Article by Margaret Day Allen
When Arbon Lane died on October 4, 2005, at age 72, his life as an artist was little known, even in his hometown of Reidsville, N.C. However, a one-man exhibition of his paintings and poems at the Hickory Museum of Art in Hickory, N.C., drew large crowds. The retrospective exhibition, A Black Man Speaks: The Paintings and Poetry of Arbon Lane, held from November 2006 to April 2007, included many of his paintings along with some of the poems he had written.
Lane was born in 1932 in Reidsville, a small town in north central North Carolina. He grew up on a farm as one of nine siblings. At age 23, he moved to Atlantic City, N.J. , where he found work at a nursing home. While in New Jersey, he found an old window shade and some buckets of half-used paint in the basement of the building where he lived. Using these materials, he made his first painting, depicting a young girl. He did not paint again until he was 27. After returning home, he tried again, painting religious scenes from the Bible using oil paint on canvas.
At age 47, he quit painting for 15 years so he could build a home and take care of his family. He and his wife raised four sons as well as several grandchildren. Over the years, he held many different jobs, including as a truck driver, a musician, and more. He spent 25 years as a brick mason. Around 1994, when he was in his 60s, he returned to making art.
Most of his paintings were created using house paint on pieces of wood or roofing tin, materials that were readily available and free or inexpensive. He would retreat to a small studio in his house, where he found peace by painting.
During this time, his work was discovered by a few local folk art dealers, including Benny Carter of Mayodan, N.C., and Bill Jones of Roanoke, Va. Jones became Lane’s primary representative, buying most of his output for resale to collectors and a handful of other dealers. Most of Lane’s art depicts his memories. There are scenes of farming, rural family life, musicians and sports, as well as Biblical stories. Some illustrate the discrimination he experienced as a black man, and others depict the imagined lives of his ancestors as slaves. As time progressed, so did his style and techniques.
Many of Lane’s paintings show perspective and use light creatively to highlight important elements. Some of Lane’s paintings feature what he called his “elastic people.” These are people with unusually long arms or legs, which emphasize the action or emotion of the scene. Although the scenes depict a hard life, they show the joy in simple things and the important role of community and family.
Jones said that Lane would occasionally borrow books from the local library and read about the great masters of art. His favorite painter was El Greco. At one time, a local collector offered to pay for Lane to take art classes at a community college. At the first class, the professor asked the students to bring some samples of their work. After seeing Lane’s paintings, the professor told Lane to go home and continue painting in his own style.
One of Lane’s paintings depicts an incident on the artist’s journey as a young man from Atlantic City back to his home in North Carolina. Since he had no money or car, he decided to hitchhike. In Maryland, he was arrested and spent a week in jail. When released, he was told not to be caught on the streets again because it was illegal for Negroes to hitchhike in Maryland. After that, he traveled at night until he was finally given a ride back home. This experience was the inspiration for his painting and poem, “Prison.” The painting shows a black man behind bars who is shrugging, as if to say, “What can I do about it?” When he told this story to friends many years later, he merely said, “That’s the way it was.”
He began writing poems without the thought of sharing them with the larger world. Lane, who left school after the fifth grade, laboriously typed the poems on a typewriter he had found at the dump. These poems were kept in a Bible, and accidentally spilled out when Jones was visiting one day. The folk art dealer was intrigued and challenged Lane to make a painting to accompany each of his poems. He created 21 paintings to illustrate some of his poems.
Some of these reflect on the experience of slavery. One painting is titled “Chaines.” On one side, two white man are leading a group of black men in chains from a slave ship. On the other side, a white prison guard is leading a group of black prisoners. His poem “Chaines,” expresses, in heartbreaking directness, the thoughts he was trying to express in this painting. It reads in part:
Twas in chaines they brought us to America,
twas in chaines we were sold,
twas in chaines they worked us in the broiling hot sun,
twas in chaines they worked us in the freezing cold,
twas in chaines they led us to the whipping post,
twas in chaines they led us away with new scars on our backs,
twas in chaines we knelt down to pray,
twas in chaines, we pray to God above to give peace to our soul,
for the body is chained to the ole plantation until Jesus shall call the roll.”
