Tag Archives: art

My Grandmother’s Quilt

IMG_0861   In the popular imagination, there has long been a romanticized picture of quilting as “quilting bees” in which ladies gathered, gossiped, and used their genteel skills to create colorful quilts. Folk art aficionados and museums have elevated quilts made for everyday use into works of art and the market for vintage quilts has gone through the roof in recent decades.

Quilts are works of art but lost on many are the practical utilitarian reasons for quilts to exist in the first place. As beautiful and artful as quilts may be, they were used to keep us warm and most of the people – mostly women – who created them were creating them as part of their job to feed and clothe and look to the comfort of their families. As beautiful as many quilts are and as much pride as is shown in the careful and intricate construction of quilts, their exhibition and appeal to collectors was far from the motivation for the quilter. More likely the motivation was along the lines of Will it keep the family warm at night? and Will it hold up? and Will I be embarrassed for the neighbor ladies to see it hanging on my clothesline?

As a child, I was fascinated with the quilts that would come out of the chiffarobes and cedar chests and closets when the nights started to become cool in the fall. The intricate patterns and pieces of fabric told a tale of the maker and her family. As I became older, my mother would occasionally offer me quilts that she had from her or Dad’s families. I have never turned down the gift of a quilt and now have a small but precious collection.

I am always curious about the provenance of the family quilts I receive but, because of the nature of the pieces and their creation, the information is often sketchy. These quilts, after all, were not made to be passed down as heirlooms. They were made to cover people and beds and serve a purpose. I have quilt tops that never got quilted and at least one quilt attributed to Snow Patton Journey, one of my paternal great-grandmothers.

Most of the quilts I have, however, were made by Eula McCarn Harbison (1909-1995), my maternal grandmother. All but one of Grandmother Harbison’s quilts are traditionally patterned –star and snowflake forms are popular – and delicately and masterfully structured. There is one exception and that quilt is on my bed as I write this and has been on my bed every cold season for years. This exception is one that my mother gave to me with the disclaimer that “your grandmother would be horrified if she thought anybody would see this one.”

I hope Grandmother Harbison is not horrified when I say that this is my favorite quilt and I am proud to show it to others. It is clearly a “crazy quilt,” with unmatched and large pieces of fabric and no patterning. In examining it, my guess is that it was put together very quickly (perhaps in advance of an approaching cold spell?). It is also the heaviest and warmest quilt I have ever encountered. I don’t much like cold weather but one of the few pleasures of “the weather of northern aggression” is knowing that I will be sleeping under this amazing quilt for a while. My mother can’t remember when this quilt was made but I am guessing the 1940s before Mother’s family relocated to Birmingham after World War II. Mother says that’s a good guess since she doesn’t recall Grandmother quilting after the move to Birmingham.


As an artist and as a lover of art, my tastes often run toward the modernist and minimalist and Grandmother Harbison’s quilt fits in both categories in its abstract and random collection of fabrics and in its asymmetrical and challenging composition. There is a large square of solid olive fabric placed near one of the corners that always reminds me of the blocks of color or text found in some Asian prints. This would not have been something my grandmother necessarily knew about but the artistic impulse and prescience intrigues me. Grandmother always said that every room should have a touch of red somewhere and I always thought Well, she and Diana Vreeland have that in common! 

One of Grandmother’s “nicer” more traditional quilts lives on the foot of the bed in my guest room but it’s the thick and crazy one that will cover me tonight and for many nights to come.


(All quilts shown are by Eula McCarn Harbison.)




Christenberry: Bearing Witness

IMG_0838  I have had a couple of opportunities to hear artist William Christenberry speak and on each occasion he recounted how his mother worried that, based on his work, people would think that Alabama was just some “rusted out, worn down, bullet-ridden place.”

Christenberry’s work focuses on memories of a fading South and his photographs capture buildings and landscapes in decay. He often photographs the same places year after year and documents how places evolve or disappear or ultimately break down completely.

One such sequence, the “Palmist Building” series begun in 1961, is among Christenberry’s iconic images. The earliest photographs of the building show an abandoned and dilapidated wooden structure. A sign advertising a palmist has been placed upside down in a broken window as protection from the weather. Subsequent images over years show the progression of the building’s decay amidst growing vegetation. In the later images, the building is completely gone, and trees, vegetation, wire fencing, and a utility pole stand beside a lonely road. Similar photographic series include “Church, Sprott, Alabama,” “Green Warehouse,” and “Coleman Café.”

I have never shared Mrs. Christenberry’s concern about her son’s work, but she addresses a basic misunderstanding of the South by people who don’t really know the place. By capturing fade and decay, Christenberry is preserving images of a South that is disappearing … has largely disappeared. His predilection for finding and recording old buildings, abandoned places, overgrown landscapes – a predilection I share and which makes Christenberry’s work special to me – is driven by a need to bear witness rather than by nostalgia. Christenberry focuses on rural landscapes but the impulse seems to me to be the same as my attraction to rust and industrial decay found in urban environments. Some misinterpret these images as representations of what the South is today but Christenberry captures and honors them as a rapidly disappearing landscape.

William Christenberry was born in 1936 in Tuscaloosa and left Alabama in 1961 to live and work in New York, Memphis, and finally Washington, D.C. where he has lived and taught at the Corcoran since 1968. Still, his preferred landscape for his art focuses on the environs of Alabama’s “Black Belt,” an area of rich black soil that cuts through the center of the state, where both sets of his grandparents resided. Hale County, “ground zero” for Christenberry’s art, was also the location for James Agee and Walker Evans’s iconic Depression-era book, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, a hypnotic and microscopic examination of the lives of three Alabama tenant farm families.

