Reading with Carroll Cloar
As a child growing up Gibson Bayou, Arkansas Carroll Cloar loved to read—whether newspapers, the Bible, or Westerns by Zane Gray. He read so much that his mother worried about it, saying “That boy’s goin’ to tax his brain.” But this did not dissuade him; throughout his life, Cloar was a wide and voracious reader. This love of books and literature paid him great dividends—his paintings reflect an extraordinary breadth of knowledge, as well as a sophisticated thought process inspired and cultivated by his avid reading. Cloar consumed a remarkable variety of literature, from popular magazines and newspapers, to scholarly journals and reviews, to masterpieces of American poetry and fiction. Letters and archival materials make clear his interest in literature, as do his studio walls, which are covered with layers of newspapers, magazine pages, and book reviews.
When I first began to work on the exhibition The Crossroads of Memory, I was struck by how many of his paintings seemed to be ready-made for the covers of novels or collections of short stories by authors such as William Faulkner, Katherine Anne Porter, or Carson McCullers. Cloar actually noted that great literature inspired and informed his art. Looking back on his career, he recalled that writers such as William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Thomas Wolfe deeply influenced how to approach his subject matter. As a young man, Cloar even majored in English, and sometimes felt torn between writing and painting. The artist always approached his art in a very literary way—and to my mind at least, he often painted pictures that look like stills from a play or film. It is tempting, especially because Cloar said very little about the meaning of his works, to invent our own stories to go with these evocative paintings or to match them up with works by his favorite authors that might have inspired him. I have actually done this with three works—see below.
Below are a few masterpieces of Southern (one exception), sometimes Gothic, literature—all of which were known to Cloar. For me it is hard to find a favorite among them. These short stories, poems, and novels are not only wonderful in and of themselves, but also give a tantalizing glimpse into the world in which Cloar lived and worked. If you haven’t read any of these before, most of these quick reads (at least to my mind), and are wonderfully evocative, and sometimes disturbing. And if you have read them—though perhaps not since high school—it is time to rediscover and savor them again. Reading these works is a perfect prelude to seeing the exhibition, and gives you a chance to really envelope yourself in Cloar and his world. Following the list are three of my personal picks for pairing Cloar and masterpieces of American literature.
– Dr. Stanton Thomas, Curator of European and Decorative Art at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art.
A Selection of Summer Readings:
Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory (1956)
William Faulkner, A Rose for Emily (1930)
William Faulkner, The Rievers (1962)
Carson McCullers, The Ballad of the Sad Café (1951)
Flannery O’Connor, A Good Man is Hard to Find (1953)
Flannery O’Connor, Everything that Rises Must Converge (1965)
Katherine Anne Porter, The Jilting of Granny Weatherall (1930)
Eudora Welty, Why I live at the P.O. (1941)
Eudora Welty, The Petrified Man (1942)
Thomas Wolfe, Look Homeward, Angel (1929)
Carroll Cloar’s Photography Place and Eudora Welty’s Why I live at the P.O.
Given Cloar’s fascination with early photographs, it was hard not to look at his wonderful reinterpretations of those images without thinking of Eudora Welty’s Why I Live at the P.O. This is particularly true of Photography Place (1977), which shows two couples looking straight back out of the canvas, as if posing for the camera. One can easily imagine Mr. Whitaker from Welty’s story—the man who is among the many sources of friction between Stella-Rondo and her sister. Welty’s opening paragraph beautifully and hilariously sets up the story, which (like Cloar’s paintings) is surprisingly complex.
“I WAS GETTING ALONG FINE with Mama, Papa-Daddy and Uncle Rondo until my sister Stella-Rondo just separated from her husband and came back home again. Mr. Whitaker! Of course I went with Mr. Whitaker first, when he first appeared here in China Grove, taking “Pose Yourself” photos, and Stella-Rondo broke us up. Told him I was one-sided. Bigger on one side than the other, which is a deliberate, calculated falsehood….”
