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
Contemporary award-winning American author of classically-styled works in history, poetry, creative nonfiction, speculative fiction, and journalism.