In the beginning I wanted to create for Carroll Cloar a book that would magically do for him what Malcolm Cowley did for William Faulkner: snatch him from the maw of his lasting oblivion. Cloar and Faulkner have many things in common: Both were artists of the hot, bleak Southern countryside, both were little guys and shy (Faulkner was five-six, Cloar was five-nine), both pretended to be or wanted to be simple peasants but were profoundly intellectual, and endured so many years of obscurity that they became immune to it.
Indeed, I planned to sprinkle the magic book liberally with quotations from Faulkner, whose descriptions and language often match, or at least complement, Cloar's paintings, and two friends of mine who are eminent Faulkner scholars as well as Cloar fans, Noel Polk and Tom McHaney, had volunteered to help with this match-up. As any author might be forgiven for indulging, I had an occasional fantasy that my book would open the floodgates to sudden popularity and critical esteem for Cloar, that dozens, even hundreds of other writers would follow me in writing about rum, just as Malcolm Cowley blazed a trail for the more than five thousand books and articles that have since been written about Faulkner.
But the deeper I got into my study of Cloar's work, the more I began to perceive the inescapable differences between the two artists, even apart from the essential fact that one worked in words, the other in paint. On the day when I decided to abandon the Faulknerian approach, by a sequence of fateful accidents—what I've for many years bored my wife and friends by calling a "c.c.," for canny coincidence—I stumbled upon a little-known book,The Ever-Present Past, by Edith Hamilton, that great classicist, who in her very old age encountered Faulkner's work, after Cowley had made him famous, and read it as carefully as she'd ever read Aeschylus or Euripides, and wrote a provocative, almost iconoclastic essay about him, the essence of which was: "Mr. Faulkner's novels are about ugly people in an ugly land. There is no beauty anywhere."
I had never before given much thought to either this crucial aspect of Faulkner's world nor to the signal absence of it from Cloar's: Whatever else may be said of the land and people that Cloar depicts, they are never ugly. He was Arkansas's only notable painter. Cloar's world has to be seen in the light of his life (1913-1993), which was not particularly romantic, just as his art lacks the grand themes of romanticism as Faulkner pedaled them on his parlor organ: courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice. Cloar's art is of another sort of eternal verities: hugging and swarming and floating with endurance and love and truth and dignity.
Cloar's art was the victim of the sweep of Abstract Expressionism that put America at last on the map of international art but eradicated the reputations of dozens of less fashionable, because "realistic," artists. Just as the inimitable Ben Shahn disappeared beneath the rise of so many difficult, modish Moderns, so did such worthy painters as Edwin Dickinson, Philip Evergood, Isabel Bishop, Loren MacIver, George Tooker, Robert Vickrey, Robert Gwathmey...and Carroll Cloar. Earlier, that tidal wave of the New York art scene had swept away the American Regionalists and any art having to do with America's heartland; a bright student recently suggested to me that Andrew Wyeth's ill-favor among critics is not because he's so proficiently naturalistic but because his subjects are mainly rural. Like Wyeth, whose tempera techniques inspired him, Carroll Cloar never depicted anything cosmopolitan.
After years of pondering the canny coincidences that glossed my own life and those of my subject, I was embarrassingly slow in recognizing a true c.c.: my subject's initials themselves. And having realized that, I wondered if Cloar ever reflected upon the significance of their pronunciation: the imperative "See! See!" (just as the great Spanish Surrealist Miró's name suggests looking and seeing). Carroll Cloar had a unique way of seeing, and each one of his canvases seems to be opening our eyes to see and see.
With much help from Cloar's widow, Pat, who opened the archives of his papers and journals to me, I set out to write a straightforward biography of him, but his spirit seemed to usurp the work and I ended up being simply a medium for his autobiography.
When the great undertaking was finished, I discovered that the art book publishers of the New York establishment, kindred spirits of the same establishment who had rejected Cloar for his provincialism, were not ready for a monograph about him. And thus my book, CLOAR: The Autobiography of an American Artist, remains unpublished, except for the following excerpts. -D.H.
When my grandfather Thomas Jefferson Cloar crossed the Mississippi River and first laid eyes on a piece of the Purchase that his namesake had bought from Napoleon fifty years before for about three cents an acre, he was overwhelmed by the forest. It was thick and deep enough for a man to hide himself in, but it would take a lifetime to cut and clear sufficient of it so he could grow his cotton. But he figured by the time he got the forest cut away he wouldn't need to conceal himself any longer.
He was running from his past like most of the fugitive vagabonds who settled the young state of Arkansas. Back on the other side of the Mississippi, in Union City, Tennessee, he had philandered the immature daughter of a justice of the peace, assuming that since she did not protest she was willing, and therefore discovering that he had committed a statutory offense, which made the girl insist that he marry her. The justice couldn't spell my grandfather's name in the indictment, but neither could Grandfather—it had been variously written as Clower, Clore, Cloward, Clowers, Clar, Clear, Cloer, Cloah, and Cloar. Tom Cloar responded to the charges by observing that he hadn't got the girl pregnant and, furthermore, she hadn't been very stimulating. He and his horse, Major, escaped town just ahead of the mob.
The forest in which he buried himself in the bottomlands of Arkansas was a virgin stand of hardwoods of stunning variety: hickory, elm, sweetgum, cottonwood, hackberry, pecan, bald cypress, ash, sycamore, persimmon, and oak. Eventually, I would have to teach myself a pictorial language for representing each of these, but to Tom Cloar they were simply towering trunks that had to be felled.
