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Artist Sam McKinney, 66, gives life to the 5-foot-tall bison sculpture in his house in Olive Hill located in the middle of a forest. He spends much of his days alone, working.

The art of loneliness

story by Sung Chul Lee

Sam McKinney uses a machete to scrape small pieces of glycerin-based modeling clay textured to look like the tufts of hair on an American bison. A 5-foot-tall foam likeness of the animal – about the size of a female – stands on a wheeled platform in the middle of his workshop. He will press each freshly formed piece of hair, filling in holes in the beast's mane.

The 66-year-old artist lives in a world of his own making in Olive Hill in Carter County. He built a house in the woods and, on the interior, he surrounds himself with displays of his paintings and sculptures. He says he's still getting used to living on his own after divorcing his second wife six years ago. It was the same year his father died, and just three years after his mother passed. He keeps two dogs and three cats, relying on them for company.

His work helps. He took his first commission when he was 16 years old. He continues to produce, including nine pieces on display in King's Daughters Medical Center. The bison is for Carlson Software, a Maysville-based technology company. While he makes art to earn a living, he also uses it to pass the lonely hours. He says it's a meditative process.

"When I'm creating, time seems to not exist," he says.

His best friend, Stanley Dixon, 62, visits often from Huntington, West Virginia, about 45 minutes away. His wife died about two and a half years ago. Stanley's presence has an obvious effect on Sam, who grows more animated and smiles as they play guitar and harmonica together.

"We help each other through loneliness," Sam says. "True friends are just as important as family."



Sam sometimes moves his work outside his home, which he built 40 years ago. He has two dogs, including Buddy, and three cats who keep him company.


To create the texture of the bison's mane, Sam uses a large knife to scrape pieces of the glycerine-based molding clay from a larger block. He says his work is meditative and passes the hours quickly.


"Commission helps me to deal with my loneliness," he says.


Sam and his best friend Stanley Dixon, of Huntington, West Virginia, harmonize while playing music together at Sam's house. The two only see each other a couple of times a week, and their friendship is very valuable, Sam says. "True friends are just as important as family."


Buddy has been Sam's best animal friend since he came to live there six months ago when he was just 6 weeks old.


Sam divorced his wife six years ago, leaving him with a lot of time to spend on his own. "I'm still getting used to be alone," he says.


Eating alone has become his routine. Once in a while, Sam gets out of the house, drives to town and orders a hamburger at the Hogtown Gas & Food Mart in Morehead.


Sam comes back to his three-level house where it's quiet except for the shuffling of his feet as he moves from room to room, either working, cooking meals, or watching television.


Sam's only daughter, Jasarae MacKinney, lived with him for two months before she moved ino the dorms to begin her college life at Morehead State University.

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