John Wesley Thompson Faulkner III: his artistic vision and his "Vanishing South".
This essay introduces a new generation to John's paintings by examining a representative selection, reviewing their cultural contexts, tracing his development and artistic training, comparing his works with those of other artists of his day, and identifying elements that unify his painting and writing. John often referred to himself as a "self-trained artist," a term implying that an artist's sense of design is not as sophisticated as that of academy-trained artists. Typical of self-trained artists, John creates his own world wherein people and animals are set within a distinct landscape in which architecture often receives emphasis by its precise contours or by its prominent position. He does, however, vary the position of architectural structures, which are usually placed off-center or shown in three-quarter view, sometimes in the distance. Human figures and animals--especially his omnipresent dogs--are simply drawn and emphasized by contour. Shading is uncomplicated, and color is blended with an eye toward tonal harmonies. His compositions are cohesive, and they manifest an intuitive sense of compositional design.
John's paintings were rifled: Old Linker's Mill, Old Davidson's Spring, Yellow Leaf Covered Bridge, Brush Arbor, The End of A Day, A Hunting Scene, Possum Hunt, Going Home in the Rain in February, Ginnin' Time, Weighin' In, Chit'lin's, Sorghum Mill at Night, Git a Hoss, Grabbling, Autumn Scene; Mammy's Cabin, Little Chicago, Carnival Time: Balloon Ascension, A Monday Morning in 1910, and Ploddin' Home. Over half of these rifles reflect rural settings or activities.
Only one painting, Little Chicago, relates to John's own writing--specifically the roadhouse in the Cabin Roadseries. (Fig. 1.) Herein Elvis Presley plays his guitar beside a jukebox, while dancers and listeners circle around him. A lone man stands behind a counter. This lively image directly parallels the scenes described in the five Cabin Road novels. John's understanding of shadows caused by a strong light course is evident here. Whether a figure stands at right or left of the overhead lamp, black shadows fall accordingly. These dark shapes enhance the spirited activity, for they appear to add revelers to the scene.
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In addition to John's imaginative illustrations of disappearing ways of life are two scenes inspired by his brother William's short stories "The Bear" and "Red Leaves." Although inspired by William's fiction, these two works are in reality a logical extension of the series. In the latter scene, two hunting dogs stalk a small flock of grouse--a scene obviously drown from John's memory of hunting trips. A black and white hound crouches off center toward the left; at the right rear a white dog is shown in the traditional stance of a pointer. Trees and shrubbery, delineated at opposite sides of the canvas, form a parenthesis-like compositional framework. The colors are undeniably autumnal. At left a young tree is sparsely covered with yellow leaves on its lower branches and orange leaves at the top. In the lower right are red-orange bushes, while directly above them brownish-green foliage is visible above an unseen tree trunk. Nearby the grouse forage on meagerly covered red-orange earth that fades to tan in mid-ground. The field is interspersed with gray rafts of grass and weeds.
In The Bear a black bear stands erect frontally, just off-center before a large tree. His forepaws extend to the right in a nearly human gesture. A brown dog flies through the air, upside down with all four paws upward, obviously just having been flung aside by the bear. In immediate foreground a man and a young blond-haired boy are shown in half-length from the back. Several hunting dogs are variously arranged to complete a circle formed by the two males, dogs, and bear. Two broad golden sunrays streaming diagonally through the trees balance circular and vertical shapes in the composition.
Possum Hunt, a night scene, similarly shows a group of men and boys standing in the foreground with their backs to the viewer. Here they form a semi-circle, surrounding a tree in which a possum is obviously cornered. One dog leaps toward the lower branches, another rests a paw on the twisted trunk. In the right foreground a dog stands behind a boy whose arms are upraised. At center a man holds a lantern on his head to light the scene. At left two boys carry a pole upon which two possums are suspended.
According to John's elder son, James Murry "Jimmy" Faulkner, John had a photographic mind with a retentive memory, and these images underscore that statement. The scenes are primarily drawn from memory rather than direct observation, especially elements of the landscape, houses, and other structures. John may have made preliminary sketches from live models, photographs, or other visual sources. In this practice, he would not be unlike his mother, whose artistic stimulus often came from magazines. Her portrayal of Mammy Callie Barr sitting in a rocking chair seems to have its source in a photograph. Unlike Maud, however, John did not retain images that may have provided inspiration. Among his books and journals are at least two images of bears standing on their hind feet, but neither directly parallels the position of the bear in his painting.