Some maps still show a place called Cloar, but that settlement would come later, when Tom Cloar would move to higher ground from his first spread, twelve acres of land that would in time become the village of Earle, the largest town in Crittenden County, where I was born. My grandfather cut enough of those trees to erect a log cabin in the middle of the forest and to remove enough of the woodland's canopy to let some light fall on his first plots of cotton and his crop of corn. The only other inhabitants of that jungle were Tom Cloar's meat supply: wild hogs, turkeys, raccoons, opossums, deer, rabbits, and squirrels; he had to compete with the wolves and panthers and wild cats for them.
The county, named for a dashing young Kentuckian, Robert Crittenden, who had helped lead the territory of Arkansas to statehood, was beginning to fill up with settlers, most fugitives like Thomas Jefferson Cloar. None of them found Grandfather's refuge. But he found one of theirs, belonging to a man with an Indian wife and their thirteen-year-old daughter, whose name was Amanda. The girl was younger than but shapelier than the one he'd seduced back in Tennessee. Amanda Martin was wild but she could read and write.
As I wrote in my preface to a 1977 collection called Hostile Butterflies: "Thomas Jefferson Cloar loved her the first time he saw her skinning a rabbit on her back porch and looking him straight in the eye and on through and beyond to some inner self he would just as soon have kept hidden a while longer, but he would not own up to it until he saw her a second time, at a play party. He proposed marriage to her and she said heck yes, she had known he was the one ever since she first saw him, with his red-speckled hair and his sky-colored eyes, and there was no denying the witness of hummingbirds. That is what she said."
Tom Cloar was the only Cloar to get his name into a book before I managed to do it late in life. There was a Tennessee lawyer named John Hallum who later moved to Arkansas, too, and became one of its early historians. One of his books was called The Diary of an Old Lawyer, and mentions his regaling some fellow lawyers at a bar, the drinking kind, with a story of trying to track down in the wilderness of Arkansas a fugitive who owed him some money. On his trip he found a group of fishermen on the banks of the Tyronza River violating the Sabbath with their fishing. He gave them a stern, insolent lecture, and narrowly escaped their wrath, his horse kicking and bruising one man in his flight.
On the return trip, after collecting the money from the fugitive, he was mobbed by the same crowd of Sabbath breakers, who were prepared to do him considerable harm. He noted an older man standing off to one side with a green hickory stick seven feet long. He addressed them:
"Gentlemen, I have somewhat to say to you. Arkansas, whatever else may be said of her people, has the reputation abroad of having fair women and brave men. In my opinion, you are a disgrace and a slander on that reputation—ten men have conspired to mob and whip one. Now I have two propositions to make you, and you may take your choice: First, I will fight all of you, one at a time, with three minutes to rest between fights. "With these conditions, and a fair fight, I can whip this cowardly crowd. The second proposition is one that will suit all of us better: Here is $10, take it, send to Marion, get a demijohn of fine brandy, and let's take a drink and call it square."
But the gentleman with a bruised face said, "No, we will not accept either proposition."
All this time he of the hickory stick had not spoken; but now he said: "Stranger, you have made a fair proposition; hand over that $10 and lend us your horse to send after the brandy; if anyone objects, I will peel this stick over his head."
It is needless to say the $10 was forthcoming, and we parted under the moon the best of friends. Tom Cloah was he of the stick. He was born on the Cumberland river, in the same town where my parents were married, and was at the wedding, but we had never met. Tom was a fine man to act as umpire and arbitrator, and was never in favor of pushing matters to extremes against a man who showed any disposition to do right.
Tom Cloar would have thirteen children. Most of them died in infancy or young. Whooping cough and diphtheria and smallpox competed for the lives of most children in those days. My grandmother Amanda died giving birth to the thirteenth, who was my father, Charles Wesley Cloar. Amanda was buried in a higher ground because of rising waters, and the higher ground became the village of Cloar. When, a dozen years later, Tom came to die of blood poisoning after a cut from a pole axe, he was buried beside her.
When Tom Cloar died, his orphaned son Charles Wesley was only twelve but the boy had his parents' sense of tireless effort, and he stayed on the land, planting cotton, increasing year by year the acres, until he had over 2,500 of them. At the turn of the century, he built near the graveyard where his parents were buried a general-mercantile store with a post office called Cloar. At thirty-three, Charles grew a mustache and at a square dance discovered that a little girl he'd known since she was born, Evvy David, the daughter of the principal fiddler, Carroll David, had grown up into a thing of beauty. Actually, her name was Eva but in the backwoods of the South the a ending so many girls' names is pronounced e so that she was commonly called Evvy. Being fifteen years older than she, and realizing he had much competition from younger, bolder men who were not as burly as he, he had just a little trouble writing her a letter:
Miss Eva David
I know you will be surprised to receive this note but it is almost impossible for me to get to talk to you when I am there. You told me the last time I was there that you thought as much of me as anybody. I will be honest with you, you are my choice of all womankind.
Eva, is it any use for me to come to see you or have you some other choice? If you have that is all right, for that is your privilege and no one else's business. All l ask of you is to be as honest with me as I am with you.
I will likely see you Sunday.
Your true friend
His courtship of her, hampered considerably by all the attentions her beauty was attracting from three other suitors, dragged on for almost two more years before he was able to write this to her:
My Darling Eva
I send this note by Wes. Darling I can hardly stay away from you one day. It seems now that I have not seen you for a week but sweetheart I hope the time is not far off when I can say of a truth that I have gained the girl I love for my wife. When that is done I will be easy, but until then I can't rest. I am afraid every day that I will lose you and Eva I dont see how I could stand to give you up. It would be almost like death to part with you now.
