By Julian Levine
Deep in the heart of Southern West Virginia, the sun dapples the forest floor quietly hushing the last vestiges of winter from the leafless trees. The winding road hugs the curve of the hills and parallels the Appalachian trail to the East...No, that’s too easy. I’m not going to fall into the trap of “West Virginia people and their good, simple ways.” Too often the beauty of the landscape and the unique disposition of our people become a stand-in for backward or hill-billy. Pete Ballard is (as you’ll read) unique, regardless of his setting. Besides, it isn’t such an anachronism anymore (if it ever was) to have talented people make their home in Appalachia. To pretend otherwise is a disservice. I may as well get down on some kitchen porch stories about whittlin’! Advanced whittlin’!
We pull into Peterstown, a tiny Monroe County hamlet with an official population of 653, overheated from leaving our jackets on for the hour drive south. The sun is out, unobscured by clouds for the first time in days, casting a clear, warm light on the Hometown Diner. Our waitress is nicer than nice, instantly concerned and attentive. She calls me “honey” and my coffee never dips below three-quarters full, seriously impeding my ability to keep a clear tab on my consumption. This turned out to be a blessing to keep up with Ballard. A few tips on the Hometown Diner. Do NOT pass a bad check. Your name might be written in black marker and posted behind the register. DO get biscuits and gravy. That’s about it. Heck, those are good rules for life: don’t pass bad checks and do eat biscuits and gravy.
Ballard sits down and says hello with a rich, gravelly baritone that signals the cigarettes that will come out of his pocket when we leave the diner. He is wearing a bright yellow sweater, big dark sunglasses, a garnet-jewelled ring about the size of a beefy bumblebee and....I think that’s a yellow, patterned cravat. I had never seen anyone successfully wear a cravat until that morning. Ballard—1, standard modern fashion mores—0. After introductions and chit chat Ballard starts to talk almost unbidden and I scribble furiously in my notebook. Names and references fly by faster than my ability to place them. I seriously regret not having seen Gone With the Wind lately. To set the record straight, “Scarlet’s dress was not red, it was claret.” Soon we get around to Ballard’s signature creation: fashion dolls.
Not toy dolls mind you, fashion dolls. Pete has been making them for at least 25 years. They began as a sort of traveling haute couture advertisement before the advent (and necessary technology) of fashion magazines. The dolls would showcase the newest styles of Paris or England on dolls of about 4/5 scale. According to Ballard “anybody can make dolls, you just have to be precise.” I’m not so sure. He has gone far and wide and drawn from a seemingly endless cadre of former students (we’ll get to his teaching career in a minute) to track down the requisite items to ensure the authenticity of his dolls. Fine silk,18th century lace, plucked and dried locust thorns for Scarlet’s hair pin, if it’s a part of a Ballard doll it will be the real deal. His attention to detail and authenticity is intense. Which brings up the next Pete Ballard eccentricity: he refuses to be paid for his doll work.
“I did all my work volunteer...the minute anybody offers me money I can’t work.”
Pete was born in Welch, West Virginia and educated at the Ringling College of Art and Design and Concord College. Originally intending to be a portrait painter, one morning he woke up surrounded by canvases in various states of completion and felt “done” with portraiture. He figured he had better go to school so he bought a train ticket back home and enrolled at Concord College in Athens, West Virginia. After graduating in 1959 he traveled to Saudi Arabia to teach English as a second language. He would remain there for the next eight years, a period of intense political drama in the region. Pete relates a story of being stuck on “diaper brigade” in an orphanage in Jerusalem during the Six Day War, making forays out into the city with a wheelbarrow to track down food. At this point my journalistic note-taking is suffering, I’m just enjoying the story. I can see it in my mind’s eye, a young American teacher galavanting around the Middle East with a taste for adventure and a little white dog named Snowy! No, that’s Tin-tin. Tin-tin isn’t real and honestly the story is a little far-fetched for a comic book. Such is life in the strange niche that Ballard inhabits.
How, you might ask, did this extraordinary journey of Ballard’s lead to fashion dolls? After his time overseas Pete accepted a position teaching English at the North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston-Salem. While there he was hired to curate the costume collection at the nearby Reynolda House Museum. The vast collection of various fine cloth that he amassed while curating the collection would later be the starting point for his incursion into dollmaking. He would go on to start the costume collection of the Mint Museum in Charlotte, North Carolina and work with experts in the field including the late Stella Blum, longtime curator of costumes of The Metropolitan Museum of New York’s Costume Collection.
Ballard still refuses to be paid for his work and has donated many dolls, worth anywhere from $7500 to $14,000 or so, to museums and collections throughout West Virginia and North Carolina including the North House Museum and Greenbrier Valley Theatre in Lewisburg. Three of his paintings were recently accepted into The Butler Institute of American Art in Youngstown, Ohio which also houses major works by Winslow Homer, John Singer Sargent, Mary Cassatt, James Whistler, Jackson Pollock and many other titans of our creative canon. It’s a serious collection. Louis Zona, the Executive Director of the Butler Institute, told me this about Ballard “he’s incredibly talented and versatile....there is a uniqueness to his work that you just don’t see anymore. He uses traditional subjects but his point of view is so interesting. We’re thrilled to have his paintings.”
As you can see, it becomes harder and harder to think of Pete as a hobbyist but, try as I might, I can’t get him to call himself a professional artist. “I’m a teacher first,” he says. And it’s true, his eyes light up when he speaks of his former students calling him up at 4 a.m. with an arcane costuming question or his roundabout ways of introducing music students to the philanthropists of Winston-Salem. Sitting there with Ballard in his home while he smokes Carltons, his brand for years, I let my eyes wander to the hundreds of photographs of the world’s cultural elite of the last half-century adorning the walls. Ballard is in many of the images but nearly all of them have a little personal notation to Pete. I spy Maya Angelou over there by an end-table and King Hussein of Jordan up and to the right. A meticulously crafted doll in a mid-1800s promenade dress peeks out at me from the next room. I get a sense of something that I can’t put my finger on. Ballard says it before I can figure it out, “it hasn’t always been easy but it’s been a hell of a ride.” That’s the thing. In this house of old photographs and ancient lace and portraits of the artist as a young man, I don’t sense any regret or longing for days gone by. “I’m a firm believer in divine guidance,” Ballard says with a smile as I put pen to paper, scratching away so I don’t miss a word.