An inventory of John's paint box provides a record of the colors in his palette, as well as identifying the manufacturers of his pigments. The small flat wooden paint box is crowded with watercolors and oil paints, a number of brushes, pencils, and pipe cleaners. Manufactured by American Artists' Color Works in Brooklyn, the box measures 1 3/4" x 11 7/8" x 12 1/4." John's choice of watercolors was exclusively Winsor & Newton. The colors were burnt umber, burnt sienna, scarlet lake, yellow ochre, Phthaloamine blue, and French blue, as well as ivory black and permanent Chinese white.
Additionally, there are five small tubes of homemade watercolor pigment encased in used toothpaste tubes, which have evidence of the bottoms' having been opened and re-crimped after being filled with the homemade pigments. Three Colgate tubes contain cerulean blue, alizarin purple, and orange. A Gleem toothpaste tube holds rose, and a Pepsodent tube contains lime-green. These five tubes are fascinating for their revelation of John's attitude toward self-sufficiency and ingenuity, as well as his frugal spending habits.
John's oil colors were manufactured either by Grumbacher or Devoe and Reynolds Company, including Devoe's line of Academic and Craftint oils. The Grumbacher paints consist of brilliant brown light, brilliant violet, brilliant green I (subtitled symphonic green), lemon yellow (subtitled spectrum yellow), and cadmium orange. Devoe's Craftint line includes Chinese white, burnt umber, Van Dyke brown, burnt sienna, and alizarin crimson. The Devoe Academic line includes raw umber, Indian red (subtitled Mars violet), rose madder, carmine, yellow ochre, cadmium yellow medium, cadmium yellow light (subtitled lemon), Hooker's green deep, and cobalt blue.
The precise date for John's beginning artwork is uncertain, but it was obviously a recurring endeavor throughout his life. There are at least two paintings signed by him in 1939, both signed "Falkner." These two works date to the years he spent at Greenfield Farm and thus manifest his interest in painting long before he took it up as a vocation. In Rock Hill, a gouache painting dated 1939, the hewer observes a blue hill in the distance, fields in mid-ground, trees at the right and a partial view of a shingled roof in the lower left. Murry Cuthbert "Chooky" Falkner, John's younger son, relates the background for this painting in a booklet compiling his father's artwork. "This is a view from the Little House on Greenfield Farm. From the side yard you see the corner of the roof of the jack barn, look across the pasture to the hedge row that hides the road that runs by the farm and observe the bushes that are along Puss Creek bank. Looking further you see the fields and pastures and on the side of the Rock Road--Highway 30--you see Rock Hill. This was the scene that John saw in 1939. John painted it." (1)
On November 11, 1942, John Faulkner told an audience at Ole Miss that he "wrote only to tell a story." (2) While this is a slight exaggeration, it does describe his narrative style of writing, as well as his artwork. The lecture, sponsored by the Omicron Delta Kappa fraternity, held at the University of Mississippi, featured as speakers John Faulkner and Harry Harrison Kroll, with Phil Stone acting as emcee.
Despite John's claim that his only reason for writing was to tell a story, Phil Mullen later reports a different statement. At his 1960 exhibition at Allison's Wells, John reportedly stated that he hoped his writing and his painting were "an accurate picture of the land that bred me and in which I have lived for nearly 60 years.... I look back with a great deal of nostalgia, and I know that the grass and the water in my pictures are greener and clearer than they really were." He set forth his artistic purpose: "Before I forget all the places in Mississippi that I love I want to put them down in color and stories." (3) John's statement, made near the end of his life, is particularly revealing, because he acknowledges his passion for his homeland as the source of inspiration for his writing and his art. Although most of his works are narrative in quality, without doubt John's paintings document the land. This observation is true of his novel Dollar Cotton and his unpublished work titled "Beat Six." This latter unpublished work, which was still in the hands of his publisher at his death, most convincingly documents John's Mississippi in both landscape and in his characterization of the people who inhabit that terrain.
John claims that "my people in my books sometimes are more real to me than those humans with whom I come in contact." He continued to say that "Each of the characters is a combination, and an extension, of real life characters whom he has known." (4) He then makes the statement that "No one person that I know is worth a book." Within two years, John nullifies this statement, made before February 4, 1960, when he embarks upon his remembrance of William, My Brother Bill.
After he began painting seriously his "Vanishing South" series in 1956, he enjoyed a number of successes in exhibitions in his home state and in Memphis. In a July 1957 Oxford Eagle article, Ann Yates Whitten, writing under the germane title "John Faulkner Talks on Canvas," comments on his artistic development: "John Faulkner had no instruction in art--`I just lit in to painting. During that freeze in the late 1940s the doctor made me stay inside, and to have something to do I started painting with some of Chooky's old water colors.'" He explains that he stopped painting for a period, "until last April," when he painted some watercolors, and executed his first oil paintings. (5) This article appears to pinpoint his renewed interest in painting as April 1956, a pastime he sustained for the remainder of his life. And it is from this point that his artistic successes begin to flourish.
