Stripping the South of Sentimentality
There’s a Southern art exhibit opening in Charleston SC next Thursday, but don’t expect the two featured artists to drop blessed hearts or gardens and guns into their art speak. In fact, don’t expect art speak at all. Both painter Tom Nakashima and photographer Gary Geboy would rather discuss just about anything than how you should interpret their work.
It’s not that they’re shy about it. Nakashima exhibits internationally and has work at the Smithsonian and The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. Geboy’s work has shown from London and Barcelona to the CD cover of a Czech Republic country band.
“If I could put what it means in words,” Nakashima says, “I’d try poetry instead of painting.”
Actually, poetic might be the best way to describe both artists’ work. Geboy’s wet plate collodion and platinum palladium photographs are haiku: formal in their sparseness. The complexity and nuance in each work on handmade Japanese paper is evident only up personal and close – in the textures he creates as backdrops, the elegance of the shapes and the nuance of the tones.
Nakashima is more free verse: an Allen Ginsberg howl of color, collage and rhythm. He sees what ordinary people see when we pass a pile of up-dug trees, even hops out of his car and takes photos of them. But then he paints layer upon layer of interpretation, repetition and abstraction until the image is reborn as something only he could see.
Geboy and Nakashima will meet each other for the first time on February 12th, the opening night of their joint show “Organic Legacies.” Geboy lives in Beaufort, SC and Nakashima is the William S. Morris Eminent Scholar in Arts at Augusta State University. Geboy says his work is most influenced by the photographers W. Eugene Smith and Matt Mahurin, where Nakashima returns to Picasso and Matisse for inspiration. They both come from practical, 2nd generation immigrant fathers who couldn’t imagine their sons becoming professional artists and both have spent more years in Washington D.C. than the Deep South they now call home.
So why the pairing at the Rebekah Jacob Gallery in Charleston, curated by a Southern art historian who describes her gallery as focusing on contemporary painters, sculptors & photographers from the American South? Because the South is more than Paula Deen, shrimp boat docks and carefully pruned azaleas. It’s also the burning mattress from which sprung Flannery O’Connor, the muddy Mississippi that floated up William Faulkner. In Nakashima and Geboy, she found seekers of that deeper South.
“Neither artist grew up in the South so both Nakashima and Geboy tend, by default, to strip the nostalgia and find treasured, celebratory beauty in the landscape and architecture in an objective way,” Jacob says. “They highlight and preserve the natural beauty that makes the South so unique: abandoned houses, tree piles, foliage. But they do so with intellect and exploratory richness. Artists who don’t have their intellect and artistic skill-sets could never get what they get.”
In the art-buying world that translates into a shared collector base — those who have wide knowledge of art through collecting and global travels yet have some connection to the South. And most likely a sense of humor. Both Nakashima and Geboy have poked fun at what it means to be a “Southern” artist. Geboy uses quirky, dark narratives to accompany images in his decidedly unsentimental “Carry Me Home” collection.
“Some of these things actually happened,” Geboy insists. “The stories have just been changed to protect innocent names.”
And when Nakashima set out to make his first deliberately “Southern” painting, he picked a dilapidated building he imagines the Devil would call home.
“It’s a big hit in Georgia,” Nakashima says. “Smart people like to laugh at themselves.”
All I want for Christmas is good spirits
Say hello to our spirit-of-Christmas tree – Gary’s take on the Gullah spirit tree. As my friends Marlena Smalls and Anita Prather schooled me long ago, the spirit tree keeps “haints” and “plat eyes” away from your house. Why blue bottles? According to an article in the Island Packet “spirits come out at dusk and are beckoned inside by slanting light refracted through the sparkling blue bottles. Once inside, the spirits are trapped. Some say they are vaporized when the bottles are flooded with morning sun. Others say the spirits simply cannot escape the bottle and that you can hear them moaning in agony when the wind blows through the tree branches.”
My good friends who drink the kind of white wine that comes in blue bottles provided the essential components and we constructed our first spirit tree a few years ago from a snag we found in the park (that’s snag, not hag, an important distinction) A storm blew that one down, but did not destroy our sacred bottles (as if we needed proof of the strength of tradition.)
