If a reporter were to ask how I ended up returning home with the 19th/20th century French painter Paul Cezanne this past weekend after traveling to downtown Savannah for a very different purpose, that would be a more-than-fair question. I actually made the trip to get some quick photos of the Lafayette Square area for a project related to my book, Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind. The encounter with Cezanne, notwithstanding the fact he physically departed the world in 1906, was not one I could have anticipated.
The first big surprise which greeted me was the discovery #COVID19 had not stopped throngs of tourists from visiting during this cooler more hospitable October time of the year. Many of the events for which a lot of people travel to the city this time of year would, after all, be scaled down to one degree or another if not completely canceled by the pandemic. Clearly, however, the city itself was enough for them. I was awed to see so many, some wearing masks, some not, taking photos of the sites and obviously very happy to be out and about in our coronavirus-challenged world.
Something Unusual and Unexpected
The second big surprise came while I stood at Abercorn Street and East Liberty Street Lane taking my own photographs of the majestic Cathedral Basilica of St. John the Baptist. As I clicked away, something to the left started tugging at my attention. I took quick note that, a short distance down the lane, a number of art canvases appeared to be arranged next to an open door. Then I gave in to the urge to investigate further and started walking down the lane.
The closer I got to the canvases, the more I saw how exceptional they were in terms of the subjects, the artist’s technical skill, and applied individual style. The gleaming lustrous medium of choice appeared to be oil. One portrait struck me as reminiscent of the Mona Lisa and another made me think of the classic busts of Greek gods. If somebody’s throwing these away, I thought, they must be crazy because these are absolutely superb. My astonishment was growing stronger when a man casually appeared in the doorway and said hello. It turned out he was the painter of the artworks speaking to me in their own intensified language of visual style and philosophical concerns, and he certainly was not throwing them away.
Being ever mindful of today’s social-distance protocol, even though I was wearing a mask, when he took a few steps out I took a few steps back. The space behind him looked like a small car port or open driveway beneath a carriage house. A couple of trees were visible just past the far end and air flowed freely through the passageway. With the kind of ingenuity for which artists are well-known, it had been outfitted to function as a studio gallery and was filled with more art pieces. Would it be okay, I asked, to take a closer look? “Sure, come on in.”
I stopped at the entrance this time not because of concerns over coronavirus but because of a large captivating image, perched on an easel, fusing elements of figure painting and abstract art. As I stood before it, the thoughts running through my head started diving off my tongue:
“When I look at this,” I said, “I see a combination of Atlas from Greek mythology holding the world on his shoulders and Rodin’s famous ‘The Thinker’ sculpture. Atlas really stands out for me because almost all of us these days feel like we’re carrying the weight of the world on our shoulders since the pandemic has made us more responsible for each other’s well-being than ever before. It’s not something we can be casual about anymore and have to think about all the time.”
“That is Atlas,” he said, “and also Hercules.”
An Atlas/Hercules mash-up. That made sense.
“One day I hope I can make you a respectable offer for this painting.”
After our shared revelations, my eyes wandered from canvas to canvas in which I thought I detected the influence of classic art masters interpreted through the lens of a sensibility which was both modern and something not-modern. There were genuine (as opposed to forced or artificial) reflections of the brushes of Picasso, Francis Bacon, El Greco maybe, and even da Vinci. Isn’t it just like the universe, I thought, to hide a talent of such immense potential beneath a carriage house in a lane in downtown Savannah. Amid the flashing realizations, an 18x24 portrait painted and etched on wood, and hanging near the end of the wall, caught my eye.
“This one reminds me of a friend I used to have but who’s passed now.”
Looking at it actually made me think of several artist friends who are now deceased. It also reminded me of Walt Whitman. I was only a little surprised when he told me it was the French painter Paul Cezanne. The eyes on the painting seemed to be carefully reading my thoughts. Those parts of the portrait where scratches revealed deeper layers of the wood looked to me like stories from my life, or more likely from Cezanne’s, written in hieroglyphics. Or in coded algorithms.
The entire collection emanated such a powerful sense of human beauty intertwined with cosmic collisions that it might serve as an appropriate illustration of this passage from Andre Malraux’s overlooked survey of classic art, The Metamorphosis of the Gods: “…It is the relationship between the tidal rhythms of human life and a power that governs or transcends it that gives these forms their driving force and accent."