Eva it pains me to see you act so cold and unconcerned towards me. It seems to me you have not the interest nor the care that a lover should have but I may be wrong. Your love for me may be as strong as mine for you. God help it to be so.
Eva dear you appear like you are too timid or bashful to talk to me when I am with you. I want you to write to me an answer to this note and tell me just what you think of me and maybe you can raise the cloud that hangs over me. If you dont have time to answer by Wes, have it ready by Tuesday evening and I will come after it.
So farewell until Tuesday
Your true lover
Charles W. Cloar
If this sounds familiar, commonplace, it is likely because millions of identical notes have been sent by suitors everywhere to the girls they wooed. Probably your father wrote the same words to your mother. But for all the mundane ardor and clumsy rhetoric of those words, they were crucial to the proper propagation of the species: You wouldn't be here if your father hadn't written them. In the beginning was the word, and you and I exist because of it.
The bashful girl read this and decided that she might be able to write something that she was too timid to speak. She took a lined sheet of paper and wrote on it, "I love only you," and signed it "Eva David," and gave it to that messenger Wes and told him to make haste.
Charles W. Cloar and Eva David Cloar begat Thomas Jefferson Cloar, Charles Wesley Cloar, Jr., Rhoda Florence Cloar, John "Jack" Rhodes Cloar, Bessie Marie Cloar—who died of whooping cough—and, finally, myself, James Carroll Cloar, who almost died, but not quite, of whooping cough, too.
My life did not begin when I was born. The eighteenth of January in the thirteenth year of the last century marked merely the day I was forced to start oxygenating my own blood without any help from my mother's lungs and heart. And from that start I did a poor job of it. Every conceivable affliction inimical to mortality seemed to await my feeble efforts to join the mass of thriving humanity. Bed was all I knew of my first years. Surely I walked. But I don't remember it. I do remember watching others walking, and thinking, I am different from them, not only because they are so much bigger than me but also because they possess powers of ambulating which I don't have. Nobody tried to explain to me that I was sick, or to tell me what was wrong with me. How was I to know that those healthy, bigger, walking people also had lungs that were clearer than mine, blood that was purer, bones that were stronger, muscles that were not drugged by paregoric, bowels that were not unsettled by cod liver oil? Worst of all, there was no one to explain to me, even if one of them could, that babies grow. Nobody said to me, Some day you will he just as big as I am, and when you are you might he able to get out of that bed and be well.
My sister Rhoda sometimes held me but I could not distinguish between her and the other female, the one I would later learn to call my mother, the one who dosed me with paregoric and cod liver oil. There was a third female, also, who was strikingly different from Rhoda and the woman who would be called mother. Like the first two, she did not speak to me, and thus I assumed she belonged to their species although she looked so different, rather darker, not dark as the black people are dark but shadowy. Rhoda and "Mother" would approach my bed only to feed me or do something else to me, but this woman never did anything, never said anything. She just came and stood at the foot of the bed, and looked at me. Her eyes were not dark but almost blindingly light, as if they had already seen the whole awful world and could communicate to me what she had seen beyond it.
Again and again, she came and stood at the foot of the bed and gave me those eyes. Sometimes she rested her hand on the bed's footboard, but she never touched me, as Rhoda and "Mother" did. I would be forty-two years old before I could finally bring myself to attempt to paint a picture of her. By then, of course, I had learned the meaning of the word ghost, which originally meant in Old English not necessarily a dead person returned but rather the animus or soul of a person as opposed to the body, and, because the soul is so much more beautiful and fascinating than the body, beholding the soul leaves us aghast, a cousin-word to ghost. I was always deliciously aghast whenever my ghost-lady appeared, and I think the shock of her apparition kept me going and breathing when otherwise I might have languished into departure from what little life I had.
Who was she? Years later, I learned that supposedly most ghosts prefer to haunt houses in which they'd lived. But I could find no information about any woman who had died in that house or had a reason for haunting it. So I was permitted to go on believing, as I had from the beginning, that she was not the ghost of any relative but the ghost of my tutelary or fairy godmother, perhaps.
Because I'd been a sickly child, I turned to books, music, and drawing, unlike my brothers, and, since a sister on either side of me had died, I was left in a lonely age bracket and grew apart from the rest of the family. I often wondered if I had been adopted. Had I been stolen from gypsies? Another of my fantasies was that I had been the surviving child of a beautiful young couple who had been eaten by panthers.
Hasn't everyone had similar suspicions? All of us, at one time or another, feel cut off from our nearest kin.
MY BIG FATHER
Why is My Father Was Big As a Tree the best-known of all my paintings? It was the first picture I painted in 1955, after returning from a homesick year of wandering in Europe, and I had been thinking about the subject for a long time before I painted it. It was the first painting done in what would become my distinctive style: just enough details, mostly flat modeling, a simulated primitive style, that low distant horizon reminiscent of Surrealism, the simple colors. This is the painting that started my plunge back into childhood memories.
Have not all of us viewed our fathers this way? Especially when we are young and vulnerable, even if our fathers are not, as mine was, more than six feet tall and two hundred pounds heavy, and stem, mean, and remote. We are apt to lose all sense of proportion and scale in measuring our little selves against our fathers.
But notice that it is a beautiful tree: an oak in the bud of springtime. Maybe I wasn't just comparing my father's enormous size to that of the tree but also suggesting that even though my father might be almost as big as the tree, he could never be as green and fresh and vernal.