On January 2, 1958 he held an exhibition of his "Vanishing South" paintings at the Mary Buie Museum, fewer than one hundred yards away from his home just off the University of Mississippi campus. John is shown in the Oxford Eagle sitting at his easel while smoking a cigarette. The cut line below the photographs states: "A copy of his oil, "Sorghum Mill at Night," brought top price this week." (6)
On September 29, 1959 John exhibited oil and watercolor paintings for the Browning Club meeting held in the Oxford home of Mrs. Gayle Beanland on South Lamar Boulevard. (7) In February of 1960 he showed sixteen of the series at Allison's Hotel (now Gray Retreat Center, ten miles north of Canton), including Red Leaves and The Bear. During his gallery talk, John's personality emerges, for fellow Oxonian Phil Mullen describes him in this way: "The famed author, now become also a painter, talked in his soft Old South voice with always a breath of humor in it and he stopped his own gallery talks at the end of 20 minutes. He is a good showman, in person as well as with the pen and the brash, for he left the large crowd wishing for more." (8) The large crowd included people from Canton and "art lovers from more distant places." The extroverted John, who had an easy manner in public, gave a droll reason for having begun painting. "Writing books is the easiest of all ways to make a living except you never can explain to your wife that when you sit for hours and stare out a window you are working--that's why I took up painting." While this is almost certainly fiction, it is clear that John found painting fulfilling, as well as remunerative.
Mullen cites the crowd pleasers as Going Home In a Freezing Rain in February, "which depicts a Negro family in a mule-drawn wagon, shivering but stoic, on their several hours trip from Oxford to the red hill farm miles out in the country." Mullen's description suggests that John portrayed a particular family, who were known to live in a specific place outside Oxford. Mullen continues the list with "`Weighin' In,' a cotton-picking scene; `Opossum Hunting' and `Syrup Cooking' were other favorites as they have been in his other exhibits over the state." Additionally, John displayed two paintings by his mother, a portrait of a young African-American girl and a view of a cabin with cotton piled on the porch.
John appears again in a 1960 Oxford Eagle article announcing his gallery talk on January 31 at the Allison Art Colony for his show continuing through the end of February. His exhibition was featured for the spring artists' workshop. (9) The article acknowledges John's seven published books, commenting that "Found Week-End" (later re-named Uncle Good's Weekend) was then at press. Here the writer's personal attitude toward John's literary accomplishments is evident. "His paintings preserve scenes of Mississippi life such as Faulkner describes so feelingly in his books." He then comments on John's artistic achievement. "`Real' is John Faulkner's term for his work." John explained to the writer, "I paint a scene just as life-like as possible, but I work from memory in my studio." (10)
In May of that year, John was one of seven artists participating in a ten-day workshop at Allison's Wells. Andrew Morgan, chair of art at the University of Mississippi, was the "lead-off instructor." (11) The other artist-instructors were Pat Trivigno, of the Newcomb College School of Art (Tulane University) in New Orleans, Townsend Wolfe of the Academy of Arts in Memphis, Karl Wolfe, a well-known painter-teacher in Jackson, Dr. Gulnar Bosch, head of the art department at Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge, and Ralph Hudson, chair of the art department at Mississippi State College for Women in Columbus (now Mississippi University for Women).
In describing John's role in the workshop, the article continues, "John Faulkner of Oxford, author of the best selling novel, `Chooky' and a number of fun stories, as well as an artist with a brush, will direct an unusual feature of the workshop. This will be an audience participation melodrama, `Way Down East,' which will be produced in the Pavilion on Sunday night, April 24.... All who like to see or act in melodramas are invited to attend and participate by taking over any actor's part they would like to play." As encouragement to enter into the fun, no admission was charged on the first night of the performance. This singular endeavor by John was certainly a departure from the usual rigor of painting for hours at his easel.
A number of winter landscapes exist, some showing old covered bridges that appear to be inspired by greeting cards. John acknowledged having painted from images on Christmas cards. (12) Yellow Leaf Covered Bridge shows a white bridge in the foreground, covered with early-spring vines growing up the lattice work interior of the bridge and up the outside supports. The creek running beneath the wooden bridge is almost horizontal across the picture plane. Nearby trees are fully covered in yellow-green foliage; the Bank of a tree to the right is shown with a suggestion of leaves from its lower branches, extending to the lower border. In the right background, partially hidden behind another tree, is a cluster of white timber-frame buildings. John painted a similar scene of a red timber snow-covered bridge and roadway, and another snow-covered red bridge with blackbirds perched on an open post-and-rail gate.
