Writer, artist and actor thrives after years of abuse and bullying

Tim Stapleton portrait by: Owen Carey

Tim Stapleton, our eighth Everyday Role Model of 2011, thrives as a writer, and visual and performing artist.


Thank you, Tim, for agreeing to share your story. As an accomplished artist who has overcome bullying and abuse, I know that your story will be inspirational to many creative people wanting to launch the career of their dreams, but  who struggle to overcome their past and their fears.

Q:       Tim, will you start by telling us a little about yourself and your life growing up?

Tim:    I grew up in the mountains of eastern Kentucky, better known as Appalachia. I am the youngest of seven children. My father was a coal miner and although we were poor, we never felt it. My parents grew the food we ate. Looking back, growing up in the mountains was exceptional. I had nature at my fingertips daily. We wandered in the hills looking for fox. We swung on grape vines over mining breaks, picked wild berries, and gathered redbud blossoms in the spring. But not everything was perfect. From the time I entered school, I was bullied. I knew I was different, but I couldn’t understand why no one seemed to want to know me. It was the usual childhood cruelty. They called me sissy, queer, crybaby, and girly. What I found most disturbing was sometimes these remarks came from family members. When I was twelve, a 40-year-old man seduced me. As a child, I mistook this kind of affection for love; someone paid attention. I wanted more. And it came, from others in the community. Puberty hit and I went for it. All the while thinking they cared. I attended church regularly as a child, both Missionary Baptist and Freewill Baptist churches in the mining camp. Then I decided if I gave myself to Jesus, all would be forgiven. I wouldn’t be dirty…I wouldn’t have these desires, and if I did I would be forgiven. On the day of my baptism, with my mother and father in the congregation, the preacher who baptized me made sexual advances. Talk about confusion. I had to dress and walk back out into the church and sit down beside my mother. I never went back to church. My parents were hard working honest people that instilled in us a sense of pride and integrity. My father, although stern, showed love in silent ways. My parents realized life did not have to be the struggle they had endured, so they saw to it that all of us got an education and left the mountains. I left home at 17 years old to attend college.

Q:       Many people would have given up after being abused but you seem to have overcome it to thrive, where did you get your strength?

Leaning on the Everlasting Arms

Tim:    I never lost my ability to love. Love is a verb. It is what we do and what we must do. I also mined the depths of my unique gifts as an artist. That saved my life.

Q:         How did you make the decision to attend college and how did you decide which college you would attend?

Tim:    I knew I wanted to go to college from the time I was a child and my parents wanted that for me, as they did for all their children. I didn’t have guidance from any of my teachers. I followed the lead of, Betty Jo, a friend who eventually married to my brother and who inspired me as a child. She attended Morehead State Teacher’s College. By the time I graduated from high school it had become Morehead State University. I received a BA in Studio Art with a teaching certification. If I had the opportunity and the means, I would have attended Pratt or someplace like North Carolina School for the Arts. Yet, I know that the grass always seems greener on the other side, and I have no regrets. Life unfolds.

Q:        As a child, who were some of the most positive influences in your life?

Tim:    I have had very strong women in my life. My grandmother, Patsy Freeman worked with her hands. She made quilts, her own clothes, and grew the most incredible vegetable gardens. My mother, Della Stapleton saw beauty and always shared it with me. Betty Jo Phelps, acknowledged my artistic side as a child. The times spent drawing with her ignited a desire to create. Reba Kincer, my third grade teacher, taught me to read and write. She had a library upstairs in her home and The world opened up when I would slip off and bury myself in books there. Vivian Russell Fugate Webb, one of my high school teachers, had a way of finding what made her students tick by acknowledging the distinct gifts each of them possessed. She introduced me to Shakespeare and poetry. Then there was the artist Cezanne. I discovered his work in a book, most likely given to me by Mrs. Webb. I was drawn to the color, the freedom and fluidly of his brush strokes, the way he saw his world. I spent hours looking at his work. Later in college, I would spend nearly four months copying one of his paintings.


