‘No crime, no hate just peace’

by Amy Kingsley

When Ricky Needham works, he works silently, except for the occasional breath sucked noisily through his teeth. Hebends over a drafting table on a recent weekday morning putting thefinal touches on “Kings Flying Over the Holy City,” a fancifuldepiction of two crowned figures flying a magic motorcycle over adome-capped skyline. “Why don’t you do it on the easel?” askshis job coach, Laura Lashley. “That way you won’t hurt your neck.” Thewoman Needham describes as his “boss lady” may have to give thedevelopmentally disabled painter the odd physical pointer, but shedoesn’t have to direct him much when it comes to filling his canvasses.The 52-year-old artist simply pours the contents of his dreams onto thepage, cramming them full of spangled automobiles, carnival rides andbirthday suits. “It’s fantasy art,” Needham says. “Everybody’sgetting along, there’s no crime, no hate, just peace.” Scenes fromNeedham’s dream world ring his rectangular studio in Winston- Salem’sArtists on Liberty building. Lashley points to one in particular. “Thefirst thing about his work that caught my eye were the amazing rides,the carnival rides,” she says. “Like in this one the Ferris wheel isbeds and all the people are laying.” Before she became his jobcoach, Lashley kept a studio near Needham’s at Atelier on Trade Street.That was in 1997, three years after Needham’s first solo show inMorganton. Since then the artist has shown work in Scotland, at theSoutheastern Center for Contemporary Art and at Vanderbilt Universityin Nashville. Needham started late on his professional artcareer, although his talent first manifested itself in elementaryschool when he put his crayons to use depicting the cars, trucks andtractors that fascinated him. When he was in his twenties, he enrolledin art classes at Forsyth Tech and the Sawtooth Center to refine hisability. His emergence as a professional artist happened afterhe was selected to participate in the Signature Studio XI program inMorganton in 1994. The studio provides space and some support forexceptionally talented artists with disabilities. That’s whereNeedham settled into his signature style and began consistentlyproducing canvasses containing scenes from his fantasyland. InNeedham’s world, the people are multiethnic and always naked, andmotorized vehicles take to the skies. Those who would be putoff by the nudity in Needham’s work just don’t get the artist’smessage, which he sometimes puts in the form of a mathematicalequation. “The way you explained it to me was ‘butts equalshearts equals love,’” Lashley says. “That’s right,” Needham says.“Butts stand for love because they’re shaped like hearts.” Somefolks, even his fans, still don’t understand. A patron recentlyrequested several of Needham’s paintings — he wanted to hang them inhis office. He requested butt-free paintings, which means Needham andLashley will have to plumb the artist’s completed works for a handfulof appropriate pieces. Needham recently received an emergingartist grant that he used to construct a website featuring his work.Needham’s paintings make regular appearances in Triad art galleries,and Lashley intends to help him make a bigger name for himself outsideWinston-Salem and Forsyth County. “I just don’t understand howhe isn’t more famous,” she says. The impending fall season also holdsother promises, like the Dixie Classic Fair, which is one of Needham’sfavorites. You can see the fair permeating his oeuvre — a Ferris wheelhere, a Tilt-a-Whirl there, maybe a roller coaster or two silhouettedagainst the sunset. Needham ticks off the things he likes. “Ilike the animals, the horses, cows, chickens, roosters,” he says. “Myfavorite ride is the Ferris wheel, but I used to ride the Tilt-a-Whirl,the Thunder Road and the Gold Rush.” Then he gets quiet, puts aquarter-sized dab of paint on his finger and works it into the edge ofthe canvas in front of him.

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RickyNeedham (above) puts the finishing touches on “Kings Flying Over theHoly City.” The painting, sans Needham, is below. (photos by AmyKingley)