A Nod to the Literary Genre? Yes Indeed.
Southern Gothic tales,whether published or told by firelight by a hearth or campfire in the pitch-dark woods, where ghost lurk and await our inability to sleep after hearing what stories their presence has wrought, are the reason this series began. They still are the reason, 17 years later, that I am trying to find specific wood, and then on returning to the Four Corners region will find a lumber company who is dealing in Colorado high country beetle-killed pine. Beetlejuice, anyone? Bueller? Bueller? Anyone?
The Perpetual Progress of History Passed Down by Ghosts of Twilight Breezes
This series ran for awhile, longer than a number of others I’ve done. It was largely a paean to books and created for other readers. It included a bit of history, genealogy, and authorship of one’s own life. These works, both assemblage and paintings with collage and image transfer, nod to the stories told in antiquity by bardic wanderers of all cultures around the world, many of whom had settled in southeastern America before the War for Independence brought the colonies into being as a people.
We’ve all heard tales which don’t accept sequestering, but strive to come into the full light of day rather than be shunted beneath a rug in a dark corner of an old single-walled room, or shoved into a closet like the young Harry Potter. Stories are our instruction book on what not to do first before stumbling into what must be done. This is how many iconic images were born through the ages, for the original folk tales instructed us with both spoken word around the fire at night, and in many instances, visual elements were lovingly crafted to illuminate the words. In time these stories evolved into legend, then into books with illustrations which could take the breath away, especially in the gloomy corner shadows of a cold room.
“A dream that comes only once is oftenest only an idle accident, and hasn’t any message, but the recurrent dream is quite another matter—oftener than not it has come on business.” ≈ Mark Twain
As a profoundly large collection of lore which expanded with each telling, these stories spanned both families and friends alike, but also informed entire communities. They seem to have touched folk for ages, and have certainly stayed with me, lingering in my mind’s eye, in dreams and in various attempts to communicate ideas. Our very dreams, our private myths, are wrought from the tongues of the early wandering storytellers. When we awake in the night with a fright and cold shivers, it is our memory speaking to us. These Southern Gothic works, more often than any other series still to this day, intrudes between me and more current works to press it’s argument on being reanimated with the verve of Dr. Frankenstein’s peculiar experiment.
The piece above, when completed, was the progenitor for these works. I kept looking at it when nearly done, then cut another couple of panels to try a few more ideas out. This is how series begin. Sometimes well planned and thought through for years, others just sort of emerge from the ether of things your mind is wrestling with while you work. The one below was the second, and by the third, I was ready to hop aboard the old Southern Crescent Line and make an imaginary run through the layers of stories told for years within my extended families. “A epic accounting of persons, after all, needs decent illustrations,” I thought to myself at the time. Yet as these evolved I came to see them as the books themselves, and to be read as images from a forgotten and similarly shared past with thousands of others.
The germ of an idea is generally, as mentioned above, how interesting sequences (or series) of artworks usually begin. It’s the artist’s task to allow such small beginnings to gestate into full-blown art. Over the years, I’ve found that when one allows a wide margin of respect for the idea to develop on it’s own, within the person of your mind, the outcome is all the better. Some of the finest of ideation succumbs to a rush of producing it, without allowing the conceptualization of it to compound and grow in time. We all learn from our mistakes. We learn far more, when one thinks about it, from a slower, sometimes arrhythmic pattern, similar to water in areas where dry washes occur. The spaces in time in which you feel almost as though you are about to lose the flow, and stare down to see dry sand where water was just weeks ago, are the richest of conceptual periods, in my experience. To allow yourself this kind composure instead of pushing some product out the door t the behest of a good idea is a gift one gives one’s self.
Over that winter, after doing around eight pieces akin to the above, looking at the roughcut boards laying beside my pile of trimmed and planed cedar planks I was making for sections of walls in my home, the stark and undulating nature of the wood began to speak far more to me as representing just what this wood was. See “Clyde and Teen’s Nocturne” — at top of this page. Stately eastern red cedars, known to me, my father and mother, and their parents and grandparents before them, were shorn from the deep red clay soil they had flourished in for between 50 to 200 years. One had iron spikes with a large eyelet embedded in the folds of the outer pale wood, and you could trace the trail of it’s residence there from a faint discoloration courtesy of the iron. “Probably a hitching place,” my father mused as we inspected it.
Rent from the earth. Torn from their place. For these were the cedars which met the indomitable force of Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Some of their root systems had been twisted inside the ground before snapping off, to fall, their glorious evergreen needles quickly turning color to eventually a dry and crispy brown. Then, no needles at all. Dad and I had offered many of our neighbors to remove the trees for them (for many months, it was hard to find tree removal people after the damage of Hugo’s strike. Red earth. Red clay. Cedars used by farming family’s for years as corner anchors to barbed wire fences. Cedars which marked the places of meeting for generations of family members after a day’s work, or the gathering spot just prior to beginning a the day’s toil.
Red earth. Red clay. Blood and toil. Crops. Foxhunting gatherings of my grandfather’s generation with others from their rural community. I began to see almost what seemed portrait like definition of grain patters in this cedar. On planing it, that becomes more visually prevalent. Portraits if you will of the bond between trees and humans, Animals and shelter. For years and years and years, until in one day’s span of time they are felled in an instant by wind. Something soft and mutable, usually.
The narrative arrived in dribs and drabs, like that. By the spring of 2002 (for the cedars had lain on the ground at our old family homeplace since the fall of 1989, with very little loss, for cedar is a tree naturally protected from rot, decay and insects. Which is why almost all our fence posts for generations were made of this wood. Fence posts. Anchors. Connecting wire. Barbed wire, as in the arguments of elders long forgotten.
And therein was the story’s true narrative, for these planks were becoming markers of the region where the red clay met the sandhills, of live spent breaking the sod, first the deep turning with the plows followed by the aeration of the disc harrow. Gardens. Cattle. Wagons. Allis Chalmers, Ford, John Deere and Massey Ferguson works of engineering art. Orange. Blue and gray. Green and yellow. Red. Art is all around us, but when coaxed from the annals of one’s own family history, it is best to allow it to trickle up to the surface slowly.
By 2005, this series was winding to an end. The selvage cuts were winnowing away, and I hauled it in 2007, when I sold my house in the sandhills, to another location, where someone obviously had a fondness for rough-cut cedar. I’ve often wondered to what use those remaing 30 or so planks were put. I always hope that they became paneling in someone’s home rather than ran through a woodchipper and sold as aromatic potpourri at craft shows. For in them were dreams and hitching posts and meeting places and geographical markers. Brought down by airbending forces of nature in one fell night of horror for many people in my home town.
In the end, although the loss of my rough cut cedar planks gleaned from the devastation of Hugo as it coursed across South Carolina in 1989 eventually laid waste to the Southern Gothic series’ own limited lifespan as a collection of continuing works, around the fall of 2014 I found about seven short Hugo cedar selvage cuts (boards in which the natural outer part of the tree is kept rather than being trimmed straight) hiding out in my storage building one day in Santa Fe. They had been cut by me at some point to fit into large moving boxes as strut supports. Four a precise 18.25 inches, to allow for two panels to be gleaned from each plank. They were placed at the center of each panel to help guard against the box being crushed in the move west, as fragile clay pieces were boxed and packed in between them. Two other panels were about 14 to 16 inches long.
Like most such reborn finds, they were packed away in the bottom of a box labeled something else, which was not clay sculptural pieces. The math allows 10 more Southern Gothics, which like all good things must come to an end. I may yet still find a few more short planks this winter, as I’ll be unpacking a few more boxes marked “Wood and cardboard,” which have not been opened since I arrived in Glorieta, New Mexico early February of 2011. I recall some pieces being spall, meaning narrower sections of the selvage edges. Those could be used to gain a few more works from this series. By the holidays I’ll know, and perhaps 12 to 16 panels can be laminated to 11-ply baltic birch to put a time-bending end to something I have cherished making.
“First rule. Never let a person borrow your tools. Your tools are part of you. Care for them. Treat them well and never let them out of your eyesight. Second rule. Always put them back in their place, or you’ll lose them for sure.” ≈ Willis L. Ogburn Jr.
I keep mentioning finding things lost in some out-of-the-way spot way far too often, largely due to such things occurring a lot. There is nothing like the comfort of spaces in which everything had it’s place and could be located in that proper place as long as I was not looking for anything in the wake of a visiting friend who was also a fellow craftsperson or artist. For I followed part of Dad’s maxim, but not the part about letting friends use what is there in your studio—if they are there. And yes, usually something goes missing for a few weeks until I am looking in the sandpaper bin and find the missing palm sander!
My method for tool/material management has often been the rotational box system, preferably labeled with what actually is inside of said box. If that’s not Gothic proper, nothing I have ever known is such. Suffice it to say, I will probably still be writing in amazement for decades more about some artifact I have suddenly found which has turned on me by slinking away in small stages, ultimately going full bore AWOL on multiple occasions.
Back to Hugo-killed eastern red cedar, and it’s relationship not only to the South of my childhood but to the nature of living, dying, but in many trees cases, individual extinction of memories, gatherings, picnics and proposals.
Many of these proud old trees had stood for generations and I can still recall their placement and silhouettes.
“That’s the tree we always met under at the end of fox hunting.”
“Three of my cousins are buried under that cedar. Not one of ’em lived a year.”
“Between that old cedar and the walnut tree’s where our old mule kicked your father in the head when he was just a young’n.”
It was on recognizing the role of these trees in mine and friend’s families that I imported the extinct species idea from the older Invocational paintings.