And why is the boy—myself at eight or nine—in his red racer? You could say that the boy seems poised for a getaway, as if the racer will allow him to escape from his father's hugeness and control. But the red racer is most conspicuously a "store-boughten" vehicle; most kids had to make do with racers knocked together out of fruit crates and cast-off wheelbarrow tires, while my father, miser though he was, was generous enough to buy me a good one ready-made. He never told me where he bought it; I suspect he ordered it from Sears and Roebuck, which sold my family most of what we had in the way of comfortable material possessions. The red racer is thus proof of my father's generosity, not his oppressive authority.
Of course, the real reason I am in my racer is the same as the reason my father is in his Sunday suit: both father and son were taken from photographs. Returning home from Europe to throw myself into a whole series of paintings about my growing-up, of which My Father was the first, I gathered up all the photographs I could find of myself and my family and began using them, as I would continue to do for the rest of my life, becoming, even more than my idol Ben Shahn, one of the painters who unashamedly utilized photographs. The poses—especially the front view facing the "camera"—suggest that both I and my father have stepped right out of photographs and have been pasted upon an uncomplicated landscape of my own improvisation.
There is a joy, and a sadness, in coming back from abroad, and in coming back to our childhood from a grown-up perspective. There is a delight 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 biggest, but never did....
A BROWN-EYED GIRL CALLED CHARLIE MAE
She lived on our property, at the back of the pasture, in a shack with her uncle, who was called Dish-eye, and grandmother, Mattie Perry, who worked for my father picking cotton. Aunt Mat was a very plump woman who only lacked a few inches of being as wide as she was tall. She was the only person I ever knew who had to sit in a chair to pick cotton. Dish-eye had a crawfish hand with just a thumb and a little finger, but he could pick a wicked banjo and his voice, when he sang at sundown, could carry to the banks of the Tyronza River. Charlie Mae was a gift to Aunt Mat and Dish-eye from her parents, Fannie Mae and Big Boy Brown, who had a surplus, more than they could feed. She was already seven or eight when she became that gift to Dish-eye, and came into my life.
One Sunday morning, when I woke up with that inexplicably beautiful feeling I always had on Sunday morning until it was time for church, I heard a commotion in the back yard and went back to the pump scaffold, where I discovered a small white puppy chasing our ducks. It was love at first sight. I claimed it and fed it and named it Jiggs.
Mama said I could keep it, and for two days that puppy was as madly in love with me as I was with it. But then this little black girl who lived at the back of our pasture came into our yard and brazenly said, "Dat my puppy dog," and made to take him away from me.
"Hell he is," I said. It may have been the first time I ever swore. But Jiggs was acting like he knew her. He was wagging his tail and trying to lick her arm. She was a very cute girl. But I was scared, truly frightened, that Jiggs might actually belong to her. "He's my dog."
"Aint no he. Dish puppy dog a she-male," the girl insisted.
"Naw he aint, " I countered. "Jiggs is a boy dog."
"You silly as you look, white folks," she said, and grabbed the puppy and thrust its tail-end into my face. She said, "Lookee. Dat aint no boy dog thing, Dat a gal dog slash."
It was the first of several sex-education lessons I was to receive from her. "Well, iffen she liked livin at your house," I told her, "she wouldn't of left. She would've stayed there."
"She jis stray off," she said. "I look everways fa her, and now I fine her I aint gwine back widout her." She grabbed Jiggs and took off for home. I followed her, squealing in protest. She didn't get far. When we got to the grove of persimmon trees behind our place, I spied my brother Jack up in one of those persimmons, sitting on a limb. Jack was not just my older brother but my protector. He saw that this girl was making off with my pooch and he plucked a hard green persimmon from that tree and threw it down at her. It struck her on the top of her head with a solid green sound and she let out a shrill yelp and dropped my puppy and ran for home as fast as she could run.
Even though I've strongly believed that subject matter does matter, and that belief cost me at a time when the art world decided that subject matter doesn't matter, I've tried to avoid "story-telling" pictures. Did I make a mistake with Controversy Under the Persimmon Tree? Yes, as much as I made a mistake expropriating Charlie Mae's puppy in the first place. Because if you don't know the story behind it, it becomes just a meaningless landscape with a black girl, a white boy, and another boy up in a tree who could be either black or white. The first academic person to attempt to write a master's thesis about my work was a young lady at the University of Wisconsin-Madison named Barbara Groseclose, who's now a full professor at Ohio State University. Her 1969 thesis, called "Provincialism in Modern Art: Carroll Cloar, A Southern Painter," did a bang-up good job of analyzing my work, tracing my development, showing my relationship to other painters like Ben Shahn and even my relationship to modern Southern writers like Faulkner and Capote and Warren and Agee. Here's what she wrote about this painting:
This painting, Controversy Under the Persimmon Tree (1967), is enigmatic and obscure in content...a white boy and a black girl stand under a tree, upon a branch of which a white boy squats. The scene is breathtakingly still, the sky a searing blue, and the trees in the background appear devoid of any life. The presentation of barren, fruitless trees coupled with the "controversy" of the tide and the provoking manner in which the boy simply sits unsupported on a skinny limb leads one to suspect a comment upon social problems.
Well, I suppose you could say there was a social problem involved here, but it wasn't a racial one. Jack didn't conk her with that persimmon because she was a black girl but because she was trying to take Jiggsie away from me.
