Being a Southern Artist

And what does it mean? Everyone knows what Southern writing represents and where music called the blues came from, but what is Southern art? Why isn’t this culturally rich, warm, passionate region known for visual arts? Actually it is, but it isn’t called Southern, it’s called “untrained” or “outsider” or even folk art. The South had many amateur magnolia painters and as you moved north into Tennessee and North Carolina, there were barn painters. Not many people know that Jasper Johns was born in Sumter, SC, which may explain the beer cans and targets in his “pop art,” the 60’s movement that brought images back into vogue after abstract expressionism dominated the scene. Robert Rauschenberg from Port Arthur, TX, near the coast of LA, revealed his southern surroundings in his famous “combines.”

And again, what is Southern? For one thing, there was (and is) a strong sense of history and family. [1] An understood caste system dominated the social life, based on family, money, and race. People didn’t live separated from each other, like in areas of the North where communities were more unto themselves. There were day-to-day interactions with everyone, wealthy, poor, sometimes living next door to each other. Not many people know that Native Americans lived in Mississippi and also Asians, especially in the delta and along the coast. All the races were represented in the South, but the civil rights movement of the 60’s brought black and white segregation to the attention of the nation. The feminist movement of the late 60’s and early 70’s wasn’t as Southern an issue as racism, but it should have been.

The protestant religion was a mighty power. As Flannery O’Connor said, “The South is Christ haunted.” [2] On Sunday, people got dressed in their best clothes to go out, just to look like they went to church, even if they didn’t. If one proclaimed atheism, they were asking for isolation. New Orleans was the only southern area where it was easy to be a Catholic. That is why a lot of Southerners don’t even consider New Orleans, or Louisiana, southern. The hard-shell Baptists have never controlled Louisiana like Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia. A familiar song to almost every Southerner is symbolic of the irony of religious and racial bigotry.

Jesus loves the little children,
All the children of the world,
Red and yellow, black and white,
They are precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world. [3]

 

And what else was different about this region? The climate tended to be warm and humid which breeds passion and spicy food, regardless of the religious dominance. So we have these passionate people controlled by religion to protect them from their base impulses. The Southern white women played superficial roles of properness or fell into the category of “white trash.” And the good ole boy, or the Southern white male, dominated, or thought he did. Now we begin to stir a caldron of Freudian stew. Someone once wrote, “The South acts out the darkness of the rest of the country.” I thought it was Flannery again, but I searched her writings and couldn’t confirm it. The South created myths in real life that compared to the fairy tales of Grimm. Myths can be useful in portraying truth, but living in a myth can cause psychosis. Tennessee Williams tried desperately to understand his mother and his sister and in doing so, created female characters that are psychological studies with universal meaning. And then there was Flannery’s story about the hermaphrodite, A Temple of the Holy Ghost [4] dealing with being made human (actually androgynous) in God’s image. It is our humanness that we must remain aware of and yet not forget our holiness. It is in this dichotomy and ambiguity, and the struggle to understand it, that I find art.

I was born a “white” girl in a small town in the red clay hills of Mississippi and you don’t get any more Southern than that. I was even raised Southern Baptist. I could have been born a different sex, a different race, a different religion and to different parents, but I wasn’t. My lowest scores were in vocabulary, so I couldn’t be a writer. I am tone deaf and even though I had years of piano lessons, I could never play without looking at the music. But I had so much pent up emotion and suppressed feelings and no means of expression. My only exposure to the visual arts had been crafts in elementary school and the Audubon print over my mother’s fireplace. In a college art class (early 60’s) I just couldn’t grasp abstract expressionism, so I majored in mathematics, Latin, and English literature. I was in my late twenties when I read Lillian Hellman’s Pentamento, and it had a profound effect on me. I had always been a reader, it’s a very southern thing, and here was a writer who lived half her life in New Orleans and the Mississippi delta and the other half in New York. She wrote about her personal life in such an honest way, without censoring her feelings, and it made me want this for myself more than ever. I got up my nerve and went back to school at Newcomb and took a drawing class under Franklin Adams. He taught me to see and I learned to draw. And by 1975 (my early 30’s), I was exhibiting photo realistic paintings in prestigious art centers around the region. But I wasn’t doing what I had started out to do. The old logical, mathematical left-brained self dominated again, the safe self. Even as I developed my art, my personal life was in shambles. The surface reality was about as real as the two-dimensional paintings I was painting. It was then I started an inward search for my reality.

I became more interested in the subconscious reality of myth. In the manner of the surrealists, I began to doodle, not automatic drawings, but negative spaces. From the positive images that emerged, I created abstract forms with shading that made them appear three-dimensional (Blue Moon over Mississippi above). The drawings that I did of these forms were very acceptable to my art peers, but not enough for me. After attending summer classes with Judy Chicago, Lynda Benglis, and Phillip Pearlstein in Denver, CO, I came back to Monroe, LA, with the inspiration I needed to do what I wanted to do. Lynda Benglis told me I had talent and introduced me to color pencils, Phillip Pearlstein validated my technical ability, and Judy Chicago gave me the key to my inward reality. She had us draw ourselves as we saw ourselves, as the world saw us and as we would like to be seen. I immediately went to the abstract form I had jokingly called “breast with inverted nipple” and found myself.

