By Shirley Shuman
This is a story of a man who died too soon, a man whom the world did not want to let go. It is a story of one who gave freely to those whom he met and still looked for others to whom he could give. Readers are invited to take a short trip to try to learn how Jesse Corlis became the man he was.
Jesse Waylon Corlis was loved by those who knew him well, liked by those who knew him casually, appreciated by those who admired his art. Born at home on Halloween, 1978, just before midnight to Michael and Deborah Corlis, he was special from the beginning. And those who knew him well recognized that. A native of Braxton County, he became one of the area’s success stories. He worked hard for that success, but his past also guided him in the pursuit.
Surely his early life as the older child, free to roam the woods and explore, contributed to the love of nature many times seen in his work. He and his companion Boomer, a large white Samoyed, often returned home from one of their adventures with flowers he had picked for his “Mama.” Jesse was a sensitive child. His mother says that once, after he received a new stuffed animal, he feared showing his liking for it because he thought his other two would feel bad. It was then she taught him a lesson about spreading love, one he never forgot.
Shy, even “backward” when he began school, Jesse nevertheless did well from the beginning through high school and four years of studying art at West Virginia Wesleyan College. Another interest of young Jesse was his love of baseball, beginning with Little League and extending into playing for the Braxton County Eagles. Baseball coach Bill Singleton said that during his three years of coaching Jesse in baseball, he pitched and sometimes played infield. He was also a courtesy runner. Singleton pointed out that Jesse was always encouraging others to do their best.
It was in middle school that he first received money for a work of art. After he had sculpted a bust of William Shakespeare, his teacher, Aleta Berry, bought it. That was the beginning. Later, an experience during his college years led to his first mural. He sometimes told that story in a humorous tone. “I disliked going to the dentist,” Jesse would say, “ partly because from the only window in her office and directly across from the chair, all I could see was a blank concrete wall.” Perhaps because he often complained about that view, the dentist later commissioned him to cover that wall with a mural. That first mural depicted various animals set in a jungle.
A friend who recalls “picking up a brush and making a few strokes on that mural” is Gabe Hopen. He and Jesse became friends around the time they were six and quickly developed a common bond——a love of cars. “As kids, we played with Hot Wheels, and we even sometimes exchanged hot wheels as adults,” Gabe said. Gabe referred to Jesse’s “niceness” and told of an example which occurred when they were 16. “Jesse had a purple Datsun, a car I admired greatly. One day, he gave me the keys to his beloved car,” he related, and added, “That was just one example of Jesse Corlis’s nature—his generosity and his trust in others.” Neither of these men lost their love of cars or their love of each other. They shared problems as well as successes up until Jesse’s death.
During his high school years, Jesse forged another lifetime friendship, this one with Hickory Gateless. “We became friends as juniors at Braxton,” Hickory said, “and were practically inseparable through high school and four years of college at West Virginia Wesleyan.” An incident which showed their closeness occurred on the day formal senior pictures were taken. Male students were required to wear a shirt and tie, but Jessie forgot his shirt and tie. However, Hickory came to the rescue by lending him what he had worn in his photograph. Hickory said that from that time, the two were often jokingly addressed as the “cutest couple” and “may even have won that honor in senior superlatives.”
Although they saw less of each other after college, they remained close. Hickory witnessed Jesse’s kindness, one of his most pronounced characteristics, through college and later. One was a Christmas gift to the Gateless family. “Out of the blue on Christmas we received a picture Jesse had drawn of our first son. He did the same for our second son. This sort of thing was typical of the man. Jesse loved surprising people with gifts,” Hickory said.
Jesse’s goal after college, making a living as an artist, did not happen as he had planned. Although he personally continued his art, he worked at various jobs before waiting for his break to come. It did come. That first major break entailed restoring “a newly discovered old sign” for the White Elephant Saloon. Later, new owners covered the sign, but when that business failed, he was commissioned once again to restore the white elephant, which he had named after his grandmother Irene. The new owners of the building and the business, Pies and Pints, liked the elephant and adopted it and the name “Irene” as a symbol for subsequent stores. Jesse painted the elephant at each of the businesses, located in several states.
Another of Jesse’s murals, appears on one of the support poles under I-64 which runs through Charleston. One of the artists whose design was chosen, he painted an octopus. He said it represented one who was “living within,” that is to say “those without a home, whether lost or never found, who adapt and make do.”
He painted several other murals, one of the latest at the Gassaway Community Park. Those in this area who met him immediately identified him as “interesting,” “friendly,” “creative,” and even “curious.” Lois Cole, a member of GAIC, reported that when she met him, “he took time to chat, even though the hot sun was beating down and there was a lot of mural left to paint.” She also noted that he was curious about various objects in the mural and wanted answers. “I couldn’t wait to see what Jesse was going to do next!” she declared. Lois’s “We’ve lost a great talent and a great person. I will miss him,” expresses what many think.
Emily Garrett, whose design Jesse followed to paint the mural in Gassaway, also quickly became an admirer. “He let me work with him, and I really enjoyed my time with him,” she said. “I enjoyed talking to him, and he became my mentor.”
At Jesse’s funeral, Gabe Hopen spoke of how important it is for us for us to tell each other how we feel and how much we mean to each other. “He would want us to do that,” Gabe said. And he’s right.