Over the course of my career I would return again and again to Charlie Mae, painting her in a total of about two dozen pictures.
WORDS FOR CHARLIE MAE
My touch was on you, who were light-years gone. But when I found you again, you weren't hunting for your white puppy, who was irrevocably mine now. You were hunting for another animal. "Jis keep yo dumb bitch," you said to me, sticking your tongue out. "I aint studying no missin pooch. I got me a real fine critterboy now so smart he make that dumb bitch of yours not know up from down nor day from night." You held your head defiantly for a moment, then let it droop. "De trouble am, he so smart he know I aint got the right to coop him up and pet him. He stray off too."
"What is he, an elerphunt?" I asked you. "Tell me what he is, and I'll help you hunt for him."
"A billygoat," you said. "White as dis dress." You were wearing a garment that was frayed around the hem but white as the bleached floursacks it was made from. "Name is Edward B. Goat. I calls him Little Eddie." And you called him, you called him. "Oh Little Eddie, where you done got off to?"
I helped you look for him. But you found him yourself, in a corner of our garden, where he had been munching on the produce. Among the many pictures I painted of you was one of the moment of your finding him, when you said, "Aint yo clever?" and threw your arm around his neck.
My mother took a liking to you, my father did not. Whenever you went to Papa's store to buy something, you carried the coins in your mouth and spit them into Papa's hand. "Papa says you are a 'uppity nigger,''' I said to you. "What's that?"
"I a nigger, sho as you a peckerwood," you said. "But I aint uppity. I cah'ies de money in my mouf cause I aint got no pocket to keep it in like you do. And nobody knows to steal it from me if I got it in my mouf."
My mother told my father that you weren't uppity, you were just "saucy." I wasn't sure what that meant either. You were always hanging around our back porch, offering to do things for my mother. "You need any close hung on de line dish mornin?" you'd say. "You need any fresh flowers fa yo table? You need any peas or beans shelled? Any water drawn? Any boogers scairt off?" Those pennies you spat into my father's hand usually came from my mother's coin jar. You told me you sure did admire my mother, but she was always after you to get your soul saved . Aunt Mat and Dish-eye took you to the Colored's Baptist Church, but you didn't think your soul needed saving. You weren't even sure you had a soul. You had asked the goat Little Eddie if he had a soul. You claimed that he had told you he did have one just as you did, but yours couldn't be "saved" any more than his could. I found it hard to believe that your billygoat actually spoke to you, but I would learn, soon enough, how you communicated with all manner of animal.
One of the first times I used you in a painting was 1962, when I did an imitation of a famous nineteenth-century painting, Edward Hicks's Peaceable Kingdom. I wasn't exactly spoofing that painting, although there is something comical in the resemblance. Edward Hicks was a Quaker minister. Your Colored Baptists might've felt right at home among the Quakers, because their churches were bare and plain and they believed that any man, woman, or child should spontaneously speak up or call our whenever they felt the Holy Spirit—or what they called the "Light Within."
Hicks got the idea for this painting from the Book of Isaiah, 11:6-9, where it prophesies that fierce wild critters will dwell in peace with mild tame critters ("the leopard shall lie down with the kid"). That's an idea which reflects what's happening in the background: William Penn, after whom the state of Pennsylvania was named, is making a treaty with the savage Indians: Fierce and tame are going to exist together peacefully.
In the background of my painting, the black boys and the white boys are making a "treaty" to play a game of ball together. It lacks the drama of Penn's treaty. But for that matter, if you'll notice, the animals in my painting are not a mingling of wild predators and tame prey but just ordinary farmyard creatures. And you and I (yes, that cherubic white boy beside you becomes both an infant like those in Hicks's painting and a symbol of myself in young boyhood, even before I met you) are just sitting there together.
That preacher Hicks liked this subject so much that he painted it more than sixty times! He didn't make any money from them; he gave them away to friends and relatives and members of his church. He wasn't a professional artist but earned his living painting signboards—and milk buckets, chairs, wagons, stagecoaches, whatever needed decorating. He's what you called "naïve" or "primitive" which means his paintings are just as understandable as mine, although mine aren't really naïve, they're just simple and direct and unsophisticated.
You seemed to live at our house more than at your own, that humble shanty of Aunt Mat's. The first Christmas I knew you, you knocked on our door, which you had never knocked on before, and when my mother answered it you said, "Chrismus giff." It was a custom among the black folk throughout the South to say to their employers at Christmastime, "Christmas gift!" which was like children at Halloween saying "Trick or Treat!" It invited presents. My mother gave you a big chunk of fruitcake, some hair ribbon, and a red-bound Bible my father had found in a hotel room's drawer on his travels.
Your fondness for wild animals, especially panthers, even if they were only in your mind, was matched by your fondness for wild flowers. You couldn't resist picking a pretty flower, and you were always picking bouquets for my mother, and getting pennies from her in return. Once I helped you pick a big bunch of them, and I held them for you, while you ran into my father's store and boldly told him that you were fixing to sell those flowers to my mother and then use the money she gave you to spend in his store buying some candy and you wondered if he couldn't just let you have the candy right now, instead of "all dat big runaround." He had to step out on the store porch to satisfy himself that I was indeed standing out there ("Like a fool," he later told me) holding those flowers for you.
