The first piece of art 80-year-old Ron DeVore remembers drawing was a double-wing airplane. He drew it with a pencil on his mother’s new bed sheet when he was four years old.
“She didn’t fuss at me, so I guess she liked it,” he recalls. “She just washed the sheet, and the drawing faded away. Back then, double-wing airplanes would fly over our house and I enjoyed looking at them. One day I just decided to draw one from memory.”
Today, Ron and wife Shannon DeVore’s home at Perry Park Golf Resort in Owen County is filled with Ron’s artwork. Ron isn’t a golfer, but he enjoys riding on a golf cart in the neighborhood, looking for natural, picturesque scenery. Their home, high above the Kentucky River, is surrounded by lakes and woods. The nearby countryside, with rolling hills, barns, old fences, horses, farms and wildlife, has all been captured in his artwork.
Shannon has been Ron’s main photographer — always on the lookout for beautiful nature scenes on road trips. Sometimes she would hang out the window of their moving car, snapping pictures, which would eventually transition to a DeVore original painting.
Many of his barn paintings have a quilt design on them, and are on the Owen County Quilt Trail. The first painting you see entering DeVore’s home is a winter scene of the old Switzer Covered Bridge.
A polio victim at age seven
A native of Millville in Woodford County, Ron moved with his family to the Bridgeport area in Franklin County when he was a child. He became ill at age 7 with polio, a viral disease often caused from eating or drinking contaminated food or water.
“We got our water from a spring, and we heated our house with coal,” Ron said. “So I would take cinders out of the coal box and make a path all the way to the spring.”
On a hot Sunday morning in July, DeVore remembers walking on the path heading to the spring and falling flat on his face in the cinders.
“From then on, it just got worse. I kept getting weaker and weaker until my dad took me to King’s Daughters’ Hospital in South Frankfort. They gave me a spinal, and that’s all I remember until I was at St. Joseph Hospital in Lexington for a nine-day quarantine. Then, I was taken to Good Samaritan Hospital in Lexington, where I stayed for two to three months, just to get better. That was the first time I ever saw my dad cry when he left me there.”
When Ron left Good Samaritan, he was transferred to Kosair Children’s Hospital in Louisville, where he stayed until “right before Christmas, when I got to come home. From then on, every summer, I had to be operated on at Good Samaritan, and then I would go to Cardinal Hill Rehabilitation Hospital in Lexington and spend about three months convalescing. I did that until I was 13.”
Returning to Franklin County, he was able to attend school while wearing leg braces. “I still have braces, but they stay in the closet most of the time now.”
Ron has an enormous appreciation for the arts. He plays the dulcimer, and enjoys a wide range of music, from opera to Bluegrass. One wonders, though, would it have still been the same without polio?
“I don’t know,” Ron answers. “My dad drew a lot, but he was basically drawing for me, and that’s how I got started. He would draw an outline of figures, on white pages in a scrapbook, for me to color. Then one day he suggested that I draw the figures, and color them.”
And Ron, a self-taught artist, has been creating artwork ever since. He took one art class at Franklin County High School, “but all we ever did was read about famous artists, and to me, it was boring. In high school, I didn’t study much. I passed enough to graduate. I failed history, my favorite subject, because I sat in the back of the classroom and drew pictures. I had to take history over because it was required.”
After high school, DeVore worked at several restaurants in Frankfort, and as a janitor at FCHS before working 30 years at Bendix, a Frankfort factory.
“I did a little bit of everything at Bendix. We made air compressors for big transfer trucks. My last job there was in aluminum, making pedals for big trucks. I got along with everybody and we had great times working together. But at every break and every meal time, I would go off somewhere and draw.”
Since his childhood, there has never been a time when Ron lost interest in creating art. “And there’s not going to be a time when I quit painting. I’ll do it as long as I possibly can.”
He retired from Bendix in 2002, and there’s been very few times since then when he took a day off from painting. He likes to start early, sometimes at 4 a.m., and no later than 6 o’clock. He usually quits around 11 a.m. “Early in the morning, the telephone doesn’t ring. I can sit and paint and not be interrupted. Shannon says when I die, she’s going to put a paint brush in one hand in my casket, and a dulcimer in the other.”
“And I’m going to throw in his worn-out bib overalls that are just barely holding together,” Shannon adds.
Ron laughs, saying jokingly, “I can’t wait till I die because then I’ll be famous and get all kinds of money.”
Brian Baker loves DeVore’s art
One of Ron’s biggest art patrons is Frankfort’s Brian Baker, a retired state geologist and pointillism artist, who has done a series of black-and-white Christmas cards for more than 30 years. “Brian has supported my artwork more than anybody,” DeVore said.
“There are a lot of fine artists in the Frankfort region,” Baker said. “But, Ron has long been one of my favorites. I came to Frankfort in 1988 and didn’t meet Ron until I got involved with a dulcimer group. When Ron joined us, he was always very modest and acted like he would never be able to learn to play.