The Painter @YoungPablo1881
Having stayed downtown longer than intended and also feeling I had taken up too much of the artist’s time, I thanked him for indulging me, told him my name, and gave him one of my cards. He in turn told me his name is Rocky and gave me a sheet of paper with an abstract sketch on it. At the bottom of the paper was his Instagram handle: @YoungPablo1881. Beneath this was the name he’d just told me paired with another I could not quite make out: Rocky B________.
I turned to leave and was halfway toward the cars and pedestrians still flowing up and down Abercorn Street on this late Saturday afternoon when, again, I turned around. Would it be okay, I asked the artist known as Rocky, if I took a couple of photographs of him standing among his paintings. While snapping away, I explained that I might use them with a blog or article. He thought that would be great and put up with me taking more than the couple of shots for which I had asked.
Although I had been mesmerized by the painting of Atlas/Hercules shouldering the agony of beauty’s battle against chaos in the world, it was, to my astonishment, the amazing portrait of Paul Cezanne tucked under my arm as I made my way through the glow of early twilight. I called a friend and asked if she felt up to a short social-distance visit so I could show her something fantastic. She said yes.
author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah
and Greeting Flannery O’Connor at the Back Door of My Mind
Receiving feedback about content published on a cultural arts website like Bright Skylark Literary Productions is always a good thing so I appreciate visitors who have expressed disappointment over the lack of posts usually presented every February in celebration of Black History Month (officially ordained by the U.S. Government as African-American History Month). Sometimes we find ourselves too engaged in living the unfolding history of the present moment to address the exemplary achievements of the past. At least that’s how it has been with me lately.
As indicated in the previous post I am currently scheduled to give a lecture at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home in May. Presenting a lecture on such an iconic author, even when preparing to publish a book in conjunction with the same, is not something which can be done (not by me anyway) haphazardly. It has required extensive focus and tapping a few reserves of stored energy. Which is why I’m grateful that while I was concentrating on O’Connor’s work, folks at the WW Law Community Center Branch Library in Savannah, Georgia, were featuring a display of my book Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah along with a poster for it in honor of Black History Month. An administrator asked if I would be willing to take a few photos at the library. I agreed.
A Literary Photo-Op
To accomplish our shared mission, I went to the library (where I have conducted research many times) and took with me about a dozen books which I had either written, co-written, edited, or contributed to, plus just as many literary magazines containing writings by me. I had never assembled my various publications for photographing so was kind of stunned by the variety and quantity, from the slender first paperback edition of I Made My Boy Out of Poetry and early volumes of the Savannah Literary Journal, to shiny hardback copies of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, ELEMENTAL The Power of Illuminated Love, and the Civil War Savannah Book Series. Included in the creative mix was a 1992 edition of the African American Review and a more recent poster rendition of the book cover for Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Even more amazing was realizing copies of ESSENCE Magazine and numerous other publications––not to mention online articles, essays, and blog posts––were not included in the display. If ever I felt tempted to criticize myself for not having done more (thus far) as an author, there before me was considerable evidence of a substantial effort. So having put it all together, the librarians took a number of photos, some of them showing me with the books and some of the books by themselves. The lighting was not the best for picture-taking but it turned out to be a good way to continue a very special Bright Skylark Black History Month tradition.
© Harlem Renaissance Centennial 2020
From the time when her first short stories and novel were published, O’Connor was identified as a writer with a rare kind of gift. Her specific brand of genius allowed her to adapt powerful religious principles, aesthetic technique, and social observances to create highly original and often shocking literary art which leaned heavily toward the Gothic and grotesque.
She painted with words in the same manner she painted with colors. Stroke by carefully-rendered stroke, she created broken-soul characters who were oddly warped by the jarring impulses of their own scarred personalities, a condition which could make them as misplaced within the confines of their own skin as it could within society.
The Church of Hazel Motes’ Truth
One archetypal example is Hazel Motes, the anti-hero main character in Wise Blood described by Gooch as “a slightly demented saint in the making.” Motes could also be described as a prototype for any number of O’Connor’s characters driven by pain and confusion to rage against their perception of divine, or human, authority over their lives. Hazel Motes is bold enough to propose starting “the Church of truth without Jesus Christ Crucified.” His own ambitiousness and the ambiguities of human mortality inherent in anyone’s life defeat his intentions and ultimately lead to his destruction.