I never paused to doubt any of the rather marvelous things Charlie Mae related to me. She told me, for instance, that there was a raccoon tree in our pasture, and that ever so often she went to visit her friends, the raccoons. She always took them something—cornbread or, in good times, fried apple pies. It got to where each time I saw her—which was almost every day—she would greet me not with her conventional salutation—"Here I is!"—but with an account of the latest doings of her friends, the raccoons, their antics, their mischief, their appetites, their acrobatics, even their sexual behavior. Charlie Mae's powers of narration were such that she could make the most unthinkable story perfectly real. It was a sign of my undeveloped intelligence, not that I believed everything she said, but that it took me so long finally to ask, "When you gonna show me your coons?"
"Dey won't let you near 'em," she declared. "I'se de only party dey got truck wif." I attempted to get her to tell me which of the various trees in our pasture was the one harboring the raccoons, but she bristled at my request and seemed to think that I wanted to visit the raccoon tree all on my own.
Lacking anything so fantastic in the way of proof that there is a Peaceable Kingdom of coexistence between wild and tame, I could only attempt to pretend that I had once seen a panther, in the thicket that ran along the Tyronza River. But I wasn't very good at stretching the blanket. One might almost conjecture that my success as a painter of fabulous or at least far-fetched subjects was compensation for my inability to tell a convincing whopper. No living person in Arkansas had actually seen a panther (Felis concolor, cougar, mountain lion, puma), although once upon a time the panther was supposedly as prevalent here as in Vermont and other places where it is now only a creature of legend. It was always pronounced "painter," a circumstance which could lead itself to ambiguity concerning my chosen career.
Although my mother liked Charlie Mae, she was not happy that I spent so much time with her. And once, when I was singing "Gonna Keep My Skillet Greasy" around the house, my mother wanted to know where I'd learned such a "nasty" song, and when I told her from Charlie Mae, she said perhaps it would be a better idea if I didn't spend so much time with her.
"Why not?" I wanted to know. She couldn't come right out and tell me that she was afraid Charlie Mae might indoctrinate me into the mysteries of sex. But she could—and did—couch her qualms in the form of a fable, which she called "the Forbidden Thicket." I never fully appreciated it at the time and even now, from the perspective of years gone by, can only grasp its bare outlines. But there was an actual thicket—that is, a dense copse of brush and cottonwood saplings—running alongside the Tyronza River about a quarter of a mile from our house. I had never been inside the thicket because it was a dark and creepy place, populated by mosquitoes and water moccasins and now, according to my mother's fable, it was home to panthers who did wicked things with each other and would devour me if I wasn't "a good boy." There was an implied danger that Charlie Mae might turn me into a bad boy, and lead to my downfall.
Anyhow, one autumn day when Charlie Mae had been running on about her scandalously lascivious raccoons in her raccoon tree (the tree was on our property and therefore was mine more than hers), I told her that if they weren't careful my panthers would eat them all.
"Yo painters?" she said. "Way you done git painters?"
So I told her about the Forbidden Thicket, not making it into an allegory of sex as my mother did but just pointing out where the thicket was in the direction of the Tyronza River, and declaring, "They'll eat you if you're bad."
"Huh?" she said. "I done been in dat dere woods many a time. It sho aint no 'fo-bidden woods' to me."
"Did you see any painters?" I was aware my mouth was gaping open at her report of her audacity.
"Sho. And I been bad all my life but de painters didn't eat me. Dey friendly." And Charlie Mae told me of her most recent visit to the thicket, which I eventually attempted to picture and to paint. Two of her friendly panthers, male and female, pausing perhaps in their carnal possession of each other, had watched her eating the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, which the Lord had forbidden our ancestors. Charlie Mae was always generous in sharing whatever she was eating—fried pies, cornbread, chewing gum, licorice—with anybody else she met up with, but she would not share with the panthers the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And so the panthers could continue to be innocent and to have all the carnal possession of each other they desired, without being troubled by the knowledge of good and evil.
"Let's go to the thicket!" I suggested, excitedly.
"You aint ready," she declared. "Eben if I give you a bite out de apple, you still aint gwine be ready."
"What do I have to do to get ready?" I pleaded.
She would not say. She just smiled and began wordlessly to hum the tune of "Not Gonna Give Nobody None of Dis Jelly Roll."
One day—it was a warm November day and I shall never forget a moment of it—Charlie Mae agreed to meet me at the thicket, and I made my way there casting glances over my shoulder to be sure that neither my mother nor anybody else was watching me. I knew I wasn't supposed to go there, but I wasn't afraid to go into it as long as Charlie Mae would be there too.
Charlie Mae was there waiting for me, but I could sense at once that she herself was nervous. I had never seen her betray anything less than total sangfroid before. I wondered if she had been less than truthful when she'd boasted of having been in the thicket before, because it was a truly creepy place. But it wasn't the surroundings that made her skittish.
We spent all of that autumn afternoon in the thicket. Should I say that we discovered it contained no wildlife of any kind? Or should I continue my mother's fable by describing the actual panthers we beheld? They were at least as real as Charlie Mae's raccoons. Should I suggest that we "agreed" that we were able to see them and to watch them doing carnal things? Or would it not be better simply to paint the panthers, with myself and Charlie Mae hidden among the leaves, watching them...and watching ourselves, and to pretend that the painting of the panthers is evocative enough of the things we did in that thicket?
It was all I could do to refrain from boasting to my mother that I had indeed visited the Forbidden Thicket, and that Charlie Mae and I had enjoyed some forbidden sport, and the awesome panthers had not eaten us.
But when I didn't see Charlie Mae the next day, I wondered if a panther might have eaten her. Three days went by before she returned, alive and uneaten . She'd just been with her Aunt Mat and Uncle Dish-eye to visit some relatives in Earle.
