Tag Archives: William Christenberry

The Vine and Olive Colony

Demopolis, Alabama – the “City of the People” – was founded in 1817 at the confluence of the Tombigbee and Black Warrior rivers by French Bonapartist exiles and other French who had fled the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791-1803.

The founding Frenchmen’s original charter was to create a “Vine and Olive Colony,” growing olive trees and grapes for wine-making. They were misinformed that the Canebrake region around what is now Demopolis was suitable for those crops. The vine and olive experiment was short-lived and most of the French settlers moved on to other locations. The few who remained assimilated into the area’s plantation and agricultural economy and Demopolis, despite its shaky beginnings, went on to be a flourishing center of the Black Belt in the nineteenth century.

The story of Alabama’s vine and olive colony of French expatriates had “legs” and was reimagined and enhanced, becoming an integral part of Alabama lore and mythology. The Vine and Olive Colony of Demopolis has been recounted in numerous ways in fiction and was even a climactic plot point of the John Wayne film, The Fighting Kentuckian (1949).

When I first met the artist Julyan Davis (www.julyandavis.com) in the 1980s, he was a recent art school graduate from England who had come to Alabama to learn more about the Vine and Olive colony. He had read about it in books from his novelist father’s library, particularly the fictionalized version found in Carl Carmer’s 1934 “creative non-fiction” novel, Stars Fell on Alabama.

Although Julyan is a painter, he is also a skilled writer whose earliest interest in the Vine and Olive Colony was literary; he travelled to Demopolis with plans to write about it and its unique and romanticized history.

I met Julyan at a New Year’s Eve party in Tuscaloosa that I attended with one of my good friends, Madeleine, whom Julyan later married. Julyan’s travels are far-flung but he more or less settled in the American South over the past three decades and much of his painting focuses on Southern landscapes, overlooked architecture, and abandoned interiors. As a painter, his interests often complement the interests of photographer and Alabama native William Christenberry, whose life-long work in photography, painting, sculpture, and assemblage chronicles a vanishing and overlooked South and southern landscape.

Like Christenberry, Julyan explores the beauty in the decay of the forgotten detritus. He paints proud buildings in disrepair and humble buildings that retain their dignity. He paints cascading Carolina waterfalls in their primitive majesty and Maine seashores in their rustic authenticity.

My favorite of his paintings is an early one that I first saw in a gallery in Birmingham. It is a traffic light at a desolate crossroads somewhere in Hale County, Alabama. I haven’t seen that painting in a long time, but I have it memorized, I think, and it’s always just at the edge of my memory.

Over the years I stayed in touch with Julyan and followed his art and career as he and Madeleine lived in Birmingham, Atlanta, and Highlands and Asheville, North Carolina. The marriage ended but Julyan and I have stayed in tentative contact over time.

Julyan’s literary vent did not ultimately tackle the Vine and Olive Colony but a story-telling sensibility informs his paintings.  Perhaps his most heralded project is his on-going “Appalachian Murder Ballads” series of paintings inspired by Appalachian folksongs of Celtic origin. He takes the ancient texts and places them in modern settings – trailer parks, abandoned factories, river beds and railroad trestles, burning buildings.

A few years ago, Julyan decided to return to his early infatuation with the Vine and Olive Colony of Demopolis and Marengo County, but as a painter, not a writer. He began a series of “Demopolis” paintings focused on the Symbolist character of Madame Raoul, the Marchioness de Sinabaldi. The moody series of “Demopolis” paintings captures the loneliness of a European expatriate transported to a wild and foreign place. My favorite of the series, “Son premier soin,” shows a lone Madame Raoul from behind, wearing an Empire gown and dragging cane through a canebrake. She holds an axe to her side. It is an evocative painting of stoic solitude.

On the occasion of Demopolis’s bicentennial, Julyan Davis took his Demopolis paintings to be displayed in the town that inspires them. Lyon Hall, an 1853 Greek Revival mansion near the center of town, is a mansion that is maintained but not “restored” and was the ideal site for the exhibition of the “Demopolis” series.

Julyan gave a talk about his work and the history of the “Demopolis” paintings on Friday night of the bicentennial event to a packed house in Lyon Hall’s double parlors. The paintings were hung throughout the mansion’s first floor, providing a moody accent to the expansive rooms of the venerable house.

Julyan Davis is a fascinating raconteur with a dry wit who takes pleasure in discussing the impulses that fuel his art. He talked about how bringing these Demopolis paintings to the place that first inspired his Southern sojourn seemed to be a way of bringing his career “full circle.”  He talked about why the Southern landscape entrances him. 

I was only able to be in Demopolis for the opening of the exhibition and for Julyan’s talk but the next day Julyan set up his easel in Lyon Hall and painted in the house while visitors enjoyed the finished paintings and the place itself.

