: without graffiti, without trailers, with Amy in a vintage dress against an old barn, I run the risk of painting old stuff, of being ‘nostalgic’. A dire risk in a post-modernist art world. Worse still, these paintings are heartfelt.

Nonetheless, old barns are dotted about these valleys, and still used. Some things connect the past to the present. Tradition should not always be anathema to the artist. Rousseau observed that the intentionally unconventional man is often the most conventional. It is best not to think too much. A painter thinks with the eye, the gut.

T.S. Eliot warns against a ‘blind or timid adherence’ to the successes of the past, but reminds us “tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who want to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence (…) This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity”.

Sometimes, when I am paying attention, I see the inestimable gift of being an artist. For Proust is right: memory completes experience, and an artist, by physically rendering their world in paint, fashions that memory into something more.

To paint a thing is more than to photograph it. The act of labor in each of those dots on the dress, the leaves, the swirling boards- it pulls many things together. A painting materializes. It is made of the seen world, the imagined world, the remembered world, and the ‘historical’ world. Music, with its universal sentiments, connects my British ancestry to my new home.

A volunteer joins the cast…


‘Silver Dagger/Katy Dear’ performed by Greg and Lucretia Speas

‘Silver Dagger’ performed by Dolly Parton