Q:       What would you say were the defining moments in your life?

Tim:    There have been multiple defining moments in my life. I had an epiphany at eight years of age. Sitting on the front steps thumbing through an art book, I found a color reproduction of a Nicolas de Stael painting, it was a fiery red abstract depicting a man on horseback. I was stunned by the color and the image. I saw myself in the future, riding out of the mountains into the world. When I was sitting in a coffee shop in Lansing, Michigan, Richard Thomsen came over to my table, introduced himself and asked if he could sit down. He was the artistic director of Boarshead: Michigan Public Theatre. He had seen an article in the local paper about some very large batiks I had created for a concert version of Carmina Burana, the Carl Orff cantata. He hired me on the spot and I worked for him eight years. Later I was awarded a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship through Theatre Communications Group, It took me to Kyoto, Japan to design a ballet. I remember sitting on a street corner in the rain eating steaming noodles at 5:00 am one morning and wondering how a boy from the mountains of Kentucky had ended up in Japan as an invited artist. Then in 2005, I made a phone call to Judy Grahn that changed my life. I went to meet her in California and started a two-year course with her as my mentor. A few years later, I walked into the rain forest in Monteverde, Costa Rica. It was like entering a holy place. That moment helped solidify my path.

Q:        How would you define your career path and has it changed during your career?

Just Visiting

Tim:    I am a painter, a writer and an actor. I taught high school in rural Kentucky for six years. I became a teacher, all the while exhibiting as a visual artist. My professional life as a scenic designer began at The Boarshead: Michigan public theatre. I received my MFA in 2007. It has been varied. It has not so much changed, more like the creative energy has taken some side roads. David Bowie once said, and I’m sure I paraphrase… essentially… “It’s all the same energy, just different tools.” Now I have spent nearly 30 years designing scenery and teaching theatre classes on the University level. I still create personal work. In 2005, I started writing. Last year I delved into acting.

Q:     It seems that once you were on your career path, things fell into place.   Have you had any significant obstacles to overcome in your career?

Tim:    Life as we all know certainly has its obstacles. However, I love the process of creating art, be it a painting or an environment for the stage. I believe in serendipity. If we stay in tune, we are shown choices. Obstacles come during the process. It’s always a challenge to find ways of jumping over the hurdles, landing on your feet and moving on. And of course, there is feast or famine.

Q:        Have you had any disappointments in your career? And, if so what did you learn from them?

Tim:    There is rejection, and it can make you stronger, it forces you to fight harder for what you know to be your truth. I have learned that what I have to say is all I have to say. Not everyone will listen. That doesn’t mean you stop. You must show that you have a lot of self-confidence.

Q:        Do you ever fear rejection? And if so, when and how do you keep moving forward even when you are afraid?

Tim:    I get up…I listen…I look up (there’s nothing down there)…I move forward…I think fear is false evidence.

Q:        What advice would you have for someone who has a dream and wants to pursue that dream but is afraid?

Tim:    Stand still. Stand strong in the knowledge that your dream is yours, and that everyone else also has a dream…do the best you can…practice kindness. If you have gifts, give them away and affect a life. My hope is, as with all art, that others will somehow see themselves. See they were not alone.

Visit Tim’s websites www.twstapleton.com, https://www.facebook.com/#!/pages/LEANING-ON-THE-EVERLASTING-ARMS/116258491755725, and http://www.imfromdriftwood.com/2010/12/14/im-from-haymond-ky/

Posted on August 15, 2011, in Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Bertrand Batista

    Tim, I applaud your determination to suceed and to make it although at times those around seem to want you going in the other direction. It was a pleasure to read about your days in the country hunting fox and swinging from grape vines–it brings back my own childhood memories. I am sure you will continue to inspire many in your field and out of your field of work–just like some people in your youth inspire you.

  2. Nice read, I just passed this onto a friend who was doing some research on that. And he just bought me lunch as I found it for him smile Therefore let me rephrase that: Thank you for lunch!

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