Photo by Laura Ellis
Although we may have featured 100 Southern artists in our Visual South cover story, there are so many other creative minds working in the region that we could publish art-centered issues till the end of our days and still not cover them all. Clyde Broadway is just one of a plethora of Southern artists whose work we love. The Alabamian artist’s paintings, some of which he says amount to an “Apotheosis of the South,” are jubilant and riddled with historical and pop-culture references—high and low. Isn’t it refreshing when artists have a sense of humor? Broadway’s work is in many private and public collections, including The Ogden Museum of Southern Art. We had the chance to speak with Broadway about everything from Picasso to Pollock to UFOs.
THE OXFORD AMERICAN: We’ve been particularly drawn to a piece of yours titled “Trinity—Elvis and Jesus and Robert E. Lee.” Can you tell us a little bit about how that piece came to be?
CLYDE BROADWAY: The painting came about after I had made some other Elvis paintings based on a supermarket tabloid theme, which I titled “Worries of the Western World,” and this painting was an extension of that direction. I think my interest in the tabloids started around the time of UFO sightings and mysterious cattle mutilations and the appearance of black helicopters in and around Fyffe, in Northeast Alabama, not far from my hometown, and some of these stories appeared in the tabloids. Of course, the tabloids had appropriated the late Elvis as their favorite subject long before the last shovel of dirt was on his grave—and then there was an ever-growing spate of Elvis sightings. For me, the tabloid parallel universe became conflated with real life in a surreal kind of way.
“Trinity—Elvis and Jesus and Robert E. Lee” by Clyde Broadway
Now add to all that my acquaintance with Howard Finster and his Paradise Gardens, and living in Atlanta in the 1980s and ’90s, and political events during that time, and you’ve got enough clues to give you a good idea of how that painting came into being. I do know that once I got the idea of that image, there was never any doubt that I was going to paint it. It just seemed so “right” (to paraphrase a line from a song by the band Alabama, which was from the same general neck of the woods as me and Howard Finster).
Finster used to tell about the time he was painting a bicycle and saw a perfect human face in the white tractor enamel on the end of his finger and how a “warm feelin’ came over [him] kindly like a vision and a voice said ‘Howard, paint sacred art.’”
Now, I’m not saying that happened to me, but it reminds me of that story.
THE OA: The painting certainly contains an interesting combination of subject matter. But do you ever worry that it might be considered offensive?
CB: Nobody has ever told me they were offended by the “Trinity” painting. In fact, several people have asked where they could buy a print of it. It’s appeared in several books and even in the New York Times.
There’s not really anything to be offended about; Elvis Presley and Robert E. Lee both loved Jesus, and the Bible indicates that the feeling was mutual.
“Summer Re-Runs” by Clyde Broadway
THE OA: You mentioned the influence that UFOs and the tabloid press has had on your work. What’s your stance on alien life and UFOs? Have you seen one, or do you believe someone who has?
CB: I once talked with a policeman out at Fyffe, Alabama, who was one of the witnesses to the UFO out there in the late 1980s. He described what he saw, and I believed he was telling the truth. I believed he was sincere. The tabloids tried to make it into something loopy so they could sell tabloids, but there was nothing crazy about this man. He just described this strange, flying object that he and several others had seen but could not identify. He never said it was extraterrestrial. He didn’t know what it was. All the military people denied it was theirs, of course, and people’s imaginations took over from there.
Then again, this developed into a busy tourist attraction on weekend nights when people would crowd the main street to try to get a glimpse of a UFO, as if it scheduled weekly appearances. The population of the town would about triple for a few hours. The peanut man and the cap and T-shirt people appeared to be doing a pretty good business.
Later on, the town developed an annual UFO festival. I don’t know if it [the UFO] ever came back or not, but it wasn’t long after that there began to be a rash of cattle mutilations and occasional sightings of mysterious black helicopters. People were getting nervous, and some were buying guns. You couldn’t blame them; a lot of strange business was going on out there.
THE OA: Do you have any superstitions?
CB: When I was a kid, my mother warned me about never opening an umbrella in the house. She said it was bad luck. One day, I was flirting with danger and popped the big black umbrella open in the dining room. About an hour later, we got a telephone call telling us my aunt in Florida had just died suddenly.
My mother looked at me and said, “See there?“ I felt pretty bad, but there wasn’t anything I could do about it at that point. I don’t think we ever told anyone about that until now. Is there a statute of limitations on this kind of thing?
“Erysichthon in Dixie” by Clyde Broadway
The OA: Who is your greatest artistic influence? Howard Finster?
