Eastern Kentucky recently lost an artist and instructor who has inspired Appalachian students, artists and residents for decades.
Thomas J. Whitaker, 74, of Magoffin County, died Jan. 23 at Hazard ARH in Hazard.
One of Eastern Kentucky’s most well known artists, Whitaker also performed in a folk-bluegrass band, Creeker, and co-authored at least one book, “As the Crow Flies ... Appalachia Speaks” with Betty J. Williams in 2004. A copy of that book is available at the Floyd County Public Library.
Whitaker’s artwork has been exhibited throughout the state for decades. In 2001, he earned the East Kentucky Leadership’s Culture and Arts Award.
He was best known for his paintings and prints that depicted life in Eastern Kentucky, as well as self portraits that showcased his personality.
He retired from BSCTC in 2007 after teaching art for 30 years there. In 2008, he and his band Creeker participated in a concert at the college to raise funds for God’s Pantry and the college’s Phi Theta Kappa Honors Society.
The former Floyd County Times published an article about that exhibit, reporting that “Whitaker stressed the importance of being one’s self, rather than relying on public opinion.
“Listen to the inner-self,” Whitaker was quoted as saying.
Kentucky poet Al Stewart (1914-2001) wrote about Whitaker in Appalachian Heritage in an article “Memories from the Hills: The Life and Good Times of Tom J. Whitaker” in 1983. He described Whitaker as a “slick customer to try to put a handle on.”
“It’s like trying to put a latch on to The Old Man of The Sea in that all the time you are trying to hold one form he is in the process of shifting to another,” Stewart wrote.
He also wrote, “If you ask Tom Whitaker how he came to be an artist, he will likely give an answer that comes very close to meaning something like, “I was born that way, and I have not permitted the times of the cultural environment to vulgarize it.”
BSCTC professor John Carroll remembers Whitaker for his humor and wisdom.
“Tom was always mentoring young faculty. He always had a funny story and a smile that made everything seem okay. Tom was also full of wisdom. He used to always tell me, ‘We teach students not just subjects.’ I have always remembered this as I plan a new semester. Tom will be missed,” he wrote in an email.
Hope E. Bennin, who also works at the college, explained that Whitaker welcomed her to the college 33 years ago and told her how much she would love Eastern Kentucky, reporting that at the time, she had “no idea how profound Tom’s words would be.”
“I will miss Tom’s smile and his music; I will always have a small part of him in his art,” she wrote. “I owe him innumerable thanks for welcoming me and making me better because he was part of my life. I shed tears because I will no longer see him, and I rejoice because he will watch over his family, his friends and his beloved home.”
There was an outpouring of support online for Whitaker’s family after he died.
Prestonsburg resident Kathy Lou Friend shared one of her memories about Whitaker’s humor.
“Why I will always fondly remember Tom’s outrageous sense of humor,” she wrote. “One day, Tom stopped me on campus to tell me about an art class he had just taught. The assignment had been to bring in ‘things of beauty from nature.’ The students produced flowers, leaves and even a rock from their backpacks. Tom laid a dried cow plop on his desk. Amid cries of ‘yuck’ from the students — Tom explained, “There is beauty in everything.”
Whitaker is survived by his wife, Jessie Neal Arnett Whitaker, children Michael (Teresa) Whitaker of Paintsville, Matthew Whitaker of Lexington and Stephanie (Brandon) Davis of Georgetown, as well as other family members and friends.
He was buried on Jan. 26 in the Ramey Whitaker Cemetery at Puncheon Creek under direction of the Magoffin County Funeral Home.
The family requests donations in his memory to Tom’s Creek Freewill Baptist Church, 81 Church Dr., Nippa, Ky. 41240 or the Swampton United Baptist Church in Royalton, Ky., or the Licking River Baptist Church, 385 S. River Rd., Salyersville, Ky. 41465.
More information about Whitaker and his artwork and band is available online at, tomjwhitaker.com. The Appalachian Artisan Center in Hindman also has some of his prints available.