I went to the Huntsville Museum of Art (www.hsvmuseum.org) for inspiration this week. That is always an iffy proposition since I tend to find the Huntsville Museum cold and sterile. I visited frequently when I first moved to Huntsville but, over the years, I just stopped out of apathy and frustration.
This week I was on a short break from work and I was at home for a few days and I woke up one morning determined to take a mini-vacation. The main incentive for choosing to spend some time at the Huntsville Museum was an exhibit in conjunction with Alabama’s 2019 bicentennial. “Our Shared Heritage: Alabama Artists from the Collection” is a two-part exhibit featuring Huntsville Museum holdings by artists from Alabama or with an Alabama connection.
The first part, which I missed, showcased Alabama artists from 1850 to 1940. The current companion exhibition features Alabama art from 1940 to the present. It’s a nice hit-and-miss exhibit, featuring artists I know and with whom I am familiar. Some of the most significant Alabama artists of the past 75 years are missing, but a number of notable artists are represented. So is the ubiquitous Mr. Nall. Among my personal favorites in the exhibit are a trio of the noble “Celebrated Figure” series by ceramic artist and sculptor Clifton Pearson and four classic photographs by William Christenberry.
As I walked through the bicentennial exhibition, I kept being distracted by the luminescence of oil paintings in a side gallery. It was an exhibit called “Encounters – Jared Small: Southern Moments in Time.” When I was finished with the Alabama exhibit, I ducked into the side gallery to see what that was about (www.davidluskgallery.com/artists/jared.small).
Small is a Memphis-based artist whose work seems to transverse reality with a painterly form of magical realism. At a glance, the paintings seem photorealist, but – upon closer examination – there always seems to be something else going on – color suddenly swooshes across the canvas, ethereal light emanates from an unseen source, flowers float and drip mysteriously.
In one of the narratives that accompanies the exhibit, Small talks about how his flower paintings were inspired by the flowers sent for his father’s funeral. He speaks of observing them closely, of noting the fleeting nature of the flowers that serve as tributes to those who have passed on.
Small’s subjects include portraits, vibrant still lifes, and even more vivid architecture. The architectural paintings were my favorite. In his own way, Small seems to be doing something similar to what Christenberry did – albeit in a different medium. Each artist takes places that are fading into memory and exalts what remains.
This technique is most potent for me in a couple of paintings of shotgun houses in the exhibit. There were other styles of architectural paintings in the show, but the shotgun is a style of Southern vernacular architecture that always speaks to me with its simplicity and functionality of design.
The standard for s shotgun house is three to four rooms lined up one after the other with no hallways. Typically, the front room is the living area, the central rooms are bedrooms, a bathroom is thrown in there somewhere, and the back room is a kitchen. Most agree that the structures were labelled as “shotgun houses” because you could shoot a shotgun through the front door and the shells would go straight through every room of the house, exiting through the back door. There are other etymologies, but that’s the one I prefer.
These old styles of vernacular architecture were used in the South before air conditioning was common and one of the best things about them was their ability to circulate air throughout the space. Having the front and back doors of a shotgun house open creates a natural cooling airflow throughout the residence. The “dogtrot,” one of my other favorite styles of historic domestic architecture, incorporates an open breezeway down the center of the house with rooms opening off either side of the breezeway. My Grandmother Harbison grew up in a dogtrot house in rural Cullman County; by the time I knew that house, at what was always referred to as the “old homeplace,” the dogtrot had been closed in. However, the idea of the dogtrot breezeway was still in effect whenever the front and back doors were open.
Shotguns seem more common to urban areas and dogtrots are often in rural settings. Both – whether urban or rural – were usually lifted a few feet off the ground, which gives the advantage of added airflow beneath the floors. A few years ago, when I was playing around with home designs and toying with the idea of building my own, I settled on a modified dogtrot with a loft on the public side.
The shotgun style is often considered low-income worker housing, and, indeed, many former factory towns and industrial cities had an abundance of the style. Many of those have gone away over time but the charm and practicality of the style seem to be receiving renewed appreciation.
One of my favorite photographs by photographer Nick Gruenberg (www.nickgruenberg.com) is a photo of a row of shotgun houses in Bessemer, a former industrial town a few miles southwest of Birmingham. Each house has been painted a vivid bright rainbow hue; collectively, they create a happy block among the houses of the community.
Shotgun houses are still abundant throughout New Orleans, in an abundance of uses. In the upscale Garden District, the immaculate Seven Sisters houses sit in a pretty row on Coliseum Street. Urban legend has it that the Seven Sisters were built by a father for his seven daughters, but the more prosaic version is that they were built as “spec houses.” Shotgun houses were ideal for urban areas since they were only one-room wide and fit comfortably on a narrow city lot. The “double-barrel shotgun,” even more space-efficient, was two individual shotgun houses that were duplex-joined.
New Orleans’s renowned Brigtsen’s restaurant, Frank and Marna Brigtsen’s Riverbend staple, is housed in a modified shotgun (www.brigtsens.com). Outstanding examples of shotgun houses still serve as residences throughout the French Quarter, Treme, and Marigny neighborhoods.
In my very favorite episode of the HGTV show, “Fixer Upper,” the last remaining shotgun house in Waco was moved to a new lot and turned into a dream home for a young couple. I would move into that house in a minute (except I wouldn’t move to Waco, so there’s that). However, watching that episode on several occasions, I notice that closet or storage space is never shown. That has always struck me as the major flaw in the 19th century shotgun – there never seem to be closets for modern residents.
As I was thinking about this essay, I heard a cut of music called “Sama” by the English ambient/electronic duo ISHQ. The sounds of ISHQ were fluid and dream-like and, since I already had Jared Small’s paintings in mind, seemed the perfect score for his vivid, evocative, and contemplative art.
Go into an art museum – any art museum, even one you don’t particularly like – for inspiration. You never know the unexpected places where it might lead.