At the Root

It’s easy to get spoiled when you live in a city with a great museum, which is precisely what I have with the High Museum here in Atlanta, Georgia. The latest special exhibition, which closed May 7th, was Cross Country: The Power of Place in American Art, 1915-1950. Comprised of 200 works, the exhibit was broad in scope and filled with artists both well-known (Ansel Adams, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Grandma Moses, N.C. and Andrew Wyeth) and obscure.

Organized by region, the artworks depict the South, Mid-Atlantic, Northeast, Midwest, and West from 1915 to 1950—a period spanning Prohibition, the Great Depression, and industrialization. The pieces share a common theme, though, according to Stephanie Heydt, the High’s American art curator: “All of this work is about memory and the history of a place as experienced across time.”

That’s the thing that struck me as I toured this exhibit–the feeling that I was seeing “memory and history of a place across time.” Each of the five sections of the exhibit were painted a different color and arranged to tell the story of the region, so it was clear when you moved from one to the next.

I toured the entire display once, beginning with the South and ending with the West, taking my time and using the audio tour to learn more about certain artists and their works, and then went back to the pieces that spoke the loudest. As I walked, I noticed myself growing more and more removed from the work—not because the pieces weren’t lovely or challenging, but because there was no personal connection for me. The art from the American West was like looking at the surface of Mars.

In “The Death of the Hired Man,” Robert Frost says that “Home is the place where, when you have to go there, / They have to take you in.” But I think the opposite is true as well. Home is the place you have to take into you. It’s unavoidable. In the place you call home, the cadence and vocabulary of the people who live there find their way into your mouth. The food they make fills your belly and satiates your spirit. The music they create is the soundtrack of your life, and their traditions mark the rhythms of your days as surely as solstices and cold snaps.

I’m a product of the South (with a dash of Midwest thrown in for good measure). To me, home is fields of cotton and tobacco. Homemade biscuits. Revivals in white clapboard churches. Country stores. Friday night football games. Poke cake. Johnny Cash. Sun tea in Mason jars and backyard gardens filled with tomatoes that actually taste like tomatoes.

 

“Tobacco Sorters” by Thomas Hart Benton (1942/44)
I think that’s why “Tobacco Sorters” by Thomas Hart Benton struck me. I only helped harvest tobacco a few times, but brother was it enough. That is disgusting, hard, hot labor. You can tell just how hard it is from the man’s face. Look how the wrinkles and creases in his skin mirror the leaf in his hand. Even his hat and shirt look crumpled and tired. The little girl on the right is still fresh, but she’s new to the trade.

Other workers are working in the background at the drying shed, and I can imagine they are somewhere between these two on the spectrum. These are people I know and have spent time with. Decent, hardworking folks who are trying to scratch a living out of the earth, some years with better results than others.

“Farmers” by Ben Shahn (1943)

The same is true of the men in “Farmers” by Ben Shahn. In this piece, they’re at an auction, buying equipment from a farmer who’d gone bust. They’re looking for a good deal, knowing all the while that, with just one bad harvest, they could be next.

“Hoeing Tobacco” by Robert Gwathmey (1946)

But working land is hardly a “privilege” reserved only for poor, hardscrabble whites. Pieces like “Hoeing Tobacco” by Robert Gwathmey make it clear that black hands planted, tended, and harvested tobacco too.

“The Building of Savery Library” by Hale Woodruff (1942)

And then there are moments when you see blacks and whites working side by side to create something grand like a university library like they are in Hale Woodruff’s beautiful mural, its colors so bright they draw you across the gallery to get a better look. There’s hope here. Beauty. Progress.

But like any exhibit worth its salt, Cross Country contained pieces that shock people out of their complacency, ones that made patrons face something unpleasant or come to terms with something they’d rather not. In moments like these, Lucille Clifton says it best: “it is friday. we have come / to the paying of the bills.”

“Man With Brush” by Frederick C. Flemister (1940)

Frederick C. Flemister
 provided that moment for me. He was born in Georgia and went to school in Atlanta. He called the South home too, but this is what his South looked like.
“The Mourners” by Frederick C. Flemister (n.d.)

All those lovely Southern things I mentioned earlier? I bet he experienced and loved them too, but Flemister also had to deal with violence, racism, and lynchings like the one depicted in his work.

Though it’s done in a style reminiscent of Renaissance paintings of the Pietà, there’s no mistaking what’s happened. A man has been murdered and, like Christ, lies draped across his mother’s lap. The perpetrator is riding away in the background. The noose, though cut, looks sharp as a blade. The deed is done, and all that’s left is for the mourners to cry to heaven while a blood red scarf billows in the wind. The scene is beautifully rendered, but that doesn’t soften the blow. On the contrary, it highlights how hideous the moment truly is.

As much as it pains me to admit it, this is also part of the place I call home. Like the child in the painting, I want to run away, to turn my head, to pretend it didn’t happen. But there’s no denying it. I’ve been to the place where Mary Turner died. I currently live thirty minutes away from Forsyth County, which remained “White Only” through brute force for most of the 20th century. (Read Blood at the Root by Patrick Phillips if you’d like to know the entire story. It’s gut wrenching.)

Yes, home is a place you take in, but you have to take all of it.

I may never have lifted my hand in violence or knowingly ostracized someone, but oh, so many have…and done so willingly. “The Mourners” depicts something at the root of my South, planted long before my little branch ever came to full flower. But that doesn’t change the fact that it must be recognized, rectified, and resisted from now on if we’re ever to scour such atrocities from this good earth. Removing a monument of Jefferson Davis won’t do that. Facing the truth, however hard it may be, and calling it by its right name? That just might.

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