Folk artist Robert William Rawlings was an exhibited “memory painter” from Marion County, Kentucky. “The people loved his paintings,” his daughter Edith Gover of Bradfordsville said. He did thousands of paintings, she added, and had works all over the United States, in Europe and on ocean liners.
Rawlings farmed and taught his 16 children how to live off the land, but a heart attack in 1964 ended his farming career. He had started painting in the 1950s “after studying through the mail,” Mrs. Gover said. “He could paint two pictures a day when he was in his folk-art mode.”
Rawlings set up his paintings during Ham Days in Lebanon, the Bluegrass Steam and Gas Engine Association show in Harrodsburg and the Forkland Heritage Festival & Revue in Gravel Switch. Mrs. Gover said that in 1970 the artist had 23 paintings left after setting up at the steam show in Harrodsburg. “Two men in suits … bought all of them. The men said they were from the Smithsonian … They took pictures of dad, and he signed some papers … They paid more money than he was asking, $10 more on every picture.”
Rawlings was exhibited at the Kentucky Art & Craft Museum in Louisville and the Kentucky Folk Art Center in Morehead. In 1986 he had six paintings in the exhibition Remembrances: Recent Memory Art by Kentucky Folk Artists at the art-and-craft museum in Louisville. Rawlings’ Gravel Switch Kentucky in 1922 (No. 137) is illustrated in the catalog. The exhibition curator, folk-art expert Larry Hackley, called Rawlings “a self-styled historian (who) documents the knobs and towns around his native south central Kentucky.” Hackley pointed out that the artist “has an enthusiastic local following” and would paint subjects suggested by his clientele, which, he intimated, could explain the 137th version of the Gravel Switch painting. The other artists in the exhibition included fellow folk-art superstars Denzel Goodpaster, Earnest Patton, Carl McKenzie, Donny Tolson and Charley and Noah Kinney.
“He had a style of painting like no other,” Mrs. Gover said.