As I left Lyon Hall that evening, I walked the grounds, intrigued by the dependencies that surround the house. The rustic charm of these outbuildings competes with the grandeur of the stately main house, where the sounds of the gathering that had assembled for the art filtered out through a peaceful late-summer dusk.

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More Brief Meditations

100_1587-3  My Christmas cards went in the mail this week. Previous essays have chronicled my long-standing project of photographing old Alabama churches during the month of December for my next year’s Christmas card. I have written about how signing and addressing each card has become a “brief meditation” on the recipient.

2016 was a challenging year for my family and me. Last year at this time Dad was already hospitalized and there was no opportunity to go on photography expeditions. But many of my friends have begun to expect my annual Christmas card and I feel a responsibility to complete the task. The process of choosing the annual design, verse, and photo has become a welcome annual ritual that I use as an escape from day to day pressures.

Since I didn’t take any church photographs in December 2015, I went back through my files to look at previous photographs of churches that I haven’t used. I kept returning to a 2007 image of Havana Methodist Church, an 1870 structure visible on Highway 69 in the small Black Belt community of Havana between Moundville and Greensboro.

The Havana church was a frequent subject of artist William Christenberry, whose long career was centered on photographs, paintings, sculptures, and assemblages inspired by the Black Belt, especially Hale County where Christenberry’s grandparents lived. Christenberry visited and photographed his humble architectural and landscape subjects year after year, photographing their decline and bringing fame to a green barn, a Sprott church, and a Palmist sign hanging upside down in the broken window of an abandoned store, among other iconic images. When I photographed the church in 2007 I visited the family plots of Christenberry’s ancestors buried in the small churchyard cemetery. 100_1589

Christenberry always photographed full images of the Havana church so I decided to use a detail of the church’s handsome roof as the main image on the front of my card and put a thumbnail of the full church on the back. The church’s elegant simplicity inspired me to use a verse from Joseph Brackett’s “Simple Gifts,” a Shaker dance song, as the inside message for the card. The “Simple Gifts” tune is probably best known from composer Aaron Copland’s orchestral adaptation of it for “Appalachian Spring,” the score he first composed for a Martha Graham dance.

On the back I provided the photograph credit and the note that the photograph was inspired by Christenberry along with a memorial statement for Dad, who passed away in the spring.

Ironically, as I was leaving the post office on the day that I mailed my large batch of cards, I heard the news that William Christenberry died at age 80 on November 28. That news about one of my favorite artists and fellow University of Alabama MFAs (who received his three decades before I received mine) made a bittersweet holiday season even more so.

Even bittersweet, I still look forward to a bright and pleasant holiday season full of comfort and joy and I still have a fervent hope for a better and more restful year to come.

Happy Holidays. 100_1587

Let Us Now Praise Greensboro, Alabama … (and Randall Curb)

100_3060  Greensboro, Alabama, is about 45 minutes due south of Tuscaloosa in the area referred to as Alabama’s “Black Belt.” The designation “Black Belt” originally referred to the region’s rich dark topsoil but the population of the area is mostly African-American and the designation is so frequently misconstrued to refer to the area’s demographic that “Black Belt” now has different meanings for different people. I stick with the traditional meaning (and frankly find the subsequent meanings to be borderline offensive).

Greensboro is the county seat of Hale County with a population of about 2500. It was a thriving town prior to the Civil War but now the Black Belt is among the economically poorest areas in the United States. Even though the area is poor economically, it is culturally and historically rich and abundant.

Greensboro is off the beaten path but through the years pilgrims of all sorts have come to follow the origins of James Agee and Walker Evans’s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee’s epic examination of three sharecropper families in the Black Belt with Evans’s now-iconic photographs. It was on Greensboro’s courthouse square that Agee first met the sharecroppers who lived in nearby Mills Hill and would become the book’s foci. 100_3058

The text which became the book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men originated as Agee’s commission for an article for Fortune magazine on Southern sharecroppers under the New Deal. Agee brought Evans onto the project to provide the photographs. The resulting essay was more ambitious and sprawling than Fortune could deal with and the magazine never published Agee’s piece. When Agee expanded the article into a book that was published in 1941 the tome famously sold a scant 600 copies.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men was rediscovered in the 1960s and has developed followings among each generation ever since. It still serves as a totem and inspiration for writers and a searing portrait of the lives of people who might be forgotten.

Greensboro appears in the book as “Centerboro.” The famous photographs by Evans of the families and the town are enduring images of 20th Century American photography. Greensboro is a quaint town, full of patina and charm. Writers, artists, photographers, architects, and various and sundry “do-gooders” and others show up there to wander around the area or put down stakes. The town’s Main Street looks much like it looked when Evans photographed it; the town wasn’t prosperous enough to deface or demolish the buildings. Houses along Main Street and Tuscaloosa Street stay essentially the same although many of the owners no longer have the means to keep them as pristine and polished as they once were.