"I was afraid a painter'd gobbled you up for being so bad," I said to her.
"Aw, I met up with one de painters dis mornin, and he open his mouf wide to take a big bite out of me but I jis popped him on de nose with a flower I was totin, and he shet his mouf."
THE SALVATION OF CHARLIE MAE
Whatever my mother said to her—and, in my estimation, Charlie Mae spent entirely too much time listening to my mother—my playmate and fellow adventurer began to change. For some time, I noticed she wasn't herself—whatever herself was. One day when I was singing "Not Gonna Give Nobody None of Dis Jelly Roll," in an effort to get her to sing along and to restore some of her vanishing sauciness, she interrupted me, saying, "Shut yo mouf. You soun like a jive-ass." And she herself would never again sing any of her bawdy songs.
If I brought up the subject of panthers, she would likely say, "Shame on you, talkin such nasty truck." Our Peaceable Kingdom lost all its animals, and she would not speak again of her raccoons, nor bobcats, and she had no further interest even in Georgeanna, the black cat that lived at our house and was always more friendly to Charlie Mae than to me.
So peculiar but insidious were the changes in Charlie Mae that it did not surprise me, one day, to come upon her standing, fully clothed in one of her white dresses which my mother had given her as a "Chrismus giff," up to her chest in the muddy water of the Tyronza. Not yet having read Hamletand thus not being able to appreciate the possible allusion to mad Ophelia, I nearly yelled at her, bur decided to wait and to watch. She would stand there for a moment, then close her eyes and go under, her head beneath the water for a few seconds before she would come bobbing up like a cork, spluttering. Again and again she did this, as if she were really trying to drown herself and not having much luck at it.
Finally, when I didn't know whether to jump in to rescue her or to offer to help hold her under long enough to drown, I revealed myself to her, screaming, "Cholly Mae! What on earth're you doon?!"
She regarded me gravely, without any embarrassment. "I'se practicin," she said.
"Practicin to be a fish?" I asked.
"Practicin to be baptize," she said. "I'se filled wit de Holy Ghose, who command me, 'Repent an be baptize.'''
It took me a moment to grasp the full import of what she was saying. I had not yet been baptized myself, although my mother had explained the meaning and significance and glory of it to me. "Charlie Mae," I informed her solemnly, "you don't get the Holy Ghost until you speak in tongues as the spirit gives you utterance."
Charlie Mae said, "I done done dat. Twiced."
"Let's hear you," I challenged her.
She scoffed a laugh. "Silly. De spirit aint givin me no utterance at de moment. I jis a-practicin."
"Then maybe you'd better practice speakin in tongues too," I suggested.
She thought about that, and decided I was right. She went under the water again, and came up blubbering, "Mighty Lord Ham Mercy Pon Us Po Sinners!"
"That's not speakin in tongues," I pointed out. "That's nearly good English,"
"You mean speakin in tongues is bad English?" she asked.
"It aint no kind of English, "I said, remembering the many times I'd heard the members of our Pentecostal church carrying on in strange expressions. "It don't make no sense whatsoever."
"Well, nemmine. Preacher say he gwine gib me a Scripture verse to say after I'se dunked."
Her mention of the preacher made me realize the important missing element in her rehearsal of the baptism. I knew that a preacher grabbed you and held you under the water, and I had to call Charlie Mae's attention to this fact. I offered, "I could play like I'm the preacher, and dunk you."
"You'd git yo close wet and yo momma mop de flo wif you," she said. "Lissen a me tell you: Go way."
Her mention of my mother made me ask, "Did Momma give you the notion to git yourself baptized?"
"She done tole me I'd best be studyin bout salvation," she said. "But Brother Brown ober to de Babtis Church gwine do de actual job on me, and he five times big as you. So don't tell me no trash bout less us play like you de preacher."
Before I left her alone to continue the rehearsal of her baptism, I succeeded in persuading Charlie Mae to allow me to attend the actual ceremony, scheduled for the following Sunday afternoon at a stretch of the Tyronza farther upstream, nearer the Colored's Baptist Church. The careful observer of my two paintings of Charlie Mae practicing and the actual baptizing will notice a subtle but essential difference: In the former the background is filled with wild vegetation, the bank decorated with rampant foliage akin to that of the nearby Forbidden Thicket and thus suggestive of the state of Charlie Mae's soul before she was converted from a wild thing into a Christian, while the background of the latter painting, behind the mob of onlookers (which includes, if one squints, myself), seems more civilized, tamed, Christianized, whatever.
All of the black folk of Gibson Bayou and environs turned out for the baptizing. The church's choir—women dressed all in white with white handkerchiefs tied over their heads—sang several songs"—Come, Sinner, Come," "Steal Away," and "All My Sins Done Taken Away"—accompanied by an old Negro woman playing a guitar, who may be seen just to the far left of me (on my right) in the painting. There were lace-comers, arriving just in time for the dunking; I've shown three of them in the distance coming down from the main highway. I was the only white person there. No one cast me a glance nor said anything to make me feel out of place. It was both a solemn and a joyful occasion, and I looked upon it as a sort of valedictory, my farewell to the feisty female who had been a crucial part of my education.
The preacher, Brother Brown, wearing a red gown and necktie like a college professor, was equipped with a washcloth to spread over Charlie Mae's eyes and nose when he lowered her under the water. He referred to her as "sister." He preached for a little while, there in the water, talking about how all her sins were going to be washed away, and then he said, "Sister Charlie Mae, I baptize you in de name ob de Lord Mos High, His Blessed Son, and De Mighty Holy Ghose!" And covered her face with the washrag and dunked her under.
