Blake Ells documents Birmingham, Alabama’s often overlooked rock and alternative music scene in his new book, Magic City Rock: Spaces and Faces of Birmingham’s Scene. I enjoyed reviewing it for Alabama Writers’ Forum. You can read my review here:
“Calling Planet Earth – I am a different order of being …”
So says Sun Ra in Robert Mugge’s 1980 documentary, “Sun Ra: A Joyful Noise.” I was inspired to view the movie by Richard Brody’s recent spectacular review in the New Yorker, a review that is arguably as thoughtful and well-crafted as Mugge’s film itself.
Mugge’s hand-held cameras sometime follow Sun Ra around in random sequence; sometimes the musician walks ‘round and ‘round the camera. Occasionally, Sun Ra leaves the frame as the camera stops to ponder some detail in the room. In one memorable sequence, the camera is stationary, focused on a cityscape, as Sun Ra walks back and forth, in and out of the camera’s view, giving his thoughts on what is important to him as an artist of the universe.
He has a lot to say. “They say that history repeats itself,” he says, “but history is his story; it is not my story … Nature never repeats itself. Why should I repeat myself?”
Sun Ra was a son of Birmingham. Born Herman Poole (“Sonny”) Blount, he was a prodigious musician at an early age, playing Birmingham clubs. In the 1930s, he spent a year as a music education major at what is now Alabama A&M University.
Somewhere along the way – and the accounts vary – he had a transformative experience that convinced him that he had been transported to the planet Saturn and returned to planet Earth in a space ark to spread a new and forward-looking philosophy to the delusional Earthlings. He legally changed his name to Le Sony’r Ra, began to call his band the “Arkestra,” and the living myth was born. Sun Ra had the privilege of largely creating his own mythology while arguing for a “mythocracy opposed to your theocracy and democracy.”
He is critical of human inhabitants of Earth, arguing that “Man has failed – spiritually, educationally, mentally.” Standing in front of the White House, Sun Ra says that “you can’t have justice if you penalize people for doing wrong and don’t do anything for them if they’re doing right.”
Sun Ra’s philosophy often makes sense and shows an acute wisdom; occasionally, it might seem a little absurd. Either way, one should always watch his eyes. He seems conscious of exactly what he’s doing and saying and playing all the time, no matter how outrageous it may seem in the moment. It has been observed that sometimes Sun Ra felt that too many musicians take themselves too seriously; his music and philosophical observations seem to be both a response to his innate intelligence and a reaction to taking oneself too seriously.
In an early sequence of the film, vocalist June Tyson sings of Sun Ra as “the living myth, the living mystery.” Those words “myth” and “mystery” recur often throughout Mugge’s portrait of the man. Sun Ra is little known outside certain circles, but he retains a devoted following and immense respect among serious jazz aficionados. I was surprised when two novels I read recently featured cameo appearances by Sun Ra.
Mugge’s film does not deal with biography. It is most concerned with Sun Ra’s present, around 1980. Much of the film is shot in Philadelphia environs and clubs and in the communal rowhouse in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood where Sun Ra lived with much of his band – a band that taps into his musical vision and his taste for wild and outlandish garb and adornment that appear to be a fusion of the Space Age, Egyptian Africana, and psychedelics.
When I was first exposed to Sun Ra and his Arkestra’s music, sometime during my college years, I didn’t “get it.” Much of it sounded like untamed cacophony with minimal focus or forethought. Over time, the more I listened and got to know musicians with an interest in jazz, the more I appreciated Sun Ra.
“A Joyful Noise” lends credence to testimony of Sun Ra’s virtuosity. Saxophonist John Gilmore, a long-time member of the Arkestra, comments that he finds Sun Ra’s technique “… ahead of Bird and Monk” and later evokes Charles Mingus, too. Sun Ra’s knowledge of intervals and harmony, he says, are so “highly advanced” that he decided to “stop” and devote his career to the Arkestra. He stayed with Sun Ra from the 1950s. Gilmore led the group after Sun Ra’s death, and until his own death in the ‘90s.
Gilmore is one of many examples of the quality of musician Sun Ra sought and attracted. At one point in the film, Sun Ra states that he chooses musicians who believe in “arkestration, precision, and discipline.” In rehearsals captured by Mugge, Sun Ra is a diligent and precise task-master. His musicians – in rehearsal and performance – show both attention and awe. Sun Ra’s choreographic conducting in performance appears surreal and spontaneous while simultaneously controlled and conscious.
