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.