I Did It, So I Know I Can Do It
Morgan Hornsby with Pernell Fults
I met Pernell Fults last year in a poetry class I taught at the Grundy County Jail. Each week, our group met in orange plastic chairs around foldable tables in a small, cinder block classroom. It was in this setting I began to get to know Pernell and his dream of building a log cabin in the woods, of living close to the land and being completely self-sufficient. This was also where I got to know his talent as an artist. When our class decided to print an anthology of poetry, he designed the cover, a beautiful rendition of flowers, animals, and a gray chain drawn with a small pack of gel pens. With a compact mirror, he drew a self portrait that was so striking that I printed it poster-sized, displaying it in the lobby of the jail.
When I wanted to try a new project, inspired by Justin Maxon’s Livin’ the Dream, I was grateful Pernell was in the group so we could figure it out together. On the first day, he sketched his dream, which he entitled “Log Cabin Living.” From empty boxes of green tea and other assorted cardboard, he created a log, saw, and stand, even adding a small chipmunk coming out of the log. I photographed him pretending to use the sculpture and we found images of the woods in old National Geographic photo books to use as the background. Finally, we incorporated the sketch of his cabin and waterwheel to form a collage. Together, we brought to life a dream that I had heard so much about.
During this conversation, Pernell and I talked about his experience with art as well as our most recent collaboration.
Morgan Hornsby: Okay, first question. Who are you as an artist?
Pernell Fults: Who am I as an artist? Someone who enjoys art. That makes it easier to do. My daddy was really good at woodwork, and his daddy was really good at woodwork, so it just kind of ran down the line. So that’s what it means to me and why I enjoy it.
Morgan: For anyone who doesn’t know you, what kind of creative things do you do?
Pernell: I can take just a solid square piece of wood, say two inch by two inch, and use my pocket knife to whittle a chain out of it and leave the links together. I can make any kind of jewelry box. I can build log cabins, waterwheels. I made a whole Harley Davidson out of wood that looks like a real Harley Davidson. That kind of stuff, giant bird houses with like twenty houses on it, or twenty rooms in one house. Stuff like that.
Morgan: What kind of art stuff have you done since you’ve been here?
Pernell: Well, I’m presently working on a painting. And you see my log and saw over there [motions to the corner of the room].
Morgan: Poetry, too.
Pernell. Yes, poetry. I loved drawing in poetry.
Morgan: You designed the cover for a poetry anthology we created a couple months ago. Can you explain what that process was like?
Pernell: The cover came from everybody in the class getting together and agreeing what should be on it. We put our heads together and agreed that it should have a lot of flowers and of course American ginseng [a plant native to the region]. I added an owl too because I love them so much.
We also added a chain, from being locked up here at the jail on one end but on the other end in this class we turn into the bird and fly off free.
Morgan: Again for someone who doesn’t know you, how would you describe who you are as a person?
Pernell: Well, I think I’m a pretty good person. I mean, I’ve done wrong and got in jail, but more or less I ain’t really hurt nobody or done nobody wrong. I try to be good to everybody and do them like I want them to do me.
Morgan: I’m also thinking about the way you’ve lived and want to live your life, self-sufficiency and living close to the land. Do you feel like that’s part of who you are as a person?
Pernell: Oh, yeah. I would love to just go plumb off into the gulf and build a cabin and not never come out. I would just live off the land, grow my food, and eat wild animals. Like Grizzly Adams, Jeremiah Johnson. I always liked those kinds of movies and that’s the way I’d really like to live.
I got on the run from the law one time and went off in gulf and really did stay there for two years. So I know that I can do it.
Morgan: How would you describe the project that we just worked on together?
Pernell: Well, we picked out something that we really liked to do and we brought it as close to life as we could. I made my dream look as real as I could so I could let somebody see what I really want to do in life and what I could do if I was out there to do it.
Morgan: Can you say more about the dream you chose to bring to life?
Pernell: My dream was to go off and build another cabin and a big waterwheel and generate my own electricity, for free, that way I could go a little further than the old cabin people did. I would really have lights, so it would be a little modern day. It would be kinda hard to get a woman to go down there if she couldn’t watch her soap operas, so I’ll make sure she has her soap operas. And instead of lighting a lantern in the middle of the night, I could just flip a switch. The waterwheel itself would generate everything I needed by nature. I know how to do it because I’ve already done it.
I think it would be great to have a horse out there too, and maybe just get up in the morning and saddle it up, go riding. During summer, I could cut my own hay in the big fields and put it up for my winter; feed my horse, and it could live just like I did.
Morgan: What other dreams do you have?
Pernell: Well, even though it’d be real sweet to be down there off by myself like that, I’d like to come out and enjoy seeing my grandkids grow up. That would have to be part of my life. I would like to show them stuff. They’re going to ask, “Grandpa, how do you do this? How do you do that?” Well, I want to be able to show them, and maybe help them do it. With enough grandkids, one of them is going to have the same dream I did. One of them might want my cabin.
Morgan: Since we finished our project, I’ve been trying to think of what to call it, a title for it. Do you have any ideas?
Pernell: A title for it?
Pernell: Well, for my picture, maybe “The Old Man in the Woods,” or something? I don’t know. I think you better come up with something.
Morgan: Earlier today when we were talking, you said it would be cool to see the pictures we made printed big at the intersection.
Morgan: What other places could you imagine them ending up?
Pernell: Well, it might be cool to see them like paintings in an art museum. That way my grandkids or kids could come through and say, “That’s my grandpa,” or “That’s my dad.” I think that would be sweet. Maybe if enough people liked it you could make some money? But I think the main thing is for people to look at it and say, “That’s who done that,” even years and years and years from now, like Michaelangelo and the Sistine Chapel. Isn’t that amazing? That people still remember him today and will from here on. Some stuff can do that.
Pernell: Like, I built my first car; four wheel drive, before people had cars that were four wheel drive. I wrecked the body of my truck, and put a car up on it, and it looked killer. I would like to have a picture of that, and people say, “Hey, this is one of the first ones that was ever built, and this is who built it.”
Morgan: Okay, last question. With whatever you’re making, on the outside or in here in class, what about creating brings you the most joy?
Pernell: What brings me the most joy? Well, it brings me joy to be able to do it, to know that I come up with it myself, in my mind, that I ain’t following somebody else’s instructions, that I wrote them myself. I just sat down and figured out how to do it, and it worked. So that’s what I love.
Morgan: Okay. Well, that’s all of my questions, unless you have anything else.
Pernell: Thank you for letting me be here. I hope to get to see you on the outside.
Morgan: Me too.
Morgan Hornsby (she/her) is a photographer and socially engaged artist from eastern Kentucky. She currently lives and works in Tennessee. Her work has been featured in the New York Times, The Guardian, New York Magazine, NPR, Southerly, Vox, and the Marshall Project.
Ronald Pernell Fults (he/him) is an artist and woodworker from Altamont, Tennessee. He builds things with his hands, from jewelry boxes and picture frames to cars and cabins, and he gives it his all. He was introduced to art by his dad, who could draw or build anything he wanted to. He hopes to pass his skills on to his children and grandchildren.