It is not only the daring with which O’Connor wrote such tales as Wise Blood that made her an exceptional writer but an ear for true-to-life dialect and a command of language that enabled her to bend narrative prose into lyrical poetry like this:
“The smokestacks and square tops of buildings made a black uneven wall against the lighter sky and here and there a steeple cut a sharp wedge out of a cloud.” Or the following: “The outline of a skull was plain under his skin and the deep burned eye sockets seemed to lead into the dark tunnel where he had disappeared.”
Such statements, beaded as they were with strong philosophical nuances, would make any writer in any language an exceptional one.
The N-Word Factor
For many African Americans, O’Connor is not an easy read because her fiction is very true to the Southern rural language of her times. That means the word “nigger” tends to flow like breath out of many of her characters’ mouths with such a total disregard for its social, political, or spiritual implications that their use of the word might prompt many a hardcore rapper to reconsider his or her fondness for it.
The degree to which O’Connor herself may have been racist is an issue biographer Brad Gooch does periodically address: “She had returned to settle in a society predicated on segregation and had taken on its charged voices and manners as the setting of her fiction.”
In short, from O’Connor’s perspective as a literary artist, to avoid racially derisive language, and in some cases customs, would have meant dodging an ugly truth rather than confronting it head-on. Moreover, readers should note she was far from being alone in this regard among white and black American writers in the previous century.
NEXT: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (final part 3)
If you missed part 1 of Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor and would like to read it Please Click Here.
Aberjhani is a multi-genre author of history, memoirs, poetry, fiction, and journalism. His most recent book is Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah.
Among the biggest surprises to come my way in 2019 was an invitation to give a talk and sign copies of Dreams of the Immortal City Savannah at the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home in Savannah, Georgia. Health issues prevented me from accepting the initial invitation but I am now slated to give a presentation in May 2020. The plan is to also have available for signing a forthcoming book in which I recount adventures and misadventures involving three iconic writers: O'Connor, James Alan McPherson, and John Berendt.
Any literary biographer will tell you writing a book of meaningful depth on an influential author requires a ton of research involving what other writers have already said about the subject. The following are reflections on another scribe's brilliantly-informed perspective, first published by AXS Entertainment as: "Events, Books, Highlight Flannery O’Connor’s Legacy."
Regarding a Gifted Child
One of the words most frequently used to describe Flannery O’Connor is “paradoxical.” Exactly why that word is such an appropriate one is demonstrated with informed passion and masterful skill in Brad Gooch’s finely layered biography: Flannery, A Life of Flannery O’Connor.
The fact that the mystery of O’Connor’s life and work continues to draw increasing attention in the twenty-first century is amazing when considering how steeped it is in the language of her times—the very racially-charged South of the mid-1900s–– and when noting her early death from lupus at the age of thirty-nine.
Gooch begins his story by revisiting a moment which would remain a reference point of both humor and symbolism throughout O’Connor’s remarkable life. He takes us to the author’s childhood home in Savannah, just off Lafayette Square, where in 1930 she was visited by a news cameraman “to record her buff Cochin bantam, the chicken she reputedly taught to walk backward.” While a chicken may have been the first bird to enhance her public profile, in her personal essay about the incident, The King of the Birds, O’Connor noted “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks.”
Her childhood penchant for reversing the accepted order of things might be read as nothing more than weird if attributed to another five-year-old. Because it is O’Connor, it may instead be viewed as one early hint of a creative sensibility which in time would create and coax characters into acting out challenging dilemmas of the human condition as she observed it. Biographer Gooch’s narrative is particularly astute when it comes to his evocation of how that sensibility recognized its own value and instinctively preserved itself within “a regulated and meticulously organized world within a world.”
Her tactics included the creation of poems, cartoons, and booklets in which she presented portraits of Edward O’Connor, her adored businessman father, and the resilient Regina Cline O’Connor, her mother. They also included somewhat restrained rebellions against the authority of the nuns, at St. Vincent’s Grammar School for Girls, whose job it was to help shape her character into one reflecting modern Catholic grace and values.
Loss and Suffering
Like nearly all Americans who grew up during the 1930s, Flannery O’Connor’s childhood was marked by the economic ravages of the Great Depression. Her father lost first his real estate business, then a succession of jobs until he was forced to accept a position in Atlanta in 1938 and moved his family to Milledgeville, where in time his daughter would become one of its most famous citizens. Even more notable than the family’s financial up and downs was Edward O’Connor’s death from lupus at the age of forty-five in 1941. His daughter was then fifteen.
