Tag Archives: Alabama art and artists

Birmingham’s Evocative Past

Coe’s “Down Town Birmingham” (c. 1935)

My father was born in the Employees Hospital in Fairfield in 1931. The hospital – which was later renamed Lloyd Noland Hospital in honor of its founding physician – was a company hospital of Tennessee Coal and Iron, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Dad grew up in Ensley, within sight of U.S. Steel’s mammoth Ensley Works, where my grandfather worked.

 

Lloyd Noland Hospital went through changes in ownership, was closed in 2004, and razed in 2009.

 

The mining districts and steel mills around Birmingham, and the communities that sprang up around them, hold an ongoing fascination for me. My mother’s family moved from Cullman County to Birmingham in the 1940s and her father transitioned from farmer to steel worker at a steel fabrication factory. Mother’s parents lived in west Birmingham throughout their decades in the city. The house I most attach to them was in Fairfield Highlands. The Fairfield Works of U.S. Steel was visible down in the valley from their back yard. I remember my grandmother taking a damp rag to wipe the factory soot off her clothesline when she hung clothes on the line to dry.

 

My ongoing interest in the industrial history of the Birmingham district was greatly satisfied by a new exhibit hanging in the Birmingham Museum of Art this spring (www.artsbma.org). “Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham” is a collection of over sixty pieces – mostly etchings and a few paintings – by Alabama native Richard Coe. The pieces were made during Coe’s residency in Birmingham during the Depression in the mid-1930s.

 

Sometimes, it feels like the only history of Birmingham that gets any attention began in 1963 but the place has a rich and fascinating 90+ year history prior to that watershed year of the Civil Rights Movement. Coe’s Depression-era works capture a moment of that history and make me feel closer to my own family’s Birmingham. His etchings capture urban images of downtown and hospitals and churches; industrial scenes of factories – in action sometimes, idle other times; and domestic scenes of neighborhoods and humble houses – often in the shadow of the factories. One of the paintings features a neighborhood “No Nox” gas station. 


The 1930s images of the downtown city center feature many of the same buildings that made up the core of the downtown when I was a young child in Birmingham in the ‘50s and 60s, before newer buildings in the ‘70s and ‘80s moved the city center a few blocks north and transformed the skyline.

 

Part of my mother’s family’s lore is evoked by a Coe etching of St. Vincent’s hospital on the city’s southside. My mother and her mother before her would recount how my great-grandmother, Dura Graves McCarn, was in St. Vincent’s when she was dying at a young age. When it became clear that nothing more could be done, my great-grandfather, John Houston McCarn, ordered her brought home. Aunt Bertha sent her car and driver to pick Dura up and transport her back to Cullman to be at home with her family in her final days.  

 

Coe’s “Saint Vincent’s Hospital” (c. 1935)

Four decades later, when I was quite young, my grandmother Harbison was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s; it was still in the same imposing old brick building pictured in a 1930s Coe etching. Nuns still walked the grounds in full traditional habit, just as they do in the foreground of Coe’s depiction. The St. Vincent’s of the 21st Century is very different – another megalith serving the city’s southside medical complex.

 

Coe’s Stilt Walkers (c. 1935)

Coe’s domestic images often feature humble houses and outbuildings, rickety fences, the inevitable clothesline. Most often, the people featured in these environments are African American – women talking off a front porch; children playing with a “Pet Possum” or walking on makeshift stilts; a birdhouse perched atop a roof. 

 


But it’s the industrial scenes that I find most pleasing and beautiful in the series. Sloss Furnaces alongside First Avenue North is pictured at its peak, before it was abandoned in 1971 and became today’s National Historic Landmark and industrial museum (www.slossfurnaces.com).  

Coe’s “Sloss Furnaces” (c. 1935)

Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, 2018

Steel mills, steam plants, streetcar barns, railroad tracks, even the desolate landscape of a slag pile evoke a Birmingham of the past that I still find incredibly vibrant and rich in industrial-era history. As I drive through Birmingham now I still seek out the remains of that industrial past which wasn’t so long ago, really, but seems incredibly distant and almost quaint.


These are the memories that are inspired by Richard Coe’s art at the Birmingham Museum. And any sighting of a clothesline always brings a flood of memories to mind. 