CB: Howard Finster was definitely not the greatest influence on my art, but I liked him, and I liked his work. Finster was a wonderful character, and I really enjoyed being around him. I would stop by Paradise Gardens to see him sometimes when I drove home to Alabama from Atlanta about once every two or three months. His energy was amazing. His hands were always busy. You could go there nearly any time of the day or night, and he’d be painting on his homemade easel while the television clattered on nearby and two or three grandchildren slept piled up on the sofa behind him. They were there to run errands for Paw-Paw and keep him company. The whole thing was magical. There was a force at work there. He wasn’t just an ordinary guy.
My interest in Finster had more to do with his energy and spirit than with his painting style, which was very direct: Tell the story, get the message out there kind of thing. Of course, his message came from a different view of things than most people have and a very different and original way of expressing it. While he was naturally gifted, he was untaught, and this forced him to innovate at every turn. He turned everything around him into art, and he was constantly turning it out. If there’s something to learn from him, that’s it. Trust yourself and listen to God and keep painting.
I had heard people talking about Howard Finster when I was in graduate school at Georgia State University, but I never paid much attention because none of those people really understood what was going on in his work, what he was really all about. I think it was just that he was getting some publicity and getting famous.
I was mired down with a painting I was working on one time, and my friend, the late Terry Kennedy, the photographer and philosopher, was visiting me in my Atlanta studio and said, “Clyde, you ought to go see Howard Finster; he’s free as a bird!”
For some reason, when he said that it struck me like a rock: “Free as a bird!” There I was with my master’s degree in art, and somewhere there was this old man with a sixth-grade education who was “free as a bird!” I eventually took Terry’s advice and went up to Summerville to see what Finster was all about, and I’m glad I did.
“Neptune & Amphitrite Bringing in Dixie Dawn Near Langston Alabama as Helios Hurls Heavanward in a Wright Model B Flyer” by Clyde Broadway
I don’t know who my greatest influence is. There are a lot of them. Pablo Picasso stands out as one of the most important. Picasso was the greatest giant of the art world of the twentieth century. You could say “art” to anybody in the United States in the twentieth century, and eight times out of ten they’d say “Picasso.” He and Georges Braque invented an entirely new language with Cubism, and he continually invented and evolved throughout his whole life. Always had a lot of beautiful women. I met him one time after he died when he appeared unto me in a dream. He told me some important things. Picasso and Finster were both innovators. They both drew down the lightning and set the world on fire.
Paul Klee is another important influence and one of my favorite artists. Mysterious, spiritual-looking little paintings and drawings, all of them different. He created a language of his own too. He wrote a book about his aesthetics called Pedagogical Sketchbook. I read that when I was at Auburn. I was very much intrigued by his approach to making art. I wrote a paper about him when I was in graduate school. He is still vital.
I like Red Grooms's work, too. I liked it when I first saw it in LIFE magazine because it is cartoony and direct, and there was nothing phony or pretentious about it. And yet, it was real art-world art—pop art. He’s a Southerner too, from Tennessee.
So is Jasper Johns. He’s from Georgia. I saw a big retrospective of his work in the ’70s either at the Modern or the Whitney. I don’t think there is any artist born in the United States after World War II who wasn’t influenced by Jasper Johns and Jackson Pollock and Larry Rivers and [Willem] de Kooning and that whole Abstract Expressionist/Action Painting/New York School of painting. I was more influenced by that when I was a student at Auburn.
Another artist I like is Robert Colescott. I never heard anybody talk about him much, but I like the way he put his figures together to create narrative and tell a story. He was kinda like Thomas Hart Benton, except maybe more like Romare Bearden in the focus of his subject matter, the African-American experience. I liked Bearden’s work, too, for a similar reason. Both of those guys are painting about, telling you about, their world from inside it, illuminating it.
When I was a kid, I learned a lot about drawing from the cartoon strips in the newspapers. Steve Canyon, Terry and the Pirates—both of those were by Milton Caniff; The Phantom by Lee Falk—one of the first mysterious hero characters that wore tights so you could see all his muscles. Little Orphan Annie—Harold Gray could draw the air and make it look creepy.
I use devices and ideas from everywhere in my paintings: Irish-manuscript illuminations from the eighth century (I saw a show of Irish art at the Metropolitan Museum back in the ’70s; it was stunning. I had always liked those things, but seeing them close up was amazing), advertising art, early-twentieth-century American postcards, poetry, song lyrics (particularly Bob Dylan, The Band, Leonard Cohen), the way images and ideas can be put together so beautifully or create a whole new thing or atmosphere, Baroque architecture and painting, the color science of Isaac Newton and Michel Eugene Chevreul, movies, readings in American history (especially the War Between the States and our own contemporary daily news reports). The list is endless, and I am being influenced every day I live.