Occasionally, as I drive around the Black Belt in west Alabama, I will accidentally stumble across a place that Christenberry has photographed. I am startled at the discovery, stunned at the recognition, and often feel like I have witnessed some elusive ancient treasure.

Christenberry’s art encompasses painting and drawing, sculpture, and assemblage but he is primarily known for his photography. It was photographer Walker Evans himself who became a sort of mentor to Christenberry when they met in New York in the early 1960s after Christenberry finished his M.F.A. at Alabama. Evans steered Christenberry along the path of a concentration on photography after viewing snapshots Christenberry had made with a cheap Brownie camera as studies for expressionist paintings.

Often, in his sculptures, Christenberry takes the same buildings he has photographed and does three-dimensional reproductions of them, often resting on an authentic bed of Alabama red clay in a shallow box. Over time, these more realistic depictions have given way to solid white “dream buildings” and ghostly structures drawn from memory and iconographic imagery – ladders, gourds, signs, structures on stilts. Christenberry’s evocative art never tells the viewer what to think; he presents it and allows one to ponder and meditate on it, to explore the implications.

There are many books of Christenberry’s art available. These would be of interest to the uninitiated as well as those who already know the artist’s work. A couple of my favorites are Trudy Wilner Stack’s Christenberry Reconstruction: The Art of William Christenberry (1996) and William Christenberry (2006) with thoughtful essays by Walter Hopps, Andy Grundberg, and Howard N. Fox.

My articles about William Christenberry and Walker Evans with several multimedia links may be found at http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org.

Community and Kentuck

IMG_0775   I never know what will catch my eye at the Kentuck Festival of the Arts in Northport, Alabama, right across the Black Warrior River from Tuscaloosa. It is always held on the third weekend in October (www.kentuck.org).

This weekend, October 18-19, was the 41st running of the Kentuck Festival. I began attending when the Festival was in its toddler stage, around #2 or #3. I’m not sure which one because, like turnip greens, Kentuck now seems ubiquitous in my life. Journalist and Columbia University professor Claudia Dreifus writes that Alabama is a “hotspot” for visual and musical art and that “Kentuck is an incubator, a nursery, a home.”

The festival started on a small local scale in 1971 and has grown in size and reputation ever since, frequently and nationally being touted as among the finest of its kind. Folk, self-taught, and visionary artists have always been the backbone of the Kentuck Festival but it includes a diverse and impressive array of visual artists from the South, throughout the United States, and beyond. The festival takes place in a wooded area of a park not far from Northport’s downtown but the Kentuck organization operates year-round with resident artists, studios, galleries, and workshops spread along Main Street and throughout the city.

Everything builds to the festival. Artists, dealers, patrons, and sightseers converge from all over the country to purchase, mingle, look at art, and meet the artists. Demonstrations, musical performances, storytellers, and food areas round out the sensory overload of the event. I counted more than 250 artist exhibitors in booths spread among towering trees. An added bonus was when I stumbled upon an art installation in an environment adjacent to the Festival grounds. Meredith Randall Knight’s M.F.A. exhibition, “The Marrow of It,” features nebulous concrete abstractions nestled within and interacting with a natural environment just steps from the festival.


The sense of community is palpable and is one of the factors that always brings me back. Kentuck gives me an opportunity to visit with friends – many of whom I only see annually at Kentuck and some of whom I have known since I was an undergraduate at Alabama in the ‘70s. I can check out new directions in their art, find out how the art circuit has been this year, and catch up on the family.

Among those friends I count on seeing are Lou and Daniel Livingston. It’s always good to see Daniel’s bold works in clay, bright and shiny and delicate. Tim Weber, whose work I’ve followed and collected since he was in residence at Kentuck, is constantly creating new forms in his clay work as well as revisiting and fine tuning forms that he has been doing throughout his career. Close by Daniel Livingston’s area are Andrew and Etta McCall and their lovely little church structures and bird houses and free-form baskets.

T.R. Reid keeps creating whimsical and original whirligigs while his partner, Jeanie Holland, displays her colorful mixed media wares one booth over.

Folk pottery legend Jerry Brown has his face jugs on display among the exhibitors and the Miller family from Miller’s Pottery in Brent, Alabama, throws pieces as patrons look on. The Millers have roots going back to the early days of Alabama potteries.

Amos Paul Kennedy, whose letterpress shop used to be based in Alabama locations, has now relocated to Detroit, Michigan, but still sets up a press at Kentuck to produce his array of colorful and clever posters

I have pieces by all of the aforementioned artists in my home and living with their art is made even more special by knowing and interacting with the artists. Most of my pieces were purchased directly from the maker.

Charlie Lucas, the “Tin Man” and a legend in his own right, seems always to be hard at work on new sculptures in the rusting metal enclosure that houses his work at the festival. Steve Shepard’s outspoken and brightly colored paintings, often sprinkled with his unharnessed opinions on politics and other issues, are as entertaining as the animated conversations with the artist himself.

A new Kentuck discovery this year was Clay Bush, who makes amazing bags, wallets, backpacks, satchels, and other designs from repurposed automobile seatbelts. The structure of his designs is flawless and the execution is masterful

My main purchase this year was a copper and steel balanced wind vane by Allan Kress of the Alabama Forge Council. The finely wrought copper feather moves wistfully, dancing delicately with the breeze. I never know what will catch my eye at Kentuck and I never know, until I’m there, what I’ll be bringing home. For one weekend in October, a community of artists in Northport, Alabama, supplies positive and creative energy that will sustain and inspire me in the days to come.