Portrait of the Artist: In Memory of My Friend Jane Gentry Vance

I will miss Jane Vance. I knew through mutual friends that Jane was sick, but one often underestimates such things from a distance, focusing on one’s own problems until it’s too late. I had checked for her at her house a couple of times when driving through Versailles, but hadn’t found her.

Jane Gentry VanceI knew Jane for over twenty five years, extending back to my earliest days as a student at the University of Kentucky. My cousin Jennifer and friend Dave developed earlier relationships with Jane. Jennifer idolized her. Dave worked with her on the Honors Program literary magazine JAR.

She was from old Kentucky stock that extended back to Daniel Boone’s Fort Boonesborough. She was raised not far from there in southern Fayette County on ancestral land in Athens (pronounced with a long “a”). Jane had left Kentucky for Hollins, then for the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill. She was a student of the great Southern scholar Louis D. Rubin, Jr. But the pull of Kentucky is strong. She came back to teach English at the University of Kentucky.

Jane worked with my good friend Dr. Raymond F. Betts in UK’s then excellent Honors Program, which they built into a Great Books survey of Western Civilization. For many of us, the Honors Program was the defining experiencing at UK. It is one of life’s injustices that Jane Vance did not become director of the Honors Program when Dr. Betts left as Director.

I finally had Jane in class as a sophomore in Honors 202, a Great Books focus on the modern period. She loved, and taught, T.S. Eliot to us. Before I learned Eliot through the lens of my boss Russell Kirk, Jane introduced me to “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land.” She was a thoughtful, and reasonable, expositor of texts, teaching us well how to think and write about these giants on whose shoulders we stood.

Jane remained one of my favorite teachers. I remember being invited to her home for a Christmas party, my first time on Morgan Street in Versailles. When I wrote my final column as Editorial Page Editor at UK’s student newspaper The Kentucky Kernel, I listed Jane along with Raymond Betts and Jim Force as my favorite teachers. I admit I gave some priority to Dr. Betts and Dr. Force (I had both in multiple classes). Jane joked to me that she felt like Shakespeare’s wife being left the second best bed.

Among my teachers, though, was Jane Vance who would remain my good friend for decades to come.

I moved back to Kentucky after graduate school in South Carolina, newly married and looking for a place to live. Jane told me about an apartment, a flat, in a historic home a few houses down from her on Morgan Street in Versailles. It was owned by Lexington art gallery owner Heike Pickett, who was (understandably) somewhat skeptical of us (particularly of my wife’s cat). I’m pretty sure she let us in because of Jane.

I am thankful to Jane for opening the door to Morgan Street, which will forever be the most perfect place we lived. The old 19th Century house had slanting floors, no air conditioning, and cantankerous elderly upstairs tenants. We had no money. But Morgan Street was lovely and historic. You felt special living there.

And, of course, we had Jane herself just down the street. We would sometimes housesit for her, watching after plants and cats, playing with word magnets on her refrigerator. (Fun Jane fact, the exterior of her house was used in the movie Elizabethtown, which actually was filmed in Versailles, not in Elizabethtown.)

It was during this time that I apprenticed under Gray Zeitz at Larkspur Press in Monterey, Kentucky. Gray is one of America’s foremost letterpress printers, a key figure in Kentucky’s literary scene for four decades. I wanted to print some of my own projects, which I began doing under the imprint of Adela Press, named after the small community where I grew up in Clay County.

The most straightforward project to start with was a broadside poem. A broadside is a larger piece of paper printed on one side and, these days, often framed as a piece of art. But who of note would be willing to let me, an unproven and inexperienced printer, potentially make a disaster of a valued poem?

Well, my poet neighbor Jane, of course.

I nervously approached Jane about the idea, and, of course she graciously jumped on board the project. She had just written a poem about pigs as part of a poetry group of which she was a member. It was called “Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig.”White Pig illustration

White Pig broadsideAmong our Versailles neighbors was gifted artist Laura Lee Cundiff. She kindly agreed to illustrate the poem. The broadside came together as a Versailles confluence of poet, artist, and printer. I handset the poem and printed it in an edition of only seventy five copies (in hindsight, I obviously should have printed a hundred of them), signed by both Jane and Laura Lee. A few people even bought them. I’m just happy to have it hanging on my own wall.

Amazingly for me, “Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig” later became the title poem of Jane’s second collection of poetry for LSU Press. The artwork I commissioned from Laura Lee for the broadside was used on the cover. Such is my minor contribution to Southern belles lettres. I can’t help but confess how pleased I was that our little project made such a ripple.

White Pig bookJane later became Kentucky’s Poet Laureate, a well deserved honor. There was no confirmation that “Portrait of the Artist as a White Pig” put her over the top when the honor was bestowed.

I saw Jane infrequently in the decade I was away from Kentucky. A couple of years ago, driving home for a visit, we drove up Morgan Street as I do every single time I drive through Versailles. Jane was home, so we stopped, uninvited and unexpected, but always welcome. We sent our girls to play in the backyard, and sat on the porch talking to Jane, catching up on this and that. It was a visit I think about again and again, the last time I visited with Jane on Morgan Street.

I did see Jane one more time, at the funeral for my cousin Jennifer who had idolized Jane so, who had reached out to Jane for counsel when times were hard. It was an example of how kind and considerate Jane was. We hugged and spoke briefly.

St Johns window Versailles

Window at St. John’s Church

All of these things ran through my mind at Jane’s funeral. It was a beautiful service in Versailles’ beautiful St. John’s Episcopal Church, and it all well reflected beautiful Jane herself. I saw Heike and Irwin Pickett and Laura Lee Cundiff from those old Morgan Street days. (When I told Irwin I had just moved back to Kentucky he replied, “Kentuckians always come back.”) My friends lawyer Dave Abner and writer David King were there, fellow students of Jane’s at UK. The three of us went for coffee and talked about Jane, the UK Honors Program, and the old days. And I met local chef Ouita Michel, who I learned was Jane’s student, too. She told me Jane was her constant supporter and one of her best customers. If you needed Jane’s support, she would give it.

How wonderful, indeed, was Jane’s life. What a powerful impact she had on so many people. And I am thankful that I was able, in some way, to be part of that life. I will miss Jane Vance.

When I awoke one day, my bloom
was past. Those who loved me first were dead,
and promises had blown away like chaff
or clouds, which dazzle now only in the moment
of their height and roll.
The years have given back the thing itself.
from “My Life Story,” by Jane Gentry Vance

Watch this fantastic interview with Jane by my old friend, and fellow Eastern Kentuckian, Gurney Norman.

3 thoughts on “Portrait of the Artist: In Memory of My Friend Jane Gentry Vance

Leave a Reply