An autumn scene with a dog-trot cabin, The End of A Day, depicts another type of disappearing architectural structure. An old buggy is parked in the dirt-floored breezeway between the two parts of the dilapidated building. Linker's Mill, another example of vanishing landmarks, shows a red and gray gristmill on the banks of a river. The building and its wooden waterwheel are reflected in the still waters of the central foreground. Nearby trees display the rich greens of summer. Old Davidson's Creek, a pastoral summer scene, shows the white bark of an old tree carved with the initials of lovers. Three tree trunks reflect horizontally in the water at the right. The trunk of a tree in the distance reflects vertically, creating a gray grid in the creek. Other shadows fall diagonally against the earth or in dark green masses. This simple composition reveals John's understanding of compositional design, for he balances curved, vertical, horizontal, and diagonal elements, as well as mass and void. The open areas of water and sky seen through the trees produce a counterbalance for the extensive areas of green grass and foliage.
These six landscapes are without human figures, although a human presence is implied in each. Old Davidson's Creek is one of John's few landscapes without architectural structures. John's painting of Greenfield shows the farmhouse devoid of human figures. The greater portion of the scene depicts fields bisected by a narrow rutted dirt roadway. A massive tree trunk in the left foreground, and a slender tree trunk at the right frame the outer edges of the scene. The frame-like leafage depicted across the top and the roadway, which disappears in the right mid-ground, directs the viewer's eyes toward the farmhouse and fields.
Most of John's paintings are abundantly peopled. Goin' Home in the Rain (in February), cited by Mullen as being a crowd favorite, shows but three people. In this barren landscape, a mule-drawn wagon is arranged horizontally across the picture plane. A man and woman sit hunched in the raised seat, while a blanket-covered child huddles in the wagon bed, under which a dog takes cover. Two trees at right are barren, while the straggle-branched tree at left still supports clusters of dead brown leaves that reflect in the foreground puddle. The drenched fields and all other features of the saturated landscape are ochre or brown. John again uses the device of trees on both sides to frame the composition and focus on the misery of the rainy winter landscape.
John painted two calamitous scenes from the history of Northern Mississippi. Although not a part of the "Vanishing South" series, a view of Confederate General Buck Van Doren's raid on Holly Springs, Mississippi, reveals John's sustained interest in history. (John had actually gone to graduate school after World War II to study history.) Holly Springs was then the headquarters of General B. F. Butler. The skies are aflame, while a skirmish fills the area between two foreground buildings and the city courthouse in the background. A Day in 1910 depicts a town scene. (Fig. 2) A "horse-less carriage" is seen at far right; at left is an old up-turned wagon. The mules, still harnessed to the wagon, are obviously frightened by the noise of the automobile. They appear in a state of panic--one terrified animal rears on its hind legs and the other kicks up its hind legs. Women carrying bundles of laundry on their heads watch as the drivers run to safety. A more peaceful, but also exciting day in town is shown in Carnival Time: Balloon Ascension. (Fig. 3) Townspeople gather in a circle around a hot-air balloon, with buildings shown in the background. The rounded shape of the massive gray balloon billows as it fills with air; the fire below draws the viewer's eye and clarifies the situation.
[FIGURES 2-3 OMITTED]
Scenes outside city limits include Weighin' In, in which trucks and mule-drawn wagons line up with their full loads to be weighed and emptied. In the background is a water tower on which is painted "Oxford Home Of Ole Miss." A family gathers outside steaming kettles in Chit'lin's. (Fig. 4) John effectively captures the smoke from the kettles as it wafts across the figures, pigs, and a barren tree at right. Similarly, Sorghum Mill at Night successfully depicts smoke emitting from a smokestack and a pile of sugar cane. A dozen figures form a reverse-semicircle that departs from John's typical pattern. A man stands in mid-foreground with his back to the viewer. Other figures are arranged at the right, back, and far left. Grabbling shows men and a boy standing atop a steep forested bank, while men in the waters below reach into logs to catch catfish with their bare hands. (Fig. 5) Another clutches a tree branch as he rescues a dog from the water.