 

Now, how does all this become “Southern?” Because I approached my art for the first time like a writer. My visual influences weren’t Southern artists, because I didn’t relate to any Southern artists like I did with Southern writers. The visual artist that I most admired was Nancy Grossman. Her heads covered in leather and zippers screamed the suppressed emotion that I felt. Another visual artist that influenced me was Eleanor Antin and her 100 Boots series. I knew of these artists work from a book by Cindy Nemser, Art Talk [5] . And there was an artist in Monroe, LA, Herman Mhire, who was doing design marker drawings of UFO’s, influenced by the Chicago Imagists. From all of these, I began a visual autobiography, The Bubble Blower. It was the story of a breast that inverted its nipple and became a bubble blower. There were five series of seven drawings (biblical) and a grand finale, each named for writers, and of the five writers, three were Southern. The drawings were 29” x 23,” each taking a week to do. While I was working on them, I was warned of the danger of “looking inward.” I was very familiar with Southern artists painting from nature, Walter Anderson [6] , and with natural materials, Clyde Connell [7] , now both deceased. Most artists and writers work that engaged me attempted to make sense of the absurd world we humans live in. I wanted to do visually what Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers, and Tennessee Williams had done with words.

In 1977, The Bubble Blower was exhibited in the Bienville Gallery in New Orleans. The director, Ed Weigand, was only interested in showing humanist art. He called me the “Shirley Temple of the Bienville Gallery”, but I was really Blanche DuBois. [8] The pencil and color pencil drawings were as fragile as Tennessee Williams’ character. (He never told us what happened to her later. She had come from “refinement” in Mississippi into the raw New Orleans esthetic, in the form of Stanley Kowalski, and went psychotic.) Nothing sold at the gallery, which wasn’t unusual for that type of art in the 70’s. But I looked at those drawings and questioned what was keeping me there. And I realized it was fear, not real fear (although some was valid, like economic survival) but psychological fear. I decided to use the other abstract forms to act out my fears. I finished nine drawings and decided that to give them more reality, I had to make them three-dimensional. I started making “Growth” in clay and teeth of green combs, when I realized my survival depended on getting out of the destructive environment where I lived, or existed, as a martyr.

 

That was 1978 and it was more than ten years before I was able to get back to that work. The first piece I made in 1991 was the sculpture, “Growth“(1.). Green combs were now out of style, and finding them was a challenge I hadn’t expected. Now it is the twenty-first century, and I claim the “breast” in me, knowing more than ever the value of nurturing that it represents, nurturing oneself and nurturing others. “Rock of Ages” (2.) was once “Fortress” (3.) and became a visual metaphor for the fear of turning into rock. “Petrification” was a term used by the psychiatrist, R. D. Laing, M.D., to define a neurotic or psychotic state of ontological insecurity subconsciously caused by the patient trying to protect its soul. [9] Now the rocks are well polished, selected for their beauty, and are a metaphor for survival of the strong, or strong willed. “The Grass is Greener” (4.) was “Growth” (from the original bubble blower drawings), symbolizing the fear of growing up. The original drawing, like the sculpture (1.) above, had plates of metal being peeled away with raw, bleeding skin underneath to represent the necessary pain of the maturation process. Now the soothing eye gel protects the inverted nipple nurturing the breast of plastic green pasture. Introverted Nipple with Lures(5.) isn’t as easily related to the original bubble blowers. In the original working drawings, there was one covered in fish scales that I left out. I was trying to make it a mermaid, but I found no way to relate it to the others. When I saw those pink lures at the hardware store, I couldn’t resist. (The lures were made by The Fat Boy Lure Company in Climax, N.C.) The next find were the iridescent sequins in the craft store and then the fabric that looked like something out of Gone with the Wind. The lures, the hooks, are all tools of the southern female trade, yet suggestive of the southern male pastime of fishing. Maybe this is Maggie, the cat, right out of Tennessee Williams’ Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. (I have lived one of her lives, too.)

Art has been my means of survival. I share that with many writers and artists, the famous and the not so famous. I just have never been able to engage myself in just the materials of the trade, be it paint, pencil or stone, or in just the form. It was never enough.

 

Looking downward from an altitude of two thousand feet, the earth assumes order. A town, even Milan, is symmetrical, exact as a small gray honeycomb, complete. The surrounding terrain seems designed by a law more just and mathematical than the laws of property and bigotry: a dark parallelogram of pine woods, square fields, rectangles of sward. On this cloudless day the sky on all sides and above the plane is a blind monotone of blue, impenetrable to the eye and the imagination. But down below the earth is round. The earth is finite. From this height you do not see man and the details of his humiliation. The earth from a great distance is perfect and whole.

But this is an order foreign to the heart, and to love the earth you must come closer. [10]

Carson McCullers, Clock without Hands

[1] As I write this, it is difficult to separate what was with what is now. So much has not changed and yet there has been inevitable change. Sometimes I could just as well use the present tense, but I am trying to identify influences that are rooted there. Some are more relevant to the deep South (Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina) than to North Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky, Virginia, and Louisiana. But there are areas of all these states that remain as Southern as the deep South.

[2] O’Connor, Flannery. Flannery O’Connor; Collected Works. New York: The Library of America, 1988.

[3] Woolston, C. Herbert. Jesus Loves the Little Children. Baptist hymn

[4] O’Connor, Flannery.A Temple of the Holy Ghost from A Good Man is Hard to Find, 1955. New York: Harcourt, 1977.

[5] Nemser, Cindy. Art Talk; Conversations with 15 Women Artists. New York: Icon Editions, 1975.

[6] I never knew Walter Anderson personally, but I spent years in psychotherapy with the psychiatrist who treated him at the state mental hospital.

[7] I did know Clyde well. She lived near Shreveport, LA, about 90 miles from Monroe, LA. She was my mentor, and a remarkable woman.

[8] Williams, Tennessee. A Street Car Named Desire. Sewanee, TN: The University of the South, 1947.

[9] Laing, R. D. The Divided Self, New York: Pantheon Books, 1969. 48.

[10] McCullers, Carson. Clock Without Hands. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1961. 233.