Tag Archives: Birmingham Museum of Art

Blind Faith

String Quilt (detail), Unidentified Maker (c. 1970)

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.

Tree of Life quilt, Mary Ann Rouse Thomas (c. 1875-1880)

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.

“Bust of Ethel (Artist’s Wife); Jimmy Lee Suddeth (1992)

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.

Untitled (Men and Women Seated at Table), Shields Landon “S.L.” Jones (1993)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

“Story of My Life” (detail), Leroy Almon Sr. (1987)

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

various Gourds, Rev. Benjamin Franklin “B.F.” Perkins, c. 1984-1989

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.

“Angel Choir with Director,” Fred Webster (1983-1987)

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

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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)

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

Communion: Haitian Vodou Flags at the Birmingham Museum of Art

 

DSCN0143   The Birmingham Museum of Art has always been my museum. It has been there, across the street from the north end of downtown’s Linn Park, as long as I can remember. It’s the first museum I knew; I still remember my first visit on a Sunday afternoon with Mother, Aunt Polly, and a cousin when I was about 7-years-old. When Dad’s office was downtown, I would occasionally go to work with him and idle away a morning or afternoon in the museum collection. Since then, I have always felt at home there. Even when I lived far away from Birmingham I would try to work a visit to the museum into each trip home.

Beyond my sentimental attachment, the Birmingham Museum of Art is also an excellent museum with an impressive and wide-ranging collection ranging from African, Asian, Native American, and Pre-Columbian Art to American, contemporary, folk, European, and decorative arts. One of my favorite places at the museum is a multi-level sculpture garden where I like to be at any time of the year. I didn’t appreciate how good the Birmingham museum was until I started traveling around the country and visiting other museums. DSCN0136

Most importantly, the Birmingham Museum is a city-owned museum that is still free to the public (except for the occasional special exhibition).

I spent the morning there visiting a current exhibit, “Haitian Vodou Flags from the Cargo Collection.” The small but impressive exhibition is shown in a dark room with lights highlighting the colorful flags and accompanied by video of a Haitian Vodou ceremony. Vodou was a religion established with the Africans’ arrival in Haiti in the 1500s; because Vodou was outlawed by the European colonial powers, it was practiced in secret and evolved to include Catholic saints and symbols along with the loa – Vodou spirits. There are links with American “voodoo” but Haitian Vodou has distinctions which set it apart from the American tradition most identified with New Orleans.

DSCN0122The flags on display are generally colorful square patches bedazzled with beads and sequins. As evidenced in the video, the flags may be hung, flown, or draped over the shoulders and backs of celebrants. Images combine iconography of Christian, African, and Masonic traditions and recognizable types include a Madonna and St. Patrick, snakes writhing at his feet. The textiles are stunning in intricacy, vibrance, and design detail.

I enjoyed the exhibit in its own right but another incentive was to view the legacy of Robert and Helen Cargo. In the late-70s, between undergrad and graduate school, I lived in an apartment taking up half of the ground floor of a two-story white frame house on Tuscaloosa’s Caplewood Drive near the University of Alabama campus. My landlords, Robert and Helen Cargo, lived directly across the street. Dr. Cargo taught French at the University. They were good landlords and I remember when I took the apartment Mrs. Cargo instructed me that I could open and close the blinds in the front windows but not to raise them because that would look “tacky.”

When Hurricane Frederick moved inland from the Gulf and Mobile Bay and dumped a tree on my house, I was at work on the University campus. Mrs. Cargo called me to let me know that my apartment was not damaged but that the tree which had toppled onto my house was the “biggest uprooting I ever saw.” Indeed, the house I lived in was included in a segment on Frederick’s damage that night on the “NBC Nightly News.”

I hope I was a good tenant; I think I was. But once I threw a party at my place on the Saturday night of Labor Day weekend and some of the party-goers got the bright idea to go down the street and t.p. writer Barry Hannah’s front yard. I didn’t hear about the escapade until after the fact; I expected to get an earful about it from Mrs. Cargo first and Barry second but fortunately I never got the reprimand from either source.

Not long after I moved on from the Caplewood house, Robert Cargo Folk Art Gallery opened up on 6th Street in downtown Tuscaloosa. The Cargos were important collectors of folk and outsider art – I had admired some of their pieces on the very few occasions I had been in their house – and the downtown storefront provided a place to share the collection, interact with dealers, and continue acquisitions. The Robert and Helen Cargo African American Quilt Collection was probably the most notable part of the impressive collection.

Robert Cargo died in 2012, preceded by Helen Cargo a few years earlier. A year after Dr. Cargo’s death, their daughter Caroline donated approximately 700 items of the Robert Cargo Folk Art Collection and the quilt collection to the Birmingham Museum of Art. The gift included over 75 Vodou flags the Cargos collected from the makers over the course of several trips to Haiti during the 80s and 90s. Many of those flags are included in the current exhibit.