Of course, Cloar’s image as not intended as an illustration of Welty’s work, but it is richly evocative in a similar way. Like the author’s non-stop monologue of family strife and grievances, Cloar’s paintings often consider similar themes, such as the relative nature of truth, tensions between family members, and the both insularity and charm of life in a small Southern town.
Carroll Cloar’s Gibson Bayou Anthology and Edgar Lee Master’s Spoon River Anthology
Rather exceptionally, Cloar based his Gibson Bayou Anthology directly upon a literary work, namely the Spoon River Anthology (1915), a series of poems by Edgar Lee Masters. Cloar was fascinated by the author’s verses which give voice to the ghosts in a graveyard of a fictional Midwestern village. Standing up to speak from their graves on the hill, they tell their stories—revealing secrets, tragedies, desires, and scandals. But instead of small-town innocence, the handful of honest, good souls in the cemetery are outnumbered by murderers, corrupt bankers, drunks, lechers, disillusioned dreamers, bitter wives, and abusive husbands. For instance, one of my favorites is the bitter lines about life and self-awareness spoken by the barrel-maker, Griffy the Cooper:
THE cooper should know about tubs.
But I learned about life as well,
And you who loiter around these graves
Think you know life.
You think your eye sweeps about a wide horizon, perhaps,
In truth you are only looking around the interior of your tub.
You cannot lift yourself to its rim
And see the outer world of things,
And at the same time see yourself.
You are submerged in the tub of yourself–
Taboos and rules and appearances,
Are the staves of your tub.
Break them and dispel the witchcraft
Of thinking your tub is life
And that you know life.
Edgar Lee Masters, 1915
Instead of creating a fictional town cemetery like Masters did, Cloar used the burial ground adjacent the Gibson Bayou Church as the basis for his work. This is located to the north of Earle, Arkansas and near the Cloar family farm. He and his mother actually attended church there, and many of the people buried in the cemetery were family friends. Cloar’s painting, like the poem, is filled with ghosts. He accents the supernatural quality of the work by allowing patches of the colored ground layer to bleed through the surface. As a result, the cemetery is filled with not only the ghosts and their tombstones, but strange, illogical patches of color.
Carroll Cloar’s Angel in a Field and Thomas Wolfe’s, Look Homeward, Angel
I cannot look at Cloar’s Angel in a Field (or his Angel in a Thorn Patch, 1955) without thinking of Thomas Wolfe’s masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel. The monument upon which Cloar based his painting still stands adjacent to Highway 149, just North of Earle, Arkansas. A stone angel, set atop a brambly mound of earth, probably reminded Cloar of a similar statue described by Wolfe in his sweeping novel. The monument is utterly magical, particularly at dusk when it is illuminated by the setting sun.
Wolfe was also a Southerner and his book, which was his first novel, echoes Cloar’s departure from rural Arkansas to travel the world as a young man. Its author stated that Look Homeward, Angel, was “a book made out of my life.” This again draws parallels to Cloar’s paintings, which are often based upon his own experiences as a child. Likewise, it is also impossible for me to read Cloar’s words about returning to his hometown years later, and not think of Wolfe’s brilliant prologue to Look Homeward, Angel.
“There is a joy, and a sadness in coming back. There is a joy in the sense of belonging, of possessing and being possessed by the land where you were born. There is the mixed emotion of remembering; places altered, people long passed; your father whom you promised yourself you would measure against the oak tree to see which was the biggest, but never did; your mother whose stories were full of panthers….”
Carroll Cloar, 1955
. “. . . a stone, a leaf, an unfound door; a stone, a leaf, a door. And of all the forgotten faces.
Naked and alone we came into exile. In her dark womb we did not know our mother’s face; from the prison of her flesh have we come into the unspeakable and incommunicable prison of this earth.
Which of us has known his brother? Which of us has looked into his father’s heart? Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent? Which of us is not forever a stranger and alone?
O waste of lost, in the hot mazes, lost, among bright stars on this weary, unbright cinder, lost! Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door. Where? When?
Thomas Wolfe, 1929