The concerts feel trance-like – in observation of both the musicians and the audience experiencing the music. In his lifetime, Sun Ra was called a “catalyst.” “A catalyst,” he says, “changes everything, but remains the same.”
I don’t always understand Sun Ra and his music, but I always enjoy the effort.
The title of Mugge’s film comes from a story Sun Ra tells in the documentary. When he and members of the Arkestra lived communally in the Philadelphia rowhouse, they would rehearse any time – day or night – that Sun Ra had the urge to create. Once, when the police came to the door in response to a complaint, they told Sun Ra that neighbors had complained about the “music.” He informed them that he wasn’t playing “music” – “I was making a joyful noise – that’s what the Bible said.”
Sun Ra had strokes in his final years and was brought back to Birmingham to be cared for by family members. He died in 1993. I was surprised to learn that he is buried at Elmwood, the 120-year-old Birmingham cemetery where my father is buried. Out of over 130,000 plots at Elmwood, I discovered that Sun Ra happens to be buried in the block just across the way from my father.
Occasionally, I spot license plates in Elmwood from far-flung places with people looking around for something in that vicinity. Occasionally, those people look like forward-thinking musician-types. If they’re looking for Sun Ra, I am happy to point out the place where his Earthly remains are resting.
In the early 1800s, a group of French settlers who had arrived in Philadelphia invested in tracts of land in the Alabama wilderness at the confluence of the Black Warrior and Tombigbee Rivers near present-day Demopolis, a part of the Black Belt still referred to as the “Canebrake.”
Popular lore characterizes the settlers as exiled Bonapartist soldiers; in fact, a few had served under Napoleon, others had fled the Haitian Revolution, and some were not French at all. The pioneers were drawn by the false information that the area was ideal for the cultivation of olive trees and wine grapes, like their homeland. It didn’t take long for them to realize the falsity of that premise and, in a short time, most of the settlers moved on.
In late-summer of 2017, I wrote an essay, “The Vine and Olive Colony,” about artist Julyan Davis and his series of paintings inspired by those French settlers. Julyan chose the historical figure Madame Raoul, Marchioness of Sinabaldi, as his focus.
Julyan Davis, his paintings, and his Demopolis connection are featured in “Days of Exile,” a beautiful short film by David Poag. A Demopolis premiere was planned for April; because of the current health crisis, the Demopolis screening is on hold and the film has been released online. Davis’s paintings are stunning and evocative; Poag’s direction and editing are spectacular. Here’s the link:
Julyan Davis’s initial interest in the Vine and Olive Colony started in England when he read Carl Carmer’s Stars Fell on Alabama (1934), a creative account of New Yorker Carmer’s sojourn in Alabama as a professor at the University of Alabama in the 1920s. This inspired Davis’s first trip to Alabama in the 1980s. He has painted the American South for over thirty years now.
“Days of Exile,” the title of Poag’s film, is inspired by a book of that name, Days of Exile (1967), by Winston Smith. Dr. Smith was one of my English professors at the University of Alabama but I was not aware of this book until the Poag film. Out of curiosity, I ordered a copy of the out-of-print book after viewing the film. Smith’s account, while not as dramatic as the events of the Carmer book, is a well-researched dissertation, full of details and facts and official records detailing the events that have such an enduring impact on Julyan Davis’s art and on the Alabama Canebrake of today.
Faith involves an acceptance of absurdity. – Zadie Smith, author
I’ve followed the work of various “folk” or “outsider” or “visionary” or “naïve” self-taught artists since college and remain eternally confused about what is the best and most inoffensive label to place on them. Of course, labels constantly evolve and what was respectful in one decade might be deemed offensive down the road.
The Birmingham Museum of Art (BMA), in its current exhibition, “The Original Makers: Folk Art from the Cargo Collection,” lands on “makers” as the appropriate contemporary term. It makes perfect sense since the word “maker” has had a resurgence among artists and those who apply hands-on skills. The term does not delineate between level of skill and training and place. Picasso, after all, was a “maker,” as are all of the artists in this compelling show.
