Author Photographer Artist

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 1, 2014

Writing about Cotton Ketchie is like writing about an old friend you haven’t seen in years, who after meeting again, it’s like you saw just yesterday. As an artist, photographer and author, to many he’s a celebrity, but to friends and family he’s simply Cotton. Although I knew of Cotton’s reputation, I had never met him until a few months ago.
Having enjoyed Cotton’s down-to-earth easy flowing writing style over the last few months on Facebook, I wanted to meet the man behind the stories. Not sure exactly the location of Cotton’s art gallery in Mooresville, but hoping for the best, I made a trip to downtown Mooresville in mid-January. Parking my car on Main Street, I went into Turner’s Hardware Store, asking for directions to Landmark Galleries. Immediately, they directed me up the street to the next block.
After initial introductions, I realized Cotton was just as charming as I had imagined. Expressing a desire to write a story about him, I was happy when both he and his wife, Vickie, liked the idea, with Cotton saying he felt God had sent me and a story would be wonderful. Then, he added, “When the economy is in a slump, artwork is not seen as a necessity, so traffic to the gallery has been slow.”
Even with the economy in a slump, it’s obvious people still recognize Cotton’s talent. One customer who stopped by while I was there happened to be one of my past students from Mount Ulla Elementary School. Ruth Knox, now Ruth Newell, came in to buy a print of a photograph Cotton had taken. She said the photograph was of a tenant house across from where she grew up on Knox Road in western Rowan County. Cotton knew exactly what she was talking about and after showing her the print, Ruth’s face lit up with excitement.
Having a desire to preserve landmarks through a visual record of photographs and watercolor paintings, Cotton especially enjoys taking photographs in the west Rowan area. With historic old homes and rural, open land, Cotton said, “There’s just something special about that area.” Living in West Rowan, I couldn’t agree more.
As I sat on a beautiful white couch in the back of the gallery taking notes, I watched as another customer came in to buy a print. Driving from Stanley County to visit the art gallery, she was thrilled to meet Cotton face-to-face and get his autograph. Looking around the gallery, impressed not only with his talent, but with his humble spirit, she said, “Meeting Cotton Ketchie is a dream come true.”
Even though it was cold outside, the warmth of the people who came to shop and the warmth I felt from Cotton and Vickie, made the wintry day seem a little less cold. In between assisting customers, Cotton began to tell me a little about himself and how he started to draw. He said as a child, he always had his pencil sharpened and loved sketching, but even so, never really thought of himself as an artist. Wanting to improve his technique, he enrolled in a class at Mitchell College in 1975. After about the fourth or fifth night, a breakthrough came when Cotton grasped the concept of shading. Along with that breakthrough, his confidence soared when the teacher took notice, asking him to help other students.
Encouraged by friends and admirers to try watercolors, Cotton wanted to, but couldn’t afford the materials. It was only after the owner of a craft store loaned him brushes and paper that he gave it a try. His first painting sold for $35. Loving the medium more and more, he began to buy brushes and materials as he could afford them. Never having a lesson in watercolors, it just seemed to be a natural gift.
For those who frequent downtown Mooresville, you may be under the impression that the Landmark Galleries has been a fixture forever, but that’s not the case. Before Cotton opened the gallery, he worked for almost 13 years at Belk’s Department Store. With Cotton sometimes seen during meetings sketching on a sales book, his co-workers often took those sketches to frame. What’s ironic is the old Belk’s store was across the street from what is now Cotton’s art gallery.
Making many friends at Belk, he enjoyed those days, but realizing he could make money from his art, and hoping to make a living, he decided to give it a try. The only problem was he didn’t have any money to set up a gallery. As fate would have it, or as Cotton believes, with God’s intervention, the owner of Kelly’s Clothing Co., C.L. Kelly, approached him about displaying his work in an upstairs room over the clothing store. Taking Kelly up on his offer, for the next six years, Cotton rented a space on the second floor.
Always desiring a place of his own, in 1987 Cotton borrowed the money and started Landmark Galleries. Loving to paint watercolors of landscapes, he’s traveled across the country taking photographs, with some of his favorite spots right here in his home state of North Carolina. His lighthouse prints, especially popular, sell in National Park outlets along the Outer Banks.
Owing a lot of his success to his wife, Vickie, Cotton said, “She knows how to display and arrange things in the gallery so they look good.” He then added, “She also has an eye for subject matter when traveling.” As Cotton was giving Vickie compliments, she just looked on and smiled. Like Cotton, she, too, is very humble and gracious.
After about 30 minutes, Cotton invited me to see some of his favorite pieces of art in his back room.
Not only does he enjoy the process of making art, but he also enjoys collecting. One of the collections he’s most proud of is his North Carolina pottery, with some of that collection lining a top shelf of his work space, while framed prints of his North Carolina lighthouses line a counter top below.
Before I left the gallery that day, Cotton took me into his office, where I saw not only plaques and awards on the wall, but several photographs that caught my eye. Two of those were of Cotton with Elizabeth Dole. Elizabeth, of course, was a former US Senator from NC, originally from Salisbury, so I was especially interested in the two photos of her. Later I learned not only did Cotton have his picture taken with Dole, but some of his artwork was in her Salisbury and Raleigh offices during that time.
Honored to have his picture taken with her, I’m sure she felt the same way about him.
It wouldn’t be right to finish this story without mentioning how much Cotton’s photos are enjoyed by viewers of WBTV, Channel 3. Even though Cotton has been taking photographs for years, he didn’t become a professional photographer until 2006.
Submitting his first photo to WBTV in 2008, he was thrilled when meteorologist Al Conklin showed it on the weather. Since then, about 300 have been shown. Jean Barlow, a friend of mine and also an artist, said she has known about Cotton for years, seeing his photos on WBTV, as well as his prints in various places. Although Cotton still loves doing watercolors, much of his business today is photography.
Having many distinguished honors including featured artist at the NC Governor’s Conference on Tourism in 2004, as well as recipient of the Order of the Long Leaf Pine Award, Cotton is not only a state treasure, but a national one as well. Preserving history visually and through the written word in novels, poetry and Facebook postings, Cotton has ensured future generations will have a better idea of the way things were during the old days. If you would like to learn more about Cotton Ketchie or his work, follow him on Facebook, check out his website at or visit the Landmark Galleries at 212 N. Main Street in Mooresville. You’ll be glad you did.

Dicy McCullough’s books are available at local bookstores, and Barnes & Noble. Contact her at 704-278-4377.