Local artist chose to come back home after traveling career
Published 4:35 pm Wednesday, October 26, 2022
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By Angela Cutrer
The Elizabethton Star
Stories often circle back to where they began and lives can do the same thing.
So it has for artist Richard Righter, 52, a local man who traveled with the U.S. Marine Corps but settled back on the land his great-grandfather toiled.
“I have lived all over, but this is home,” Righter said of Carter County. “I live in Elizabethton, actually a farm in the Stoney Creek area of the county.”
Righter’s circular path back home meant he first had to get away from a place he knew too well. “When you are young, you feel ‘stuck,’ you feel stuck in a place,” he explained. “When you finally get to go somewhere, back home starts looking pretty good and you choose to come back. I’ve had plenty of time to roam. I’m home now.”
His military career took him all over the world. He’s been stationed “everywhere, from Camp Pendleton, Camp Lejeune, Afghanistan, the Mediterranean, Iran, you name it,” Righter said. “It seemed I would not be able to do that for many years, but God worked to fix my hearing and get me into the Corps. For that I am eternally grateful.
“Being in the military, to be a Marine, was my life’s goal,” he said. “Art and everything else was unimportant to me compared to that, and I was very unhappy here doing art until I was able to first be a Marine.
“Once I was able to serve 20 years, I wanted to come home and be near family; my property adjoins my parents. Twenty years was enough, and I retired as a lieutenant colonel.
“After that, it seemed like time to focus more on art. I try to visually capture some of the awesome things that the Lord has let me see and experience.”
Righter’s mother saw that his artist talents should be nurtured. “She saw that I was drawing pictures as I grew up, so she seemed to see something in that and got me into painting classes,” he said.
Righter went on to major in art at East Tennessee State University, receiving a bachelor’s of fine arts in painting and drawing. His master’s degree is in military science from Marine Corps University.
“I’ve done art all my life,” he said. “Sometimes it can be an escape from the way the world is falling apart. You’re observing and capturing, but you can shape it toward the things you like. I’ve never been able to get all that worked through satisfactorily.”
After high school, Righter worked as a photographer at The Elizabethton Star until he ended up doing everything there is to do at the paper work wise. He also worked at the Sheriff’s Department.
“When you have a dream to do something and you can’t, in the meantime, you do all you can where you are,” he said. “Five years after college, I was still wanting to go into the Marine Corps and still couldn’t because of a problem with my ear. So, I was finally able to get that fixed and fulfill my dream. I didn’t do a painting again for 20 years.”
His baseball art started toward the end of his military career. “After the Marines, I started to focus on doing more art, but then a buddy called and asked me to come back to the Sheriff’s Department, and I’m still there as a deputy sheriff.”
Righter has continued to nurture his art. His baseball sketches were created through ballpoint pen drawings. He’s drawn buyer’s faces on baseballs, but his main claim to fame were the ones he did of Major League Baseball stars. Righter has 70-plus artistic baseballs, complete with the players’ signatures, that he’s kept as keepsakes. While stationed in Florida, he was able to attend spring training for the MLB teams. His art was even featured in Forbes Magazine.
As much as Righter enjoyed his baseball art series, he found it time to move on. “It’s a privilege, if not a duty, as an artist to keep interpreting things,” he said. “I can never stay too long on anything.
“I now enjoy painting cafe scenes and diners. I’ve been able to combine the elements of photography with painting to create historic or vintage elements into current themes. I like to paint what I see, but I like bringing in other aspects. If I travel and see it, I like to bring it back with me somehow.”
This is why once, when a friend invited Righter to walk down where pieces of an old moonshine still lay, he said “That’s boring.” It was a site he’d seen many times before and he found little interest in painting landscapes anymore.
But then, Righter realized he could do something else: He could incorporate something from the past and make the painting of the current area different and unusual.
That’s where his “Moonshine” series comes in. Righter enjoys adding 1940s and 1950s elements, like old cars and even ghosts, into a landscape painting to show how it was in East Tennessee back in the day. Building on Steve Earle’s 1988 best-selling song “Copperhead Road,” which described an actual road northeast of Elizabethton now with the added “Hallow” in the name so people will stop stealing the road signs, Righter re-imagines how life in the time of moonshiners played out.
“My mother told me about an old guy at the store who bought yeast and copper and the smoke coming up from the trees from a still,” he said. “They knew what it was for. That still is still there, busted up, and I’ve been going there since I was a kid.”
Righter continues to expand his art through using the past as an immersion tactic. Even his diner work seems vintage and historical. “Most people would say my work is ‘realism,’ but it’s not,” he said, musing over his style. “It’s realistic; I prefer people in my art now. I may have grown up doing landscapes, but I like to paint what I see.”
And what he “sees” brings yesterday to today, whether it’s in oil, graphite, ink, pencil, charcoal or pastels.
He’s not alone, either, as he works on the mountain. It’s a well-kept secret, though, as to the identity of his mystery helpers. We promised we’d never tell.
One, two, three, four
Well, my name’s John Lee Pettimore
Same as my daddy and his daddy before
I hardly ever saw grandaddy down here
He only came to town about twice a year
Buy a hundred pounds of yeast and some copper line
Everybody knew that he made moonshine
Now the revenue man wanted grandaddy bad
Headed up the holler with everything he had
It’s before my time but I’ve been told
He never came back from Copperhead Road
Now daddy ran the whiskey in a big block Dodge
Bought it at an auction at the mason’s lodge
Johnson County sheriff painted on the side
Shot a coat of primer then he looked inside
Well, him and my uncle tore that engine down
I still remember that rumblin’ sound
Then the sheriff came around in the middle of the night
Heard mama cryin’, knew something wasn’t right
Headed out to Knoxville with the weekly load
You could smell the whiskey burnin’ down Copperhead Road
Volunteered for the army on my birthday
Draft the white trash first ’round here anyway
Done my two tours of duty in Vietnam
I came home with a brand new plan
I take the seed from Colombia and Mexico
Just plant it up the holler down Copperhead Road
Now the D.E.A’s got a chopper in the air
Wake up screaming like I’m back over there
Learned a thing or two from Charlie don’t you know
You better stay away from Copperhead Road
— Steve Earle, “Copperhead Road, 1988