Symposium in St. Louis

Symposium in St. Louis

Article by  Ann Oppenhimer 

The 16th annual conference of the Folk Art Society of America officially opened October 10, 2003, with a symposium at the St. Louis Art Museum. Approximately 120 people attended the conference, coming from 22 states with the largest contingent from Missouri and the next largest group from Virginia.

John Foster, chairman of the conference and president of ENVISION Folk Art of Missouri, had arranged for 12 museums, galleries and universities to open their institutions to the group. Each place organized special exhibitions for the Folk Art Society’s event, a process that was the result of two year’s planning. At each exhibition, the group was met by either the director of the museum, the exhibition curator, a professor or others knowledgeable of the art on display. Foster was the originator of this innovative plan, which provided memorable and educational visits to each venue. The group viewed five private collections of art — ranging from traditional folk art to contemporary self-taught art, Native American art, Asian art and African art. Quilts, pottery and art furniture were also on view.

John Foster, the first speaker at the symposium, described the work of Ralph N. Lanning, 87, from Republic, Mo., the 2003 recipient of the FASA award of distinction. While showing slides of Lanning’s six-acre property, Foster said that Lanning was one of the few folk art sculptors who both carves in stone and makes cast concrete objects. “His garden is full of fabulous figures of mermaids, dragons, religious scenes, animals, dinosaurs, angels and soldiers,” Foster said. He told of Lanning’s pleasure and excitement when the Missouri Highway Department dumped a truckload of raw limestone on his property. ENVISION Folk Art of Missouri also gave Lanning an award of distinction, which Foster presented.

In the second presentation, Ken Anderson, a founding member of ENVISION and professor of art at University of Missouri-Saint Louis, discussed the discovery of the work of Charlie Logan, which he called one of the most important discoveries in the field of African-American art. Born around 1890, Logan lived in Alton, Ill., and died in 1984. Anderson and his wife met the artist when they saw him on the street in Alton, wearing a “remarkable suit of clothes.” Logan was sewing and clipping threads on his clothing. At the time, Logan was living with a family who provided his meals and a bedroom.

This room was empty except for a bed because Logan dismantled and unraveled everything that came to his room — his socks, his bed sheets, any fabric he could find — and he made this into decorated clothing. “His art was on his body all the time,” Anderson said. Anderson showed slides of Logan’s bow ties, hats, sweaters, jackets — covered with embellishments such as fabrics, threads, applique, a type of embroidery and buttons. Anderson’s art students collected discarded clothing, buttons and small objects, and the artist selected what he could use from this assortment.

“Charlie’s jackets became fatter and thicker and heavier as he added more material,” said Anderson. “He always saw these combinations as an outfit — a hat, bag, coat and walking stick.”

There was more decoration inside each bag, and pockets inside pockets, Anderson explained. He compared Logan’s frequent use of the heart motif to Haitian decorative objects, which incorporate the secret heart shape. Logan used layering, with hidden messages and pictures, similar to the charm-making aspect of Haitian and voodoo art. “No matter how deep you dug, there was always something interesting to see,” Anderson said.

“There was actually a point in time when the thing was finished and then Charlie would give it away,” Anderson said. “I thought at first that he was doing it just to be nice, but really it was because it was finished and done. He would hand it off to someone.”

Anderson explained the use of the Kongo cosmogram from the African diaspora, as Maude Southwell Wahlman and Robert Farris Thompson have noted in their writings. The four moments of life (birth, life, death and rebirth) are depicted as a diamond or a cross within a circle. This motif was used by Logan in his “Diamond Sis Coat” and other bags and jackets. The encoded Kongo cosmogram became a secret symbol over the years, but reappeared in forms such as a garden hose over a cross in a Southern yard display or, for example, in Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s Ferris-wheel images.

Wahlman, another winner of the 2003 Folk Art Society Award of Distinction, writes that Charlie Logan was “a conjurer, a medicine man,” Anderson said. Wahlman said that Logan denied knowing about any African connections. “I taught myself. It doesn’t mean anything,” he said. These scholars feel that this connections are “so far beyond coincidence that it must be planned,” Anderson noted.

Anderson said that Haitian work had a similar blend of Christian iconography with Kongo symbols and a similar use of charms. “Charlie put his money into things that hung from his clothing. It looked like decoration, but it wasn’t. He was carrying his cash on his person,” he said.

When Logan was near death, Anderson asked the caregiver to save the clothing the artist had made, and he bought him a new suit to be buried in. “I had some guilt about not burying him in his own clothing,” Anderson said, but he thought the clothing should all go together to a museum. Beside the jackets and bags, there are five staffs, bow ties, key chains and rings. Wahlman and Anderson were able to arrange for the Philadelphia Museum of Art to take the entire body of work, which is now available for research.

