Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Roger Rice, Katrina Sings the Blues

Quite some time ago – at least 14 years¹ – I was in Tuscaloosa, Alabama to give a reading & my host, Hank Lazer, was rightfully escorting me to the wonders & surprises of a college town as deep in the Old South as one could get, such as a two-unit ice cream “chain” that had one shop in Tuscaloosa, but the other in Havana. At one point, on one of the town’s main commercial streets, we ducked into a store tucked among the shoe repair & hardware merchants & came upon the finest folk art gallery I had ever seen – or have ever seen since.

Robert Cargo had been a French professor at Alabama &, with his wife Helen, a lifelong collector of what we might now call outsider art. There were stacks of regional quilts not in the manner you might find in a midtown gallery on 57th Street in New York, but almost as if you had wandered into a rug shop. There were the sequined hex flags and Santeria art from Haiti. I immediately recognized some paintings by Howard Finster, the backwoods minister who became one of the first true superstars of this genre, participating in the Venice Biennale in 1984 & designing the cover for the 1985 Talking Heads album Little Creatures. There were paintings by dozens of other artists as well, most of whom were new to me. Having retired from teaching, Cargo was now able to indulge this passion full time. He took Hank & I around & gave us the cook’s tour of his collection. I was flat out blown away.

When I returned home, I raved to Krishna about how much she would have loved to have seen this gallery. Her own mother was still quilting at the time, and, when I first met her, Krishna had been the director of the arts program at Central City Hospitality House, the closest thing San Francisco has to an active folk art center. But then life got busy, as it will with kids, we settled into our digs in Chester County, PA, and our folk art interests focused on the American Visionary Art Museum on the Baltimore harbor, which I’ve written about here on two previous occasions.

Then in November 2006, the folk artist Mose Tolliver died, an artist whose work I knew & I heard a lovely remembrance of him on All Things Considered. Later that day, or maybe later that week, I went online to see if there were any images of his work on the web. Indeed there were, and the first one I clicked on took me right back to Cargo Folk Art, the fabulous little gallery in Tuscaloosa .

Only it wasn’t in Tuscaloosa any more. It was now just one mile from my house.

There is, of course, a story to that, it being that as Helen’s health had failed, Robert Cargo had to turn more of his attention to care giving, so that his daughter Caroline Cargo took over the directorship of the gallery, moving it up to her home here in Paoli. An added irony, perhaps, might be that Caroline Cargo is that most rare of beings, a citizen of Paoli who once lived, as we did, in Berkeley . Go figure. We had never met in person until last week.

So this past Wednesday, I took the afternoon off work & Krishna & I finally got to visit the Cargo Folk Art gallery together. It’s open by appointment, which has the advantage that every visit is a guided tour of one of the great folk art collections in the United States. How great? Enough to make a donation of 156 African-American quilts, including some from Gee’s Bend, to the International Quilt Study Center at the University of Nebraska. The remainder of the Cargo collection consists of over 1,500 quilts and 400 quilt tops. We didn’t even get to see one percent of that, but it took all afternoon.

And while there was a while on Wednesday when Caroline & Krishna were unfolding quilt after quilt on the living room floor, most of what we saw that afternoon were paintings & sculpture. The first artist we focused on – my old prison movement background coming to the fore – were the paintings and drawings of Roger Rice, who did the watercolor at the top of this note. Rice is serving a life sentence in Mississippi and has, at best, sporadic access to art supplies. His work ranges between prison scenes & visionary portraits that reflect his background as an ordained fundamentalist preacher. One of the few artists in the collection with any sort of formal art training – some high school classes – Rice was already showing and selling his work when he was arrested.

Access to materials was not the issue with artists like Jimmy Lee Sudduth, a painter whose works were often done on boards, which might be gouged or burned for an effect, and who combined common house paints with mud (“earth pigments,” the gallery website calls this). Sudduth, like Tolliver and several of the other artists in the collection, has passed away now. One of those was Joseph Hardin, a man so crippled by arthritis that he was barely able to move – an artist Cargo knew was delivering food to Hardin in the Meals on Wheels program & recognized the quality of the work, putting Cargo in touch with artist.

I recommend exploring the gallery web site to get some sense of this great place. And, if you have any serious interest in folk art or in collecting, I really recommend calling and setting up an appointment to see it all firsthand. It’s one of the treasures not just of Chester County, but of the entire Philadelphia region.

My own interest in folk art is that the work of untrained artists often strike me as being much closer to what I’m doing in my poetry than the excessively processed works of the MFA mills. The perpetual construction that was Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers, for example, is exactly what I think I’m doing with my own life poem that keeps on adding sections in all directions. The use of found materials, whether the bottle caps embedded in the Towers or the use of mud or the decision to work on board or, in one case, paper bags treated as canvases – not unlike the way the Gee’s Bend quilters recycle old blue jeans into their quilts – makes perfect intuitive sense to me. Of course one’s art should be continuous with life as we find it. And when it works, as with a painting done on an old tree truck, there’s a magic I can’t quite articulate. So I have to just sit down & look & be dazzled & amazed.


¹ My version of carbon dating: as we crossed the University of Alabama campus, we encountered George Starbuck, whom I’d met briefly at San Francisco State in the 1960s & for whose work I’ve always had a distinct fondness. Hank mentioned my reading, which I believe was the following night, and George apologized, saying that, at his age, he didn’t get out to readings much any more. My memory is that this occurred maybe two years before Starbuck passed away in 1996 at the age of 65, meaning that he would have been one year older than I am now.