The poem continues by describing the metaphorical chains of social injustice that continued in Lane’s lifetime:
“In all I do I find their chaines are still on me,
twas chaines that sent us to the back of the bus,
twas chaines that kept us from school,
twas chaines that made us walk in silent disgrace, when we were treated cruel …
Twas chaines that held my daddy down, when he did his very best,
twas chaines that made my mother sad when she didn’t have a decent dress,
twas chaines that caused me to be the last to be hired,
and though invisible they may be, when I’m the first to be fired,
then I know that there are chaines on me,
twas chaines that killed Doctor Martin Luther King,
twas chaines he was trying to break,
twas chaines that made many a heart to quiver and shake,
but your chaines will not break me, try if you must,
for my soul must rest in the hand of God, and this body must turn to dust.”
One poem, titled “Fight On,” gives this advice to younger black men:
“Fight, fight, fight on, don’t let your mind be swayed.
Fight the battle, ye young men, fight in God’s brigade.
Arm yourself with his word, place it in your heart,
and stand ye tall, and face the world and from his word do not part.
Now I tell you young men that you’re in a terrible fight,
and when you have lost the battle today, just fall upon your knees tonight,
and arm yourself for tomorrow, for another battle will come,
and day by day, you will find yourself just barely holding on.”
Jones sold the group of poems and paintings to collector Bob Hart, professor of education and later director of the Office of Information Technology for the College of Education at the University of Georgia in Athens. After retiring in 2002, Hart agreed to serve as the art curator for the College of Education. The first show he assembled consisted of 30 pieces of Lane’s work. It was called “Wisdom through the Ages: The Paintings and Poetry of Arbon Lane.”
Many of the students who viewed the exhibition were moved by the work. One student commented, “After four years at this university, I see pictures and words of myself and my people. Your work is absolutely beautiful. Please continue to share and inform people of the beauty of your life.” Another commented, “Your paintings are like life on canvas.”
Hart recalled Lane this way: “Arbon always had a twinkle in his eye when he would talk to me about his painting. He was always creating, and we are always our happiest when we create. Arbon was a true artist. His art is among the best I have ever seen, regardless of the artist’s reputation or level of training. Arbon paints using bright, vivid colors. His figures step off the canvas, allowing anyone viewing his work to become part of the scene. His uncanny use of lines and perspective always draws the viewer into the scene.”
The American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, included some of Lane’s paintings in its 2009-2010 exhibition, “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Hart later donated the original group of 21 poems and paintings to the Tubman Museum in Macon, Ga., which held an exhibition of the works in 2014.
Tom Ferrell, an attorney who lives in California, was first introduced to Lane’s work by Jones. Ferrell, who grew up in Reidsville, N.C., was immediately attracted by Lane’s art. Ferrell said he at one time had a collection of about 1,200 pieces of folk art, including about 48 paintings by Lane. He said he acquired about half of them when Jones called to say that Lane needed to sell some art to pay for his wife’s funeral. Ferrell still owns about 800 artworks, including about 37 of Lane’s paintings, which may be seen at www.focalart.com.
In a short article for the 2005 issue of Voices, the newsletter of the North Carolina Folk Art Society, Ferrell wrote: “Arbon’s paintings first dazzled me in his basement workroom in March 2002. . . . Arbon’s basement is a dark cavern-like place. The floors are covered with countless cans of paint, sheets and lengths of wood of all sorts, and all the other things he uses. Arbon’s paintings filled every wall and instantly overwhelmed every other impression of the place. Arbon paints big bright stories with real people living moments that drew me into their world immediately.” Ferrell said, “(Lane) was a chronicler of the times of his life. The real beauty in his work is the stories they tell.”
MARGARET DAY ALLEN is the author of the book When the Spirit Speaks: Self-Taught Art of the South and a member of the Folk Art Society of America Advisory Board. She often writes about self-taught art.
As seen in the Folk Art Messenger: