In a county as robust as Gwinnett, history is often forgotten, lost to progress and to development that celebrates "new" above all else. Nostalgia becomes a luxury enjoyed only by those with the privilege of holding the memories. That's why, when a piece of history finds a home here, it deserves a place of honor. In August, artist Kathy Fincher gifted the city of Peachtree Corners with just such a piece of the past.
During the August city council meeting, Fincher presented a sketch drawn by her mother, famed Gwinnett artist, and influencer Margaret Parsons Andrews, to city leaders. "I found it tucked away in one of her sketchbooks, and as soon as I saw it, I knew (Peachtree Corners) must have it," Fincher said.
Councilwoman Lorri Christopher, a longtime friend of the Fincher family, invited Kathy and husband Jef to the August city council meeting for the presentation. "Every now and then, as a member of the council, you get to do something that's just plain fun," Christopher said, as she explained the significance of both the sketch and the artist.
The likeness is of a man once dubbed the "Mayor of Pinckneyville." His name was Claude "Mutt" Ross or just plain old "Mutt." Not much of a name for a man whose life touched so many others over the years, is it? Still, talk to any of the good people who lived in Pinckneyville, Norcross and the surrounding area 60 or so years ago, and the name "Mutt Ross" is bound to come up.
Also known as "The Wheelbarrow Man," Mutt Ross could be seen on any given day in those days, pushing a wheelbarrow heaped with treasures he'd collected alongside the road. More than likely, he would be wearing his trademark khaki shirt encrusted with pins and medals that he had also found in his daily travels.
"I remember the first time I saw him. I was in the car with my mother, and Mutt was pushing his wheelbarrow along the road. Mom just drove around him and kept going," Kathy laughed. "When I asked her who that man was, she answered, 'Who?' I said that man you just drove around, and she said, 'Oh, that's Mutt!'"
Mutt Ross lived with his mother in their house in Norcross, until she died when he was in his 50s. A local family took on Mutt's care when his mother passed away since he was not able to care for himself. But the people who knew Mutt and were used to seeing him on their daily commutes also looked out for him. Kathy explained, when she dedicated the sketch to the city, that this example of the community caring for its own was a beautiful demonstration of love, the very definition of "community."
Perhaps that is why her mother chose to sketch, and ultimately paint, the man's ruddy, weathered likeness. "Mom loved to paint. When she finally stopped working at Parson's (store) in Duluth, she had time to dedicate to her art," Kathy said. Sadly, shortly after "retiring" to dedicate more time to her first love, Margaret Parsons Andrews was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Even so, she lived another 30 years and never let the diagnosis steal her joy and love of art. "She eventually stopped painting portraits, and began painting impressionistic landscapes," Kathy said. The beauty of her art, however, was never diluted by her illness.
In a symphony that only love, community and art could orchestrate, both Andrews and her subject Mutt Ross left indelible handprints on Gwinnett County. Mutt Ross stories and recollections are as plentiful as were the badges on his worn and tattered shirt. From city leaders to children who grew up in western Gwinnett County, people remembered "ol' Mutt" and his wheelbarrow, trundling along with the roadside rain or shine, stopping to pass the time of day with whoever crossed his path. Not many can remember the childlike icon without smiling and telling a tale or two.
Margaret Parsons Andrews is remembered with love and deep admiration, both for her talent and for her far-reaching vision. It is because of her passion for the arts and her determination to strengthen them here in Gwinnett, that the Hudgens Center for Art and Learning in Duluth was conceived and built. In fact, Andrews herself designed the original structure, and it was she who gladly accepted Scott Hudgens' gift of $1 million to fund it (Hudgens later gifted the Arts Center with a second million dollars to expand its reach).
Andrews' sketch of Mutt Ross will be displayed in the History Room in Peachtree Corners City Hall, a hauntingly life-like reminder of the fabric of this community and the tug of nostalgia that so often flavors our history.
Kathy Fincher is an accomplished artist, whose work of patriotic public art, "The Dream Keepers," stands in her home town of Duluth, GA. The 3-D image beautifully illustrates the hope that survives in children who lost parents in the tragedy of 9-11. For more information about Fincher and her commissioned works of public art, visit kathyfincher.com.
PHOTO CREDIT: Judy Putnam