“But now, he’s made dulcimers, and he’s developed different styles of playing that we never learned. As with his art, his music is self-taught.”
Today, DeVore plays every week with a dulcimer group, Kentucky Dulcimer Gathering, in Owenton and once a month at General Butler State Resort Park in Carrollton.
Baker said he knew DeVore for almost three years before he found out about his paintings.
“One day when Ron lived in Frankfort, I went to his house (on Virginia Avenue). The first thing I noticed when I went inside were all these beautiful paintings on the wall. And I asked, ‘Wow, who did this?’ And he said, ‘Oh, I did that.’ ‘And this one?’ Yeah, I did them all.’”
Baker says the detail in DeVore’s artwork is incredible. “He has a great eye for composition, range of colors, lighting and shading. I think some of his best work is in pastel. His paintings often look simple, but the more you look at them, the more you see. He’s really a regional artist, doing a lot of paintings that reflect the beauty of where he lives.”
Most of DeVore’s art is in pastel and acrylic, although he also works in oil, pencil and watercolor. He loves doing scratchboard engraving too, using sharp knives to scratch off black ink to reveal a textured art of black and white.
Downstairs at the DeVore home, many larger paintings are framed and matted and stacked next to each other on shelves. He also has a plastic container filled with ribbons he’s won at various art shows through the years, including five Best of Shows, “all of them in Eastern Kentucky,” Ron said. “They know me better there than they do here, or in Frankfort.”
Shannon said, “His paintings are in McDonald’s restaurants, banks and funeral homes in Eastern Kentucky. They’re big on buying his paintings. At one art show in Eastern Kentucky, he took first place in every category, plus Best of Show, and I got embarrassed and hid behind a tree.”
Longtime connection with All Star Dairy
In 1986, while displaying his artwork at a Fourth of July celebration in Lexington, DeVore had the good fortune of meeting the late John Utterback, founder of All Star Dairy Association, and a collector of fine arts and antiques.
“Mr. Utterback told me he had purchased four of my paintings at an art gallery in Rupp Arena, and he asked if I would come over to his house that day. I was happy to go, and he asked me to do some folk art paintings on commission. All Star does packaging for dairies all over the U.S., and my three paintings would be presented as first, second and third-place awards at annual conventions, usually in places like California and Nevada. He would tell me what he wanted in each painting, and I would do it.”
DeVore said Utterback, who died in 2007 at age 88, once managed actor William Boyd, who played Hopalong Cassidy in Western cowboy movies and a popular TV series.
“Mr. Utterback got me started in commissioned artwork, and it’s been good to have loyal support like that. I started painting for All Star Dairy in 1986, and it continued until 2020 when COVID changed everything.” In late 2021, however, DeVore’s work for All Star resumed and he’s currently creating two paintings for the 2022 convention.
When DeVore was young, he always loved watching cowboy movies, “and my favorite artist back then was Charles (C.M.) Russell (1864-1926), the cowboy artist from Great Falls, Montana. Somewhere downstairs, I still have a print from a C.M. Russell painting that was given to me many years ago from someone who went to Montana every year. His art inspired me.”
Later on, DeVore began studying the art of French painter Oscar-Claude Monet (1840-1926), founder of impressionist painting. Another favorite was Frankfort artist Paul Sawyier (1865-1917).
Baker said DeVore’s story is rather unique in that he comes from a small town and was a blue-collar worker at a factory.
“I’ve worked at a factory and you don’t typically sit around and talk about art,” Baker said. “Guys usually talk about basketball or hunting. It’s not an environment that would encourage art, at least in the factory where I worked. Ron is such a kind, likable, humble man, who’s never really gotten the attention and the appreciation that his art deserves. I think it’s long overdue, and it’s so frustrating that a lot of artists don’t get appreciated until they’re gone. Not only is Ron’s work under-appreciated, it is significantly undervalued.”
In Baker’s travels, he said he always tries to stop at local art guilds.
“More often than not — though most all of art is good — there is seldom an artist that really stands out. With Ron’s work, it has always seemed to me that it does stand out. There is almost always an attention to detail, always the fine composition, and generally a peaceful, beautiful rural scene. There is the play of light and shadow that Edward Hopper saw, the filtered light in nature that Paul Sawyier captured, and that moment in the landscape that Harlan Hubbard achieved.
“Then too, there are those times when Ron works in scratchboard where he is able, for example, to capture in exquisite detail the finest features of a musician playing his horn. Such that one looks again, and then again, and thinks ‘oh my, this is what art can do.’”
Ron DeVore’s artwork can be seen and purchased at the Community Art Center of Switzerland County in Vevay, Indiana; or at Artful Gifts Etc. in Carrollton, Kentucky.