The hidden artist in Lemuel Nolen escaped when he turned 70.
For decades, the Crouse resident had barbered and operated Lincoln County’s first beauty shop.
The late-in-life discovery of his folk art talent earned “Mr. Lem,” as Nolen was known, national and international attention – and a 1957 commission to paint a 14-by-12-foot mural for the Samarkand state reform school near Pinehurst.
The large work depicting scenes from the life of Christ survived nearly 60 years in a facility that housed some of the state’s worst youthful offenders. When the General Assembly closed Samarkand in 2011 and began renovating it for a training center, the Nolen painting needed a new home.
The artwork might have landed in a museum anywhere in North Carolina, but instead it’s coming to Lincolnton for permanent display in the cultural center on Main Street.
“It’s been a long and wonderful journey,” said Jason Harpe, executive director of the museum and the Lincoln County Historical Association. “We’re excited to get it back here. The painting has never been shown in Lincoln County. It’s a premier piece of art that will have a premier place in the cultural center.”
Harpe and volunteers from the community will go to Samarkand soon, dismantle the mural in the auditorium and transport it to Lincolnton.
Former Samarkand teacher Eddie Russell remembers the painting’s presence as students filed into the auditorium every morning for assembly. It was there in quiet moments and in the chaos of an occasional riot. Russell can’t say how many other people the painting may have touched, but he always found it “powerful and moving.”
“To me, it’s history,” said Russell, 57, of Rockingham. “It’s a part of North Carolina heritage that needed to be preserved.”
When Nolen died in 1977 at age 91, he was considered one of North Carolina’s top folk artists. The first thing he ever painted was a chicken.
In 1972, Nolen told Observer reporter Claudia Howe he’d been raising hens and painted a sign with a chicken on it to let folks know he had eggs to sell.
His daughter, an art student in Charlotte, encouraged him to paint other subjects when he retired. Nolen tried landscapes and farm scenes and found he had a knack for painting. He sold the works to galleries in Charlotte, Blowing Rock, Winston Salem and New York City. His name popped up in The Saturday Evening Post and London Times. An art critic likened him to Grandma Moses, a comparison he didn’t like.
In 2012, the Lincoln County Historical Association and Crouse Community History and Photo Project partnered for the first major exhibit of Nolen’s work. It was so well-received Harpe and others talked about trying to get the big painting at Samarkand.
Harpe said two key people in the effort were N.C. Rep. Jason Saine of Lincolnton and Denver, N.C., native Kevin Cherry, who was appointed North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources’ deputy secretary of archives and history in October 2012.
Saine said sorting things out involved “a lot of bureaucratic nightmares,” but everybody’s persistence paid off in the end.
“I’m thrilled to death,” he said. “We’re getting the painting back to where we can all enjoy it.”
As a child, Rosalind Welder watched her grandfather, “Mr. Lem,” paint and remembers “he always had more than one going at the same time.”
The artist always wore a suit and tie, but was anything but formal.
“He played jokes on people,” said Welder, 64, former dean of Gaston College’s Lincoln campus. “People talk about what a character he was. They still laugh and tell some sort of stories about him.”
She’s pleased her grandfather’s largest painting is returning to the county where he created it.
“It’s an honor to him that people cared enough to move it back,” Welder said.