CHARACTERS: A Portrait of the Artist in Her Garden

Characters” is a series profiling people with a West Virginia connection—living & dead & not necessarily natives—worth knowing more about. We define ‘character’ as being one and having some.

Text by CONNIE KINSEY |Video by BOBBY LEE MESSER | aug20.2020 |

Sassa Wilkes in the first ambitious garden of the artist’s life. | Kim Wilkinson photo

Sassa Wilkes walks barefoot through her garden with ease. She looks like what you might think an artist-turned-gardener should look like—red dreadlocks, some dyed orange and green, overalls, tattoos.  In one of the pockets of her overalls is a Japanese knife used in gardening. It has measurements engraved on the blade to guide the depth of planting.  

The day is hot and there are bugs. There are no less than nine seed packets worth of squash. Plus, Two Sisters (more on that later). And an earthwork spiral. All of which keep me focused on the garden. I say to myself, “My Lord! What is she going to do with all that squash?”

Sassa (sounds like sassafras) is a visual artist who lives just outside the tiny Village of Barboursville, east of Huntington WV.  She owns the Make Gallery in town, where she taught drawing and painting B.C. (Before COVID-19). The gallery is still there, awaiting on all clear to re-open. In the meantime, Sassa is social-distancing at home.

We are here to do a story about her garden. It is her first garden ever. None of it was in place prior to COVID. She posted some photos of her effort on social media. I was interested in how an artist would plan a garden. So, off WestVirginiaVille videographer Bobby Lee Messer and I went to Sassa’s.

The garden is organic in the sense that it is grown without chemicals. And it grew organically, in the sense that one thing led to another, much like the interview. We were there a good two hours, at least.

The garden rambles down one side of her yard. She has made make-do fencing out of pallets that were “just laying around” along with tree branches. The thickness of the pallets and the curve of the branches confuse the deer, she says. Deer don’t have good depth perception, she explains further. The fence keeps the deer out. A miracle, I think.

Wilkes sings to her plants, as well as apologizes to them when she disturbs them. “Excuse me!” | Kim Wilkinson photo

The Guyandotte River flows just behind the trees that mark the property line. Bugs have eaten holes in the leaves of some of the plants.

She bends over, moves foliage aside, and shows me a perfect baby squash, just inches long. “Isn’t that the cutest thing ever? I grow these for the babies. I love the babies.”

There are also adult cabbages, Brussels sprouts, and tomatoes. Lots of tomatoes. She forages among the cherry tomatoes looking for just the right one. “The ones this color taste the best.” She hands it to me to eat. It is a very good tomato.

“I paint every day.”

I spy the sunflowers and tell Sassa of a meme I saw where on cloudy days, sunflowers would move to face each other, giving light to one another. “Oh, I love that so much,” Sassa said. When I got home, I looked it up for her so she could see the exact wording. Turns out it’s not true. I text Sassa. She replies: “Maybe I’ll paint sunflowers facing each other, so it can at least be true in a painting.”

The sunflowers are near the Two Sisters. It had been Sassa’s intention to practice the Native American tradition, known as the Three Sisters, of interplanting corn, squash, and beans. Sassa never got the beans planted. So, there are Two Sisters—corn eight-feet tall and squash (nine packages!) growing symbiotically. The corn has tasseled nicely.

VIDEO PROFILE: Sassa Wilkes: The Artist in Her Garden

The Artist in Her Garden: SASSA WILKES. | A Video Production by Bobby Lee Messer

I met Sassa in a writing class. She had decided she wanted to write a book. The class was on the fundamentals of fiction—a good choice. People who want to write a book are, as they say, a dime a dozen (a dollar if you account for inflation).

But Sassa wrote a book.

One chapter at a time, a chapter each Saturday.

She published each new chapter on her website at 6 a.m. Sunday morning. She did that for 37 chapters. The 38th chapter was an open-ended, mixed media, immersive art experience, staged in accounting offices in downtown Huntington. The experience came complete with glow lights, a drum circle, and Sassa throat singing.

She describes the book as a “literary nightmare,” but something she really enjoyed doing.

She also really enjoys gardening. Every year, she said she wanted a garden, and every year she was just too busy for one. COVID gave her the time.

The artist’s garden includes an earthen spiral of compost, a German technique she learned on a YouTube gardening video.

This garden has two sides. On the other side of the yard, the garden does not ramble. This half of Sassa’s garden is more structured. It is here that she is building a spiral of compost—it’s a German technique she learned on a YouTube gardening video.  There is a gravel walkway and the built-up earthen spiral covered in black plastic. It looks like a giant black snake curled up. She is cutting places in the top and planting in the rich soil as she goes. She has a lot to do yet.

I ask Sassa if she sings to the plants: “Oh yes, every day. And I talk to them. Say ‘Excuse me!’”

She shifts gears to another part of her life.

“Music is very important to me. I’ve always heard it in my head.”

She has spent the last year or so teaching herself piano and guitar.

Back in the garden, a small water fountain gurgles in the gorgeous light of early evening. There are twinkle lights woven through the fencing. A broken piece of Sassa’s sculpture is waiting to be turned into a windchime.

There are chairs everywhere. Little walkways. An herb garden. A firepit. A bright blue door marks the entrance to Sassa’s studio. We ask if we can see.

The studio is tiny and we are crowded in there. An easel, a chair, some shelving, and stacks of canvasses awaiting paint fill out the space.

“I paint every day,” she says.

Earlier, she had told us that she tends to paint large portraits. But what she shows us are tiny paintings of birds she has been doing. She shows us small portraits—all unfinished. One of Andrew Cuomo, governor of New York. She points out the large portrait of her grandmother, painted the day before she died.

She shows us her unfinished self-portrait. It is larger yet.

It looks finished to me. I say so. Sassa begins talking about all the things that need to be done to the painting before it’s completed.

I think, for Sassa, nothing is ever really finished.

And I wonder what she’s going to do with all that squash.


CHARACTERS | Recalling Stick Artist-Poet-Philosopher-Shaman Boyd Carr: Boyd Carr, who died at age 88 this summer 2020, was many things. West Virginia-based poet Kirk Judd recalls a man he describes as “one of the few true geniuses I have known. He was brilliant in his use of language and in the art of storytelling.”

CHARACTERS: A Rebel of the Decidedly Non-Confederate Sort: She hated several things, one of which she called“narrowmindedness,” a catchall term for her that included racism, religious bigotry, homophobia, science-denying, disapproval of card playing, abstinence from wine and other offenses against humanity.

CHARACTERS | The One-Armed Bandit of No. 1 Holler, West Virginia: The life story of the “The One-Armed Bandit” is the stuff of heroes and legends. You may not know Gary Mays’ tale, though, as the major league career the West Virginia native might have had may have been blocked by racism. But nothing ever kept Gary Mays down for long.

DON WEST | Part 2: “May It Be So”: Long before it became fashionable, Don West fought the passive hillbilly stereotype by pointing to mountain labor’s traditions of struggle and solidarity.

FREE SUBSCRIBE to WestVirginiaVille’s e-mail newsletter:

One Comment

  • Miriah Knapp

    From the moment I met Sassa I knew she was an incredible human. I am honored to call her friend. This article is a wonderful depiction of a unique character. Thank you!

Leave a Reply