The Greensboro area and Hale County are places that are central to the oeuvre of contemporary photographer William Christenberry. Contemporary painter Julyan Davis has used the town and its environs as subject matter over the years. Auburn University’s Rural Studio, conceived by architect Samuel (“Sambo”) Mockbee to provide innovative affordable housing for people who need it, is headquartered in Newbern near Greensboro. Pie Lab, which was envisioned as a place where locals and others might come together to have a piece of pie, a cup of coffee, and discuss solutions to the area’s challenges, is located on Main Street, as is a shop where bicycles are crafted from bamboo. 100_2281

I have traveled to Greensboro all of my life and have had friends there for decades. Many old houses in Greensboro still have names like Glencairn and Magnolia Grove. I have fond memories of traveling from Tuscaloosa to a summer lawn party on the grounds of Glencairn where most of the rambling guests were wearing summer whites and a croquet game was taking place on a flat area of lawn. Costume designer Walter Brown McCord would entertain with lubricated dinner parties at the Queen Anne-style home of his parents, “The Colonel” and Octavia McCord, on Main Street. Walter Brown’s dinners always included his signature Eggs Benedict somewhere on the menu.

100_3073Greensboro holds mostly good memories for me as a visitor. I occasionally have students from Greensboro in my classes. A few years ago when I was telling one of my students that her hometown was one of my favorite places to visit she pondered the idea for a moment and said, “You might not feel that way if you grew up there.”

It is no surprise then that novelist and travel writer Paul Theroux traveled to the Black Belt and to Greensboro for his recently published book Deep South, an ambitious excursion into the lesser-traveled parts of the South. He spends time in rural South Carolina and Georgia near the Savannah River nuclear facility, in Alabama’s Black Belt, in Mississippi’s Delta, and in the hills and hollows of the Arkansas Ozarks, among other detours. 100_3087

It is also no surprise that Janet May, proprietor of Blue Shadows Bed and Breakfast in Greensboro, asked Theroux, in apparent exasperation at his incessant questioning, “Do you know our Randall Curb?”

I have known Greensboro’s Randall Curb since my college days in Tuscaloosa in the 1970s. I had been hearing about him before we met. Mutual acquaintances had assured me that I must know the man one of them referred to as “the blind sage of 12th Avenue.” I finally met Randall when these same acquaintances and Randall were leaving an afternoon screening of Alien at the Tide Theatre on “The Strip” as I was arriving for the next screening.

After that meeting and over time I became a regular at Randall’s house on 12th Avenue, spending many pleasant hours in the closest thing I will probably ever find to the enlightened and civilized salon  of Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris. There were always good books to discuss, good programs to watch, good music to appreciate, good magazines to skim, and good and erudite company to be had.

Randall has partial vision and is legally blind but that has not stopped him from being one of the most widely-read and discerning readers I have known. He avidly attends movies and theatre when he has the opportunity and has a keen interest in the visual arts. For years, Randall has made numerous trips to England – especially in the summers when he likes to escape the Alabama heat; I have never encountered a more devoted Anglophile. In my personal collection of postcards there are some beautiful ones from Randall detailing his adventures in London, Oxford, and other far-flung English locales.

We stayed in touch and I have visited regularly since Randall returned to Greensboro and I left Tuscaloosa for good. On most visits, I am treated to food and desserts prepared by Maxie Curb, Randall’s gentle and soft-spoken mother who lives nearby and usually joins us for a time during my visits. She is one of the great Southern home cooks, always astounding with her kitchen skills and culinary insight.

Despite Greensboro’s relative isolation, it seems much of the world comes to Randall’s door. During the years I have known him he has been a friend and correspondent of writers, painters, photographers, and all kinds of other interesting people. He is a particularly perceptive and generous critic and some of his impressive correspondences were started by the subject’s response to things Randall wrote. Throughout our friendship I have been constantly amazed at the people Randall just happens to know. Of the dozens of photographs on display throughout Randall’s house, one of my favorites is the one of a young dapper Randall standing alongside Eudora Welty.

So it seems inevitable that Paul Theroux ended up at Randall’s door and writes about him at length throughout his book and during his travels in Greensboro and the Black Belt. After reading Deep South, I’m convinced that Theroux may think Randall is the only Southern man who reads books and listens to classical music.

It is through Randall that Theroux met the nonagenarian Alabama short story writer Mary Ward Brown. He writes fondly of his time with her and Randall at her home near Marion. As it turns out, she passed away just weeks after their meeting.

Traveling the back roads of Theroux’s ambitious book, it is nice to occasionally run across familiar places and old friends. They bring back memories of past pleasures and a wanderlust to find new roads to explore and to return to Greensboro before too long.100_3150(The photograph above was taken in Newbern, Alabama, of Randall Curb and Maxie Curb.  The other photographs in this essay are taken in Greensboro. All photographs were taken by the author of the essay.)

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.