Over the twenty years the Cargo Folk Art Gallery was open in downtown Tuscaloosa, I had visited and was well aware of the impressive quilt collection and numerous other works of folk and outsider art but the Vodou flags were unknown to me until the museum announced the current exhibition.

The last time I visited with Dr. Cargo at his gallery was in November 2003, the day after the legendary Tuscaloosa dive, the Chukker, closed its doors. Dr. Cargo was making plans to close the Tuscaloosa gallery and ship the collection to Caroline in Philadelphia where the Gallery would continue. I told him that the gallery’s closing would be a loss to Tuscaloosa. “Ahh,” he mused, “I don’t think it will be as momentous as losing the Chukker, but I hope some people might miss us.”

Robert and Helen Cargo were gracious people and passionate collectors. It was good to remember them and commune with their spirits today at my favorite museum amidst some of the objects they collected and loved. DSCN0141

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“Complex Vision” and a Medical Visionary

IMG_1541  After a year of restoration under the artist’s supervision in Florida, Yaakov Agam’s “Complex Vision” is back at home on the University Boulevard façade of the Callahan Eye Hospital in Birmingham. The Israeli artist’s 30’x30’ kinetic mural, commissioned by Dr. Alston Callahan (1911-2005), the ophthalmology pioneer and founder of the Eye Foundation Hospital (www.uabmedicine.org/locations/uab-callahan-eye-hospital) that now bears his name, has been a striking landmark in Birmingham’s sprawling medical center since the 1970s. IMG_1545

My mother has a strong bond with the Eye Foundation and a visceral affection for Agam’s mural. After being misdiagnosed for a problem with her left eye by another doctor in another town, her malignant melanoma was diagnosed by Dr. Callahan at the Eye Foundation in 1986. Immediate surgery led to loss of the eye but the cancer was removed and there has been no recurrence. She is now cancer-free for over twenty-nine years.

The Callahan Eye Hospital and its patients seem to become like family. My mother’s ongoing relationship with the hospital and members of its staff is powerful. She is now the patient of “Dr. Mike” Callahan, Alston Callahan’s son, and maintains friendships with employees whose time with the hospital dates back to her 1986 life-saving and life-changing surgery. IMG_1559

Dr. Callahan seems to have envisioned the Agam sculpture as a gift for his patients. He imagined the patient who arrived at the Eye Foundation with impaired vision being able to leave to appreciate the full color and beauty of the mural. Symbolically, from one perspective the mural is black and white; as one moves past it, it reveals itself in its full array of vivid panels of primary colors and patterns.

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I know that Mother wants to view it each time she visits the hospital and she likes to drive by it whenever she’s downtown. She missed it over the past year and is delighted at its return. The mural was spectacular as it was but the renovation has clarified, brightened, and reinforced its vibrant splendor. IMG_1553

Dr. Alston Callahan’s lasting influence extends far beyond the Eye Foundation Hospital and the many patients he served. He and his wife, Eivor Holst Callahan, left an impressive legacy as philanthropists and art collectors. Much of their extensive Asian art collection was bequeathed to the Birmingham Museum of Art. The museum’s Indian and Southeast Asian gallery,  a meditative room with a window looking across to Linn Park and the skyline beyond, is named the Eivor and Alston Callahan Gallery in their honor. The museum also has an annual Eivor and Alston Callahan Lecture series focusing on Asian art.

In addition to all of that, Dr. Callahan was a seasoned world traveler who went on expeditions to both the North and South Poles. Those adventures, in addition to the Eye Foundation, are commemorated on his gravestone.

The Callahan’s home atop Red Mountain overlooked Birmingham with a direct view across the road to Vulcan, Birmingham’s iconic iron man statue. I once lived in an apartment around the curve from Vulcan and that house and was a fan of the architecture before I ever knew who lived there. The Moshe Safdie-designed house was a modernist vision of dramatic mystery and unexpected angles. It was the kind of house that made one wonder what treasures were to be found inside. It went on the market after Dr. Callahan’s death (his wife preceded him in death in 2002). Unfortunately, the new owners razed the Callahan house and built another more traditional big house in its place. It’s a perfectly fine house, I guess. But now it’s just another big house on the mountain. The Callahan house was one that was destined to live in the memory. IMG_1562

The loss of the Callahan house, however, does not diminish the impressive legacy of Dr. Callahan. That legacy lives on in Birmingham and beyond in the Eye Foundation; the Callahan Eye Hospital; the International Retinal Research Foundation; the art his family collected and shared; the BMA’s Callahan Gallery and Asian lecture series; and the thousands of doctors and patients who are touched directly or indirectly by his influence. Given his impact on my family, Mother’s Day seems to be a perfect time to honor him.

The magnificently restored Agam mural is perhaps the most visible and accessible piece of that legacy. And now it’s back where it belongs. IMG_1557