When Charlie Mae came up out of the water, and he removed the rag, she looked a bit confused, and she yelled, speaking not in tongues nor in any memorized scripture verse, but saying, "Chrismus Giff!"
Perhaps it was all she could think to say in the gravity of the moment. Some of the audience around me snickered and giggled. Charlie Mae struggled to climb out of the water, splashing it with her hands as if to hasten her exit, and once she reached the bank she ran toward the road and disappeared. The preacher laughed cordially and made a few remarks about her "mistake," and the gathering dispersed, some people still snickering or shaking their heads.
I reflected that Charlie Mae's words hadn't been inappropriate: Her baptism was a gift from the gathering, or mass, in the name of Christ, and therefore a Christ mass gift. I intended to try to tell her this, but I never saw her again, except from far off. At first I thought that maybe she had actually run away from home, in mortification for having made that slip, but standing in our back pasture I could see her on the porch of Aunt Mat's cabin, or playing alone in the yard. Even from that distance, I could notice something different about her: She was no longer wearing the ubiquitous white dress. She was wearing a yellow dress.
Finally, I got up my nerve to cross the pasture and knock on the door of Aunt Mat's cabin. There was no answer. The door was ajar and I went in. The cabin was empty. My mother informed me that the cotton harvest that year was meager and that my father had had to "let go" several of the hired hands.
Even though she was gone from my life, there was no way to exclude Charlie Mae from my dreams. I tried. But we still sat around a tree stump eating watermelon with a panther. We still visited the Forbidden Thicket together, and romped with all the panthers there. No wildflower grew that we did not pick. Every night when my head touched the pillow I could expect that soon Charlie Mae and I and the whole landscape would be one. So faithful and constant were my dreams that it got to where, eventually, I could not distinguish between what I'd dreamt and what was actually happening. In fact, when I came to paint the picture of her called Kudzu, I could not honestly recall if I had ever seen her on the highway like that, or if I had only dreamed it. Only after the picture was finished did I realize that I could not have seen her like that. I never saw her on the paved highway, not U.S. 64 with the stripe down the middle and the shoulders edged with white lines. I never saw her up that close carrying the parasol my mother had given her as a Christmas gift, nor the saddle oxford shoes and bobby sox that made her look as if she could have gone to school with me if her skin had not been black. And I never saw her bravely alone amidst the towering demons of kudzu. Some people can see forms in clouds: horses and Viking ships and giant faces. I could see in the ever-present spreadings of kudzu every demon that ever haunted the mind of man...or of Negro girl-child. Charlie Mae might have worn yellow but she was afraid of nothing. No panther was a match for her. She could stroll down that avenue of kudzu monsters without a single quiver of fear. And notice she is coming right at me, her saddle oxfords making a steady beat on the pavement.
She will always be coming right at me.
You rightly wonder, as have many people who have seen the Charlie Mae pictures: Did I make no effort to locate her again when I was grown? Every time I gave a slide lecture about my work, at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art or one of the colleges that invited me, and showed any of the Charlie Mae paintings, somebody in the audience was bound to ask, Did you ever try to find her again?
What use? Just to say howdy? Just to find out what she looked like when she was grown up? Oh, I'll admit it, when I visited Gibson Bayou again as a grown man. I'd occasionally encounter some black person who might have known Dish-eye, or Aunt Mat, and I would ask them, "Would you happen to know whatever happened to their little girl, whose name was Charlie Mae?" But nobody did. When my brother Tom died, I asked his widow, Amelia Cloar, and she said she'd talk to folks on and near the old farm place and ask about Charlie Mae, but if she ever had any luck she never told me.
I was an old man in 1989 when finally I was giving a presentation on the Memphis Library channel, and the TV hostess, Martha Ellen Maxwell, asked me the same old question, "Do you know what happened to Charlie Mae?" And somebody out in the television audience must have, because a few days later I got a call from a woman who said she was one of Charlie Mae's sisters. She asked, "Was you meaning a girl was adopted by old Aunt Mattie Perry and her nephew called Dish-eye?" Yes.' Yes! I said. "Matter of fact, she come visit me some years back, and we took her for a little outing down the Tyronza. Said she wanted to see was there any panthers still a-roamin' about."
"Were there any?" I asked.
"Mary Ann said she could see them, but I couldn't."
"Oh, that's what she called herself ever since she got growed. Changed her name from Charlie Mae, because she said it was a boy's name."
"Where does she live?"
"She don't. She passed on, just a few months ago, in Memphis."
Memphis, my home for most of my life, had apparently been home also to Charlie Mae, alias Mary Ann, for most of hers. I discovered from her sister that she had been employed as a housemaid for Miss Marguerite Piazza, who owned a couple of my paintings, Children Pursued by Hostile Butterfliesand even Charlie Mae and Georgeanna. The latter depicts Charlie Mae with our housecat, who was so partial to her, until Charlie Mae abandoned her interest in animals. Had she for years dusted that painting without knowing that the girl depicted in it was herself? Or had she known?
Not long after talking to Charlie Mae's sister, I started work on the painting in which I attempted to depict two women in a boat on the Tyronza, accompanied by a man who did the paddling. I have replaced the wild brambles and undergrowth of the Forbidden Thicket with a field of soybeans, and, if you'll look closely, nearest the people, surrounding the panther, some bright red wildflowers.
That is my final bouquet to Charlie Mae.