Each turn of fate in Flannery O’Connor’s life as recounted by Gooch seems to have reinforced her personality with powerful measures of theological insight, focused creativity, and humor. A couple of years following her father’s death, she noted: “A sense of the dramatic, of the tragic, of the infinite, has descended upon us, filling us with grief, but even above grief, wonder.” Most people stop at the “grief” part and allow themselves to simply wallow in it until ready to move on. The mystery of the “wonder” continuously pushed O’Connor forward.
At the age of twenty-five, in December 1950, she was told she was suffering from a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis, but two years later learned her true condition had been hidden from her. Sally Fitzgerald, one of her closest friends, told her she was suffering from the same disease which had killed her father. By the time she learned her actual condition, she had already distinguished herself as an aspiring writer at the famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop and as one from whom great things were expected at the renowned Yaddo Artists’ Colony. Her status as a professional author rested mostly on a number of short stories published in prestigious literary journals and on her now classic 1952 novel, Wise Blood, published just a month before learning about her medical fate.
Such “devastating knowledge” might have reduced another sensitive soul to a simmering puddle of depression from which they might never have recovered. As Gooch points out:
“She did not know whether she would be allotted the same three years of borrowed time as her father, following his diagnosis, or if indeed ‘the Scientist’ possessed a miracle cure. She had her doubts.
She also had her faith and intellectual passion, both of which helped her to confront the enemy known as lupus. (Gooch’s report on how doctors treated individuals with the disease in the 1950s is particularly interesting in light of the Food and Drug Administration’s 2011 approval of a drug called Benlysta as a treatment option; the authorization marked the first time in fifty-four years a new drug received such an endorsement.)
NEXT: The N-Word Factor: Exploring the Wonder and Enigma of Flannery O'Connor (part 2)
Aberjhani is the author of Dreams of the Immortal City Savanna and co-author of Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance. He is also an accomplished artist & photographer.
For the part 1 introduction to this blog on artwork which has recently become available please check it out right here. Part 2 begins right here right now:
Beauty of the World's Fountains
Fountains are among the most admired ornamental man-made structures because they combine the artistic beauty of refined sculpture with the precision of engineering and architecture. Celebrated examples can be found all over the world, including Savannah, Georgia. One of the city's most famous is the subject of two new Postered Chromatic Poetics images. Below is the accompanying text for the art and although I like both very much, I confess to being particularly pleased by the results achieved with Champagne Twilight:
Sepia Afternoon: Forsyth Park Fountain in Savannah, Georgia (USA)
A solitary figure stops in front the Forsyth Park Fountain to enjoy one of the city of Savannah's most popular and majestic attractions.
Ever since the days following the American Civil War, the fountain has been a favorite location for residents and visitors alike to take photographs. During the war, the park was known as the South Common military encampment where prisoners of war, a hospital, and poor house were maintained.
The fountain's spraying water is dyed green every year in celebration of St. Patrick's Day. In this image, late afternoon sunlight on a hot summer day creates an amber sepia haze that colors the air and water, slightly clarified and enhanced by digital filter.
Champagne Twilight: Forsyth Park Fountain in Savannah, Georgia (USA)
The elegantly-sculpted Forsyth Park Fountain, also referred to as the Versailles Fountain, dates back to the 1850s when model for it was derived from French-styled designs of the period. Along with the Confederate Monument, this is one of the primary centerpieces of Forsyth Park. The present-day fountain is the result of many renovations over the past century and a half, including a complete restoration in 1988.
A robed woman adorns the top of the fountain as water birds and tritons (or mermen) spout water below. In addition to benches that allow passersby to sit and enjoy the view, the fountain is surrounded by moss-covered oaks, palm trees, magnolias, and elms.
Prior to becoming known as Forsyth Park, the location during the Civil War was the South Common military encampment where POWS and a hospital were maintained.
Aberjhani is an American poet, historian, essayist, editor, journalist, social critic, and cautious artist. His many honors include the Choice Academic Title of the Year Award, the Notable Book of the Year Award, Outstanding Journalist, and Poet of the Year. He is currently completing final edits on a work of creative nonfiction about the cultural arts, race relations, immigration, and human trafficking in his hometown of Savannah, Georgia.
Contemporary award-winning author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.