Neither advancing age nor the death of his first wife has curbed the Rev. George Kornegay’s desire to turn life’s debris into art.
At 95, Kornegay continues to build a sculpture garden outside his trailer home, using hubcaps, televisions, dolls, rusty scrap metal and whatever else comes his way.
Even more impressive is the fact that Kornegay’s current garden, located in a remote area outside Selma, Ala., was begun just a few years ago after he remarried and moved away from his first art-filled home in Brent, some 50 miles to the north.
Heartbreak, pleas to God and new love opened his eyes again to the creative possibilities of discarded objects.
Like Howard Finster in Summerville, Ga., and W.C. Rice in Prattville, Ala., both now dead, Kornegay says his creative spark is his faith. “Whatever I do is revealed to me,” he says.
Kornegay was ordained an African Methodist Episcopal minister in 1948, but not everything he makes is Biblically inspired. Some figures he calls African. Others are Native-American – Kornegay’s grandmother was Choctaw. And some are fantasy animals, like dinosaurs. Whatever it is, “I cannot make it angry,” he says.
Kornegay’s first environment in Brent, a thinned-out, faded version of its former self, dates back 28 years. He was clearing land in 1981 when he saw faces in two big rocks. He relocated them 4 feet apart, stood in the middle and heard what Jesus told the apostle Peter: “Upon this rock I will build my church.”
Soon, Kornegay’s rural property along Bear Creek Road sprouted sculptures made of seemingly mismatched items. It was the kind of environment Bill Arnett, the infamous champion of Southern, African-American self-taught art, revealed to the world in a show during the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and in his two “Souls Grown Deep” books.
Indeed, Kornegay says he rejected the Arnett family’s offer to put him on a monthly retainer of $1,000 in exchange for exclusive access to his art. He enjoys too much sharing with visitors what he’s made.
Nine years ago, Kornegay found no joy in making art, or in life in general, after Minnie Sue, his wife of 66 years, died.
“At night, that’s when it was really rough on me,” he says. He told his children: “You ain’t never lost a wife. You don’t understand.”
He paced on his porch, seeking divine guidance. Finally, he drove to his church, walked around the building, then headed to the home of a woman he had seen at church, Annie.
She was living alone in her trailer after separating from her husband. “Who are you?” she asked when Kornegay rapped on the door.
He took a chair and “she sat on the floor, barefooted as a river duck,” and they talked.
They met again at a church meeting. When she was about to leave, “that’s when I asked her some serious questions” about spending their lives together. They married in 2002.
Kornegay’s children were mystified. Why, just shy of 89, would he would take another wife 38 years his junior?
“If you want to find out why I married a young woman, you go upstairs and ask the higher power,” he told them.
Kornegay is not lonely anymore. He and Annie live in a trailer that once was the home of her deceased son, and together they tend the sculpture garden. A gate of castoff objects at the dirt driveway announces to passersby that an artist is at work.
Kornegay says he wants to sell enough art to start a museum, as if he were in mid-career and famous. His optimism has been a lifelong shield against the woes of deprivation.
As the second oldest of 10 children growing up in post-World War I Alabama, Kornegay sometimes had to boost his mother’s spirits when life looked bleak.
“I always told mama, ‘value the bright side,’ ” he says. “I was never quick to give up.”
Top photo: Dolls like this black-painted one are scattered throughout the garden.
Second photo: The Rev. George Kornegay with his second wife, Annie, at their home outside Selma, Ala.
Third photo: A retired African Methodist Episcopal preacher, Kornegay often depicts crosses in his artwork.
Bottom photo: Resting in an armchair in his trailer home, Kornegay says “whatever I do is revealed to me” by God.