I wrote about my connection to Helen and Robert Cargo when BMA presented an exhibit of their collection of Haitian vodou flags in 2016 (“Communion: Haitian Vodou Flags at the Birmingham Museum of Art”). They were my neighbors and landlords during part of my graduate school years in Tuscaloosa. Dr. Robert Cargo taught French literature in the Department of Romance Languages and Classics at Alabama. I was aware that they were collectors of art by various folk and outsider artists but did not realize the extent of their collection until they opened the Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery in downtown Tuscaloosa in 1984.
The Cargos have passed away but they made generous donations of their collection – in particular to the BMA – over the years. Their daughter, Caroline Cargo, has continued that generosity with substantial donations of the Cargo Collection – some of which are on view in the current Birmingham exhibition which will be up until the end of 2018.
The exhibit is sumptuous and detailed – a comprehensive overview of the range of the makers on display. The Cargos were avid collectors of Southern quilts and the exhibition includes a quilt by Dr. Cargo’s great-grandmother, Mary Ann Rouse Thomas, which sparked a life-long interest in quilts and quilters. Quilts from many periods and styles are on display throughout the exhibition, including works by more contemporary quilters such as Nora Ezell, Mary Maxtion, and Yvonne Wells, as well as Joanna Pettway of the acclaimed Gee’s Bend quilters. Some of the most stunning quilts are by unidentified makers. Dr. Cargo’s interest in male quilters is represented by a broken star patterned quilt by Afton Germany.
Some of the makers in the exhibit are already well-known to me and others are new or lesser-known. Charlie Lucas, Jimmy Lee Suddeth, and Mose “Mose T” Tolliver are familiar to anyone with more than a passing interest in Alabama makers. Suddeth famously made the majority of his paints from various muds and clays and I was particularly moved by a painting of his wife, Ethel, done in the year she died.
Among the artists who are new to me is Kentuckian Denzil Goodpaster, whose charming wood carvings include an image of Dolly Parton performing as well as a trio of cheerleaders. The smiling faces of the people and the stoic faces of the various animals are memorable in the works of Shields Landon “S.L.” Jones, while the subtly rendered ethereal paintings of faces, flora, and fauna on brown paper bags by Sybil Gibson are haunting. I passed these images quickly during my visit to the museum but found myself thinking about them later and wanting to look at them again. Fortunately, the exhibition catalogue, available in the museum gift shop, makes that possible.
Chuckie Williams’s two-sided paintings of pop culture icons are bold, vivid, and good-natured. While Williams was recovering from an emotional breakdown, he felt called by Jesus to paint. It was particularly exciting to discover the autobiographical six-panel “Story of My Life” by Leroy Almon Sr., including images of houses and places he lived, jobs that he worked, and his calling to pursue art. Almon became an ordained minister (as well as a police dispatcher) in the final years of his life.
Doubt is not the opposite of faith; it is an element of faith. — Paul Tillich, Christian theologian
Starting with an interest in the divinely inspired works of visionary artists Sister Gertrude Morgan and Howard Finster and the evolution of W.C. Rice’s stark and foreboding installation, “Cross Garden,” near Prattville, Alabama, I have been fascinated with the many outsider makers who have felt called by God to create their art. In the Cargo exhibit, a centerpiece is the visionary work of Rev. Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Perkins. Perkins’s colorful and inventive art is showcased in an installation of his painting on a variety of media – birdhouses, gourds, text tracts on wooden boards. Rev. Perkins felt divinely inspired to spread the Gospel through his individual works and installations and the bulk of works in that area of the exhibition are devoted to art that is specifically religious in nature. Also of interest, however, are the inclusion of Perkins images and paintings prompted by his fascination with American patriotism, the history of time and the calendar, and the contents of King Tuthankamun’s tomb.
Artist Fred Webster is represented by a series of cases filled with works inspired by biblical stories from the old and new testaments. The carved images cover a wide span of biblical events along with more fanciful images of a choir of angels and a band of devils. Webster’s more secular subject matter includes images of Abraham Lincoln, George Washington chopping down the cherry tree, and George Wallace delivering an address from his wheelchair. A collection of busts of Coach Paul “Bear” Bryant, along with a full-body carving take up about half of a display case.
Theologian Paul Tillich wrote, in essence, that there is no faith without doubt but there is a part of me that envies the blind faith of these makers, many of whom followed a divine inspiration without falter or question.
Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. – Hebrews 11:1
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.
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 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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.