When a man’s paintings are bringing increasingly higher prices long after his death, it is certain that the artist—during his lifetime—was able to capture the very soul of the world in which he lived in such a way that it still touches the heart of everyone who sees it. This is the hallmark of genius in art.
Seymore Lindsey was very much this kind of genius, but he never wanted to be particularly known or celebrated as an artist—he was simply a house painter. It is perhaps this self-effacing generosity and humility that endowed him with the rare ability to see and capture the world around him with such clarity, brilliance, humor and affection.
He spent the greatest part of his life in the 18th century, so the world he captured in his art was rural, agrarian Americana. When he painted canvasses they were portraits of someone’s prize horse, or a farmhouse with barnyard pets, children, a picket fence. When he painted murals on the sides of barns they depicted sheep and cows, fields and fences, rolling hills of Richland County.
He had a special knack for an art form seldom seen today, of taking simple pine board trimmings in a home and wood-graining them with stains and lacquers so that the plain, inexpensive wood turned into dark, rich trim with whorls and knots and fine grain like expensive hardwood. Woven quite naturally into the grainy patterns he would put small songbirds he painted with a feather, or tiny mice or life-sized squirrels hidden in the corners of the room or on the back of a door. Natural in color, lifelike in form, these little gracenotes made every room he touched totally unique and unforgettable.
The art form that he was most highly gifted with was accomplished with only a sheet of paper, a pair of scissors, and astounding talent. These were papercuts—silhouettes—that captured in minute detail, in minute size, the natural world that was so much a part of everybody’s life in rural America. Dogs, horses, rabbits, and even people, were sculpted from paper beneath flowering trees full of birds—all of it in unbelievable fineness of detail and delicacy.
Seymore Lindsey lived in Lexington from 1848 to 1927, and from this epicenter there is a circle of about 30 miles in all directions where his influence and works could be found. Houses with Lindsey animal doors still turn up in an area over six counties. People remembered him traveling the country roads in a wagon loaded with paint cans and drop cloths, often setting out Monday morning and not returning until Friday night.
His barn murals have all pretty much passed with the many seasons since they were painted, though there is one easily seen from Owens Road that was repainted about 50 years ago in a pale reflection of his original design. The only remaining mural that has been left untouched has faded nearly to woodgrain, yet even in the hints of what remains it is easy to see the authority of his work.
Lindsey was a bit of a prankster, and loved jokes of all kinds. He died at the age of 78 when he stepped off a ladder, forgetting that he was standing at the top. It almost sounds like the kind of thing he would have laughed about.
The best known portrait of him shows the man with a rascally grin, but even without the benefit of a photo that quality of mischievousness and humor and joy of life is every bit as evident in the works he left behind.