Hays shines light on different type of trestle art

By Philip Jaynes

[singlepic id=213 w=400 h=300 float=right]If you venture to the Northern edge of Cooper-Young, going north on Cooper, and you get caught at the light at Cooper and Central, you can admire the spring plants at the Midtown Nursery and check out the activity at Mapco. But if it happens to be a sunny day in April or May, and it’s about three in the afternoon, chances are you will get a shot of yellow light, turning to green, turning to red, and then to purple. This is not coming from the traffic signal. These colorful flashes of the sun’s rays are reflected at the world from the railroad trestle dead ahead, just across Central. As you get closer, you notice a mobile, hanging from the tracks. There’s a trumpet mounted inside a bright metal ring. Hanging from the ring is a symmetrical series of dull metal shapes, punctuated by two compact discs. The discs are responsible for the colorful reflections. Kenny Hays is responsible for the mobile.

If your timing is just right, you might even catch a glimpse of Hays, he’s a Switchman/Breakman for the Union Pacific Railroad and has been based out of the yard just west of that trestle for the last thirty-eight years. His father worked for the same railroad until he retired, eighteen years ago. His connection to Cooper-Young has been many years in the making. Kenny remembers his father bringing home fried pies from the Pie Factory when he was a small boy. He told me that working for the railroad consists of an awful lot of waiting. He now gets about an hour and a half of free time in the middle of each workday. He spends it mostly in the establishments in Cooper-Young. You can see his unique mobiles at the trestles at Barksdale and McLean, as well as hanging in the gable of Central BBQ.

[singlepic id=205 w=320 h=240 float=left]The mobiles are the latest in the evolution of Hays’ art. He is a ’71 graduate of Treadwell High School, where he took art but didn’t particularly excel at it. He gives credit to Helen Stahl, one of his art teachers, for allowing him to observe the creative process. He also observed that process from his grandmother, who used scraps to make quilts and used spools to make folk art pieces and even furniture. Most of the technique and style he uses today, he learned from trial and error—that and watching the painting instructional shows on WKNO. He started by filling sketchbooks with pencil drawings and then proceeded to painting a mural on the wall of a rented house without the permission of the landlord. In the 1990’s, he began entering his paintings in the Mid-South Fair, with much success. At about this time, his grandmother’s influence began to surface in his “found” art.

Spending his workdays at the railroad, he started picking up the odd pieces that fell from boxcars and off of trains. He wired the pieces together and found a great source for expressing his art. Friends began to give him interesting things that they came across, left for trash on the curb. He was once given an unsalvageable piano. What a treasure of wooden hammers, a big cast metal soundboard, and strings and keys! This piece allowed him to combine his art with his other love, music. He also found a connection with the shop that repaired the band instruments for the Memphis City Schools. He was able to obtain the instruments that were beyond repair and give them a new life in a different branch of the arts.

[singlepic id=210 w=340 h=260 float=right]Beyond the railroad yard, Kenny Hays is mostly known around Memphis as a performing singer-songwriter. He first picked up the guitar at the age of twenty-four. He learned the basic chords and strumming well enough to accompany himself in the privacy of his own home. He also began to put his own life’s experiences in the songs he wrote. He began to be a regular in the musical nightlife of Memphis in about 1995. Before that, his time was filled with the sports and activities of his teenage son, Chris. Now, his skill on the guitar has improved greatly, and his songwriting has kept him appearing at venues such as the Delta Fair and as the opener for Memphis Acoustic Music Association’s concerts with Richard Gilewitz and Sid Selvidge. On any given Thursday night, he and his wife of 37 years, Ann, can be found at Nancy Apple’s Pickin’ Party at Kudzu’s. And you can look for him at this fall’s Cooper-Young Festival, where he will be displaying his art for the 8th year.

A trumpet, symbolizing W. C. Handy and the rich history of the City of Music; the compact discs, symbolizing the digital musical industry and the music of today; the thrown-away pieces, linking everything together like the limbs of a family tree; and, of course, the circle…no beginning, no end. All hanging from the tracks, blowin’ in the wind.


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