John Harmon, a fine arts painter, musician and songwriter in Berea, came into the world naked -- like all of us -- and, unlike most of us, also rejected and poor.

"Somewhere in my mind is a red house that's fading in the sun. Inside, a boy who won't go out. He's afraid that there's nowhere to run," Harmon said.

Lonely in childhood, shy, frightened and isolated despite living with eight siblings and their parents in a small home in Charleston, W.Va., Harmon has spent most of his 48 years as a "prisoner" inside himself.

"Everything terrified me and left me no voice. Art was how I expressed what was going on inside me," he said. "A lot of my art was dark. I was depressed."

"Somewhere in that boy there lies a beast who swallows up every day. That that [sic] boy tries to break free; it leaves him with nothing but pain," Harmon added.

Harmon "fixed" himself, he said, "by going to the darkest place you ever could find, and from that day on I promised myself I'd do anything I was scared of, no matter what, I said I could do it." And by doing that he conquered himself and became the person he always wanted to be.

What broke him? What needed repair? Harmon's mother, barely 17 and single when she birthed him, admitted she couldn't care for her son and called social services to find her newborn a new home. His grandmother said no and took over. She raised John as her own and, from the time he could talk, he called his grandparents "mom and dad."

Harmon had wanted a college education yet thought it never could be.

"Obviously, we were very poor. And two years after high school, I had heard about Berea College. Although I had been accepted into West Virginia Tech, West Virginia University and Wheeling Jesuit, we couldn't afford it. Then, Berea…I went when I found out about it," he said

After his freshman year, part of his self-fix was a trip to Italy.

"I was terrified, and it was horrifying to fly and travel and tour by myself. However, I was building myself piece by piece, taking my insecurities and changing them into strength," Harmon said. "Part of that change was between introspection and looking out of myself."

"People like to change the past," Harmon reflected, "but what makes a tree strong are the rings in it. [Life] is not to ignore what happened, it's to come to terms with it and not let it rot or it will destroy the tree."

Harmon's path away from self-destruction began when he left his home state, attended and graduated from college -- the only one in his family to do that -- then traveled abroad to study art, studies that influenced his art through college. In fact, it still does three decades later. He called seeing Renaissance masterpieces in person incredible and inspiring. Yet, after college, he took a long break from art, married his wife, Amy, 19 years ago, and worked as an environmental inspector for a now-defunct small company in Berea for 10 years. He traveled all over Kentucky testing buildings for hazardous materials.

When home, he made music by singing and playing the guitar. He found it difficult to create music and art work concurrently; it's only recently he's found a balance between the two.

That finding followed the couple leaving Berea because the region's politics fatigued them -- the seeming lack of change. The Harmons lived nine years in San Diego, Calif.

"Once we settled in, we never thought we'd come back. We did. Too much of a good thing was not necessarily a good point," Harmon said. "I missed the seasons; I didn't have markers about when I did something -- the brain relies on cues and clues and there weren't any. Amy's mom, living in London, had health issues. Amy and I decided we always could move again later, but if we didn't return here, we knew we'd never get any lost time with her back."

They returned to Madison County in February 2018, a day before Harmon's birthday, with an air mattress, a few clothes and two cats.

"We did exactly what we had done on our way out: we had nothing," he said.

Also, they struggled because of the rainy winter. In fact, it rained most of last year, Harmon recalled.

"This year spring came at just the right time for me. I needed sun, and now I feel great. Seasons are finally here again," he said, bringing with it a renewed internal sense of himself. "If you cut me open inside there would be a tree. I love trees and nature."

Harmon had returned to art, to painting, in California, and has continued creating here. His work is being exhibited with Linda Kuhlmann's paintings in a show titled "Leaves, Petals and Limbs" at the Berea Arts Council gallery, 444 Chestnut St., near Old Town, through this Saturday, July 13.

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