Our collection of bottles has been tucked up out of the wind beside the house for a good many months but this weekend, Gary found another tree floating up to our dock. It was an abandoned Christmas tree from years past, stripped of all needles and with jagged stumps instead of boughs. He dragged it up to our yard and gave it a new home next to our winter fire pit. A few tiny blue Christmas ornaments and a string of little lights and viola – a combination Christmas and Spirit tree. Let the holiday spirit take root!
Wind and Willa
Blustery days put me on edge. The South Carolina Lowcountry isn’t supposed to be wind-whipped but today the seasons are battling it out on the banks of the Beaufort River. The water is the color of Spanish moss flailing from the massive boughs of Live Oaks. I can’t relax, settle into my thoughts, with palm fronds scraping the window. And I’m not sure why.
When I lived here with Byrne, I could always toss these questions into the air between us. There would be wine, on the porch, and maybe a sliver of cake. And stories, always hers, that I scoured for meaning. She was confidant and fortune teller. I could interpret my life through hers.
Now that she’s gone, I unravel truths from books instead. I wrap the ideas of other writers around my shoulders, seeing how the words fit. Like these, from Willa Cather’s “Death Comes for the Archbishop.”
“It was the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape, not to stand out against it,” she wrote. “The Navajo hogans, among the sand and willows, were made of sand and willows. None of the pueblos would at that time admit glass windows into their dwellings. The reflection of the sun on the glazing was to them ugly and un-natural – even dangerous.”
I have tried to change the landscape, living in this house that Byrne and Duncan Miller loved. Hiding behind its windows and walls, I pretend that all I see is permanent and predictable. Something I can draw from, and write about, at will. The wind reminds me I am an intruder.
One of Byrne’s first adopted “children,” a Navajo elder I consider my brother-by-Byrne, if not by birth, wrote a letter to me when he found out I was writing a memoir of my time with her. We were planning a reunion, here in the house he had visited on momentous occasions in Byrne’s life: major dance concerts, anniversaries, memorial services. One line in his letter has confused me, until today.
“At times I want to see the house and the trees again, but did not know ways to them.”
My brother-by-Byrne sees himself as walking through landscapes, not discovering or claiming them. What matters are the memories and feelings they evoke. The path is not one he controls. He is at peace with that. I sit at my desk and wonder when the wind will stop and I can settle into certainty again.
Letters from Byrne’s past
One of my favorite parts of writing the memoir about my relationship with Byrne Miller is what I call, in quotes, “doing the research.” That term sounds so boring, like a job. But in reality it’s hearing from people who read this blog and combing through her personal papers. I love reading letters people wrote to Byrne, even my own. I sent her postcards from Washington DC and all of my travels and I can hear my 20-something-enthusiasm in the block-print words – big enough for her to see. Byrne kept letters that touched her, so reading them feels like seeing into her heart.
Here’s what I mean. It’s coming up on 21 years since Byrne won the prestigious Elizabeth O’Neil Verner Award – South Carolina’s highest honor for individual contributions to the arts. Mary Whisonant, one of my sisters-by-Byrne, helped organize all the nomination requirements. So there are letters. Dozens of them. All practically demanding that the governor give Byrne this award!
An original member of the BMDT performing group, Annie Griffey, wrote “through her choreographic genius, she was able to transform plumbers, teachers, Marine Corps drill instructors, architects and social workers into dancers.”
Beaufort’s Joan S. Taylor wrote “All this time, when many of us with aesthetic aspirations had simply to struggle to maintain the domestic and economic status quo, Byrne’s presence, sometimes as painful as a thorn in the side, pricking the conscience, has reminded us that life must be exuberance, that life, celebrated in art, in dance, resists the slow sinking toward the inert, and in so doing, creates a livelier, more intense life for us all.”
A dancer from Charleston, Elaine Dickinson-Commins, wrote of “how important is it in these to be given the joy of being in control of one’s body, of loving its moves, of using your whole self to communicate what you think is beautiful, sad, funny, strange, what is inexpressible in words but deeply felt and clearly understood by those who see you dance.”
But my very favorite letters were written by kids. This one was taped to her refrigerator from a little boy named Thomas Damron. He was one of literally thousands of Beaufort County school kids who got to see the Nutcracker in partnership with the Beaufort County Public Schools.
“When we went to Beaufort I thought it was just another play. And then POW (scribbled within a hand drawn red star) I loved it.” I hope Thomas Damron still loves the arts.