Tag Archives: fine art

“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.


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

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.

Mastery and Marginalia: The Art of Scott Smith

IMG_0734 I bought the first piece of art by Scott Smith that I ever saw. That statement is significant because I look at lots of art; however, I only buy a work of art when I find some connection that makes me long to possess it. I only buy art, in other words, that speaks to me in some way.

Scott Smith’s art speaks to me.

That first work that I acquired is called “Butterfly Wall” (pictured above). Like much of Scott’s art, “Butterfly Wall” combines found objects with prints on paper. A grizzled cracking piece of sturdy 4×4 with four rusty nails congregated near one end anchors the piece. On one side of the 4×4 is a slice of barely rusted tin with ridged edges top and bottom. On the other side of the 4×4 Scott has attached one of his stunning signature prints: in this case the metallic greys and dingy rust red inks blend and interact on paper that gracefully curves (I now know that the curving paper in “Butterfly Wall” is an anomaly in Smith’s work). “Butterfly Wall” has gravity and presence and looks as if it should be very heavy but it is really very light. I am sure he did not intend the print as a trompe l’oeil but everyone who sees “Butterfly Wall” for the first time walks over and touches the graceful curve and is surprised to discover that the print is, well, a print.

I knew Scott before I saw that first piece that I had to buy. I knew that Scott was a master printmaker and a mixed media artist and from our conversations I knew that we shared an affinity for some of the same types of art and artists. As Scott and I became friends I was pleased to learn that he has worked with some of those same artists we both admired.

And now that I have had the opportunity to observe much more of Scott’s output first-hand over the past decade I feel that his is a singular vision. Many artists work with found objects; many artists make prints; many artists incorporate assemblage into their work. And Scott Smith has some things in common with many artists. But his vision seems unique to me. I haven’t seen another artist’s work that is quite like this.

Scott is from the rust belt of Ohio and his fascination with industrial detritus is a fascination I share from growing up in Birmingham when it was still an iron and steel center. His concern with relics and castaways from the past never becomes sentimental or nostalgic. He recognizes the beauty in the margins and presents it at face value.

It’s not just the industrial castoffs Scott is drawn to, however. Scott’s art embraces the decay and fading grandeur of rural as well as urban landscapes. This is part of the reason, I suspect, that his output takes on a local and regional flavor regardless of where he happens to find himself. In the years that Scott and his wife, Michelle, have lived in northern Alabama he has rescued castaway barn materials, architectural elements, and other found objects and incorporated them into his work and allowed them to inform and influence his prints. Scott takes the objects at hand, filters them through his sensibility, and makes them of a specific time and place but still transcendent. He’s hard to peg and that is another reason I find his work so appealing.

“Aggressive,” “robust,” “masculine,” and “earthy” are adjectives I have applied to Scott’s work at different times. So I was a little skeptical a few years ago when Scott told me he was going to have a show at a small gallery in the idyllic Florida coastal community of Seaside. I am a somewhat grudging admirer of Seaside, Florida, and would be inclined to describe the town as “pastel,” “refined,” and “precious.” None of those are adjectives I would ever apply to Scott Smith’s work and I wasn’t sure how it would be received there.

I traveled to Florida with Scott, Michelle, and their daughter, Cecilia, for the Seaside gallery opening and was surprised and delighted to find that not only did Scott’s art “play” in that environment, it was embraced by it and embraced it in return. The work took on a whole new and unexpected presence in Seaside. Neither the environment nor the art was compromised. Instead, each responded with a fresh vibrancy and timbre.

That is the true mark of an artist and his art, isn’t it? Doesn’t it start with something personal and specific and of the moment and transform into something universal and transcendent? In Scott Smith’s work, the mastery and the marginalia fuse.

(See more of Scott Smith’s art at http://www.scottsmithfineart.com.)