Terry Nowell from Austin, Tex., brought his collection of the work of Burgess Dulaney for an exhibition at Center of Contemporary Art (COCA) in St. Louis. As a preview to FASA’s visit to the gallery to view the exhibition, Nowell spoke at the symposium about his friendship with the artist and his relationship with the works themselves.

Nowell said he had driven a rental truck from Austin to bring Dulaney’s fragile mud sculptures to St. Louis. Nowell said that as a child in Mississippi, he played with mud on the cool river banks, and this memory helped him relate to Dulaney. Later, when he visited a family friend, he saw the sculptures of Dulaney and became fascinated with the artist and his work.

Nowell said that Dulaney lived in the house made of hickory logs that his father had built with his own hands. A hog farmer who lived only 18 miles from Alabama, but who never went there, Dulaney said, “They ain’t got nothing over there I need.”

Itawamba County, Miss., where Dulaney lived, was called “Jug Town” because some of the best clay for making pottery was found there, with 80 to 90 potters active around the turn of the century, Nowell said. They made jugs for cider and other utilitarian uses as well as face jugs. According to Nowell, Dulaney remembered his father trading a 600-pound hog for a pottery churn, and “people came all the way from town just to see that hog,” Dulaney told him.

“Dulaney dug mud from his front yard but never called it clay,” Nowell said. “He sat all day and dug all impurities out and would spit on the pieces. He rubbed the clay with his hands to smooth it.” These sculptures were not baked in a kiln but were left to dry in the sun.

Nowell told of the people who ate clay in the rural South. The medical term is pica or geophagia, a condition sometimes found in pregnant women. This abnormal craving may be caused by a vitamin, iron or other dietary deficiency.

Tuscaloosa-formation clay may have particles of iron oxide in it that cause the clay to darken in some areas of Dulaney’s figures. Dulaney pulled the hair from mules’ tails to use as hair or beards and often added marbles for eyes. He had seen the face vessels made by Mississippi potters and American Indian pieces found in Indian mounds in the South. He loved to make faces out of clay, Nowell said, and would say about a particular face, “He’s alive, and he’s a-looking at you.”

Nowell said people complain that Dulaney’s work is too perishable, and they often asked him to make it more permanent. Nowell said he was asked what would happen if you would put one of Dulaney’s fragile works outside in the yard. “I asked them what would happen if you put a Chagall in your yard,” Nowell said.

“The five-foot-two potter could smile with his eyes, and he was a gentle soul,” Nowell concluded. Nowell is president of a catering business in Austin.

Roseann Weiss, director of education and programming at the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, came to the conference to introduce the attendees to the museum’s inaugural exhibition, A Fiction of Authenticity: Contemporary African Art Abroad. The new, 27,000 square-foot building, which had opened three weeks prior to the conference, was visited by the group later in the day.

Weiss said that the11 artists in the exhibition explored the notion and meaning of what is authentic. These artists from Africa represent only a small segment of the 800 languages and the many countries of this vast continent. These artists are indicative of the ideas and questions that African artists are addressing today in contemporary society, and they created these works specifically for the exhibition. Tumelo Mosaka, from the Brooklyn Museum of Art, served as the co-curator with Shannon Fitzgerald, curator of the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis.

Several white South African artists dealt with the idea of identity, for example Ingrid Mwangi, a performance and video artist, who walked around at the exhibition opening with pigment and spit on her bare chest, an act also seen in her video installation. Another artist, Meschac Gaba, buried ordinary objects around the museum, and one year later, dug them up — an “exploration of contemporary archeology,” according to Weiss.

Kendell Geers’ installation in the St. Louis theater district dealt with the meaning of language. A neon sign made to his specifications varied between the words “slaughter” and “laughter” while the play “The Lion King” was playing in a theater across the street, an ironic comment by the artist.

Algerian artist Zineb Sedira, dealt with the notion of communication in her photographs of her mother, her father, and her own daughter (their American granddaughter). Speaking French, Arabic and English to her parents and daughter, Sedira presents the various groupings in studio-style portraits that record their expressions of joy, pain and dismay. When the daughter asked her parents why they left Algeria, their answers were quite different, even contradictory.

The conference attendees enjoyed a break from folk art while visiting this exhibition of contemporary African art in a modern museum setting. Many said they especially enjoyed the relevance of the symposium speakers to the exhibitions that were seen throughout the weekend. Terry Nowell gave a gallery walk-through of his Burgess Dulaney collection, and folk artist Ralph Lanning was available for personal conversation for several days. After becoming acquainted with Ken Anderson’s scholarship on Charlie Logan, the group was treated to a visit to the Andersons’ home and personal collection.

ANN OPPENHIMER is the Executive Director of the Folk Art Society of America

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