Eula Harbison at Clothesline; Fairfield Highlands (c. 1960)

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Third Space

Entrance to Third Space, Birmingham Museum of Art

The last thing I care to do on the day between Thanksgiving and the Iron Bowl is shop. Instead, I try to find some free time to do something relaxing and just for myself.

This Thanksgiving weekend I found time to go to the Birmingham Museum of Art (www.artsbma.org) to catch an exhibition I’ve been wanting to see since it opened in January. “Third Space: Shifting Conversations about Contemporary Art” will be up until January 2019. It incorporates a number of contemporary pieces from the Museum’s permanent collection and explores correlations between diverse media, artists, and themes.

Birmingham Museum of Art regulars are already familiar with some of the featured Alabama artists like William Christenberry, Thornton Dial, Lonnie Holley, Kerry James Marshall, and Moses Tolliver. They are all represented in “Third Space.” The exhibit also gives the opportunity to view lesser-seen pieces, monumental pieces, and video installations by international artists that are rarely viewed.

“Big Fish Eat All the Little Fish” by Thornton Dial

The exhibit is organized into groupings with labels like “migration / diaspora / exile”; “gaze / agency / representation”; “spirit / nature / landscape”; “traditions / histories / memory.” Those categories, peppered with contemporary art buzzwords, prepare the viewer for the dominant themes of victimization and resentment which are so prevalent in much current contemporary art.

There are exciting images throughout the venue and around each corner is something to please and/or challenge the senses. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I spotted one of Jim Dine’s Pinocchios but moving closer it was a sculpture by Cuban artist Esterio Segura. In “La historia se muerda la cola (History Bites Its Tail),” Pinocchio’s nose, which grows when he lies, has grown into a rope that binds him. Not only did I ponder the symbolism of the nose in the Segura piece but it lead me to consider why Dine is also drawn to the character and has presented him in so many ways.

“La historia se muerda la cola” by Esterio Segura with “Old Salem: A Family of Strangers (Series One)” by Fred Wilson and “Making the Bed” by David Salle (far right)

I have a quote from art critic Cay Sophie Rabinowitz on my office wall; I regularly discuss it in my directing classes. She wrote, “When agency is replaced by agenda, the intelligence and poetry of art often get sacrificed.” I found myself thinking about that quote during my time at the Third Space exhibit. “Third Space” is a challenging exhibit, raising questions and issues at every juncture. However, the artists’ agenda in the approximately hundred works on view usually does not take precedence over the provocative agency of the artists’ accomplishments. I was often drawn to a work’s skillful execution before being drawn into the artist’s more powerful and subtle intent. At times, I had no clue to the intent.

For example, Laylah Ali’s “President” is a puzzling collection of small sketchy drawings of each U.S. president pre-Obama. Exhibition notes say the artist gave no instruction for how the portraits should be ordered so the curator has arranged them from president with most hair to president with least. A few of the presidents are being gazed at (taunted?) by little orange heads. There was no apparent rhyme or reason as to why Ali chose the presidents she did for these puzzling cartoon additions. Still, I kept looking.

“among the weeds, plants, and peacock feathers” by Ebony G. Patterson

One of the prettiest pieces is also abruptly disturbing. “among the weeds, plants, and peacock feathers” by Ebony G. Patterson compels with its sparkles and bangles until one notices the shoes in the tapestry and realizes they are attached to a human body.

Probably the most aesthetically pleasing painting for me was David Salle’s “Making the Bed,” a striking work on canvas in which an armada hovers over a shadowy reclining figure. A blood red streak of paint connects the two images.

“Gravity’s Rainbow” by Odili Donald Odita as seen from inside “2x’s” by Rural Studio

One of the galleries in the exhibit is grounded by a large piece built by Rural Studio architect/artisans. “2x’s” (two bys) is an aggregation of boards that would be used in building one of Rural Studio’s “20K Home” projects. The assemblage has built-in seating areas and provides a unique and personal perspective to the work that surrounds it. When the Third Space exhibition closes in 2019, the boards of “2x’s” will return to the Black Belt to be used in a new 20K Home.

On most visits to the Birmingham Museum, I head first to the modern galleries where I have favorites I like to revisit. It’s good to have “Third Space” available for another year with some of those familiar pieces and others with which I have just established an acquaintance.

View of “Third Space” at Birmingham Museum of Art with “Soundsuit” by Nick Cave in the foreground

The Legacy of Mose T

dscn0706 Moses Tolliver (c. 1920-2006), more popularly known as Mose T, is one of the best-known of Alabama’s many self-taught artists. During the years that I lived in Montgomery, I would often see the artist sitting on the front porch of his house on Sayre Street when I would go to Martha’s Place, a soul food place a few doors down from Mose.

I heard that visitors often went by the house and invited themselves in to Mose’s place to check out the art and occasionally buy pieces. Each time I saw him sitting on the porch I considered going up to chat but it seemed rude to just drop by without asking or an invitation.

Moses Tolliver started painting in the 1960s. Most sources say he started painting after a work-related injury left him crippled and unable to continue his job in a furniture shipping warehouse. Mose T always said that he painted prior to the accident but that the accident left him more time to devote to his painting. Either way, a colleague at the furniture company, who painted as a hobby, suggested that Tolliver take painting lessons. Tolliver rejected the lessons and continued to develop his own style in his pictures. He often said that he wasn’t interested in “art,” just in making “pictures.”

The first pictures Mose T made and sold featured a red cardinal as the subject. Throughout his life he painted many subjects including birds, snakes, fantastical animals, buses, watermelons and other fruit, erotic pictures of women straddling bicycles and tricycles and assorted objects, self-portraits and portraits of historic persons, and a world of imaginative, colorful paintings on an assortment of topics. His self-portraits feature him standing on crutches and he sometimes mixed his own hair in with the paint. dscn0705

The paintings are brightly and boldly colored; house paint on plywood seems to be his preferred medium but he also painted on random objects including tree stumps, Masonite, cardboard, table tops, and jigsaw puzzles.

I became aware of Mose T when I first started seeing museum shows featuring artists, usually self-taught, who operate outside the mainstream art establishment. It was around that time when one of the Birmingham-based department stores (either Parisian or Pizitz) promoted a line of tee-shirts carrying images of Mose T’s distinctive watermelon paintings.

Collecting original Mose T paintings is challenging. As the demand for his work increased he began to let some of his children do the paintings and he’d sign them if he approved of them. He had thirteen children and it is known that his daughter, Annie, and two of his sons, Jimmy and Charles, created works that Mose T signed and sold. dscn0702

Eventually Annie Tolliver began to sign her works as “Annie T” and developed her own distinct style and Jimmy and Charles began to produce their own work. I received a gift some years ago of a watermelon in the Tolliver style that was signed “Mose T Jr.” I was confused about the painting’s origins so when I purchased an “Annie T” watermelon from Annie Tolliver herself I mentioned that I had a watermelon signed “Mose T. Jr” and wondered who painted it. “That’s my brother,” she replied tersely and returned to another customer. I still don’t know which brother signed the painting but I assume it’s either Jimmy or Charles. dscn0694

Even though watermelons are Tolliver’s most iconic image, my attention was drawn to another subject to which he frequently returned: buses. The bus as subject matter for a Montgomery-based artist is evocative of the 1955 Montgomery Bus Boycott which is such a seminal part of Civil Rights-era lore. I once read Mose T quoted as saying he preferred to paint empty buses but that people seemed to like them with people in them so that’s why he added people.

While I lived in Montgomery, I began to search out an empty Mose T bus for purchase. I did find one that I liked at a dealer but the price was prohibitive at the time and by the time I returned the painting had been sold.

Later, at another dealer, I spotted a bus with passengers with a price I could consider. It’s a green bus held up by four big black tires with muddy green swirls for hubs. A driver carries three passengers. All four have their legs dangling down and their arms sticking out. One can’t help but think of Mose T’s bird paintings with the four men’s arms resembling bird legs and their mouths that recall bird beaks. Each sports a broad-brimmed hat. I thought about it for a couple of days and went back to the dealer and owned it.

I had hoped to find an empty bus for the Tolliver collection but I really enjoy my frolicsome bus with its passenger load. I have no idea if Mose Tolliver painted it or just signed it but, either way, I love to look at it. And when you live with art, loving what you look at every day is the most important element, I think.

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Note: A great resource for learning about many of the self-taught Alabama artists is Kathy Kemp’s Revelations: Alabama’s Visionary Folk Artists (Crane Hill Publishers, 1994) with abundant photographs by Keith Boyer.