[FIGURES 4-5 OMITTED]
The most heavily populated of John's paintings, Brush Arbor, is a night revival scene showing the congregation seated with backs to the viewer. Behind a white podium in the rear of the tent, the preacher faces the people. A lantern hung in the tent's foreground peak lights the scene; a dog lies in bottom center near the tent pole. Another densely populated painting is a straightforward view of rows of slaves laboriously pulling a riverboat through a wooded area. John shows the boat from eye level and presents ten rows of barebacked dark-skinned men from a bird's-eye view.
Git a Hoss shows a black car from the rear, stuck in the mud of a rutted dirt road. (Fig. 6) The overall tones are blue, green, and sienna, with shades of gray and umber. Dark gray clouds hang overhead, and a blanket o of rain falls in the distance. Two black men and a child stand near the automobile; another child walks up the road toward a house in the distance. To the right a man squats near a dog, another plows a field near a cabin at far right. In the foreground a mule standing near the left rear bumper recalls the Faulkner brothers' attempt to raise mules, and its eventual failure caused by the advent of automobiles and tractors.
[FIGURE 6 OMITTED]
The most poignant of John's scenes, Ploddin' Home, shows a cabin in which a death has just occurred. (Fig. 7) A black automobile is parked near the cabin at far right. Through an open window three family members stand around a bed. Through the open front door three children are visible; they watch a man who leans against a mantle over which hangs an oval profile portrait. A roadway runs in front of the cabin, leading off to a dark wooded area at left. In the shadows the dark form of a man fides a horse toward a brilliant dawn, with a white cross forming the center of the glowing light. This is John's only painting with a religious theme, and receives its inspiration from an old spiritual by the same name. It compares most favorably with works by John McCrady, a fellow Oxonian who also painted scenes of the town, as well as scenes inspired by spirituals. McCrady's paintings with African-American subjects and religious themes were criticized as demeaning and caricaturish. John Faulkner's black figures, however, are painted with the same straightforward treatment as his white subjects.
[FIGURE 7 OMITTED]
John's writings contain only brief references to the situations in some of his paintings. Dollar Cotton recounts difficulties with automobiles. "Beat Six" mentions an occasion when a car is pulled from a ditch. This unpublished novel also refers to fighting with the law in a "juke joint" on the edge of the town square. A Faulkner family photograph also shows an incident in which a car is stuck in a water-filled ditch, with two men studying the situation. John's interpretation differs totally from the photograph, and he certainly witnessed this common occurrence a number of rimes.
In Men Working John focuses on the negative aspects of the federal work-relief project as perceived through the eyes of uneducated working people who presumed it an easier ride. One can contrast the attitude toward the working class found in Men Working with attitudes revealed or implied in photographs by Dorothea Lange, Lewis Hine, Roy Stryker, and others who portrayed a helpless class of people. What is evident in works by Lange and Hine is a pronounced sense of dignity. The mental and physical exhaustion is evident in both the photographic images and in John's verbal portrait of a people who are also intellectually depleted. The most profoundly dark aspect of John's portrayal is the victimization of the children, as well as the women, a shared concern of Hine and Lange. These dark themes do not appear in John's paintings.
John himself exhibits mixed feelings about his own accomplishment in his first published novel. In a November 30, 1941 Atlanta Journal article titled "This Business of Writing," which appeared soon after the publication of Men Working; he maintains, "Writing is not a business. If it was, no writer should be allowed to have anything to do with it." He also claims disparagingly that the only good thing that came from the publication of the book was a trip to New York--his first visit to that city. (13) A notice for the novel appears earlier in the issue in a double column on page 11.
In the same issue, the Atlanta Journal has advertisements for novels by other authors of his day, including two by Lyle Saxon, Old Louisiana and Fabulous New Orleans (p. 13). Other advertised novels include Frances Parkinson Keyes's All That Glitters (p. 21), John Erskine's Mrs. Doratt (p. 29), Mary O'Hara's My Friend Flicka (p. 29), and Gwen Bristow's "Louisiana Trilogy": Deep Summer, The Handsome Road, and This Side of Glory (p. 30), generously referred to as "three of the finest books in American writing." Another ad for Bristow's Defense notes her as the author of This Side of Glory (p. 7). Roark Bradford's 1928 publication, Old Man Adam And His Children, which was already adapted into the play Green Pastures by Marc Connelly, also received publicity (p. 19).
The announcement for Men Working compares the book favorably to Tobacco Road, The Grapes of Wrath, and Whistle Stop. In comparing Men Working to these three novels, a New York Times writer says "... but it has a bitter sincerity and humorous veracity of its own." This observation follows the New Republic's statement: "Thank God for a Southern writer who genuinely loves the people he is writing about." This same observation can easily be applied to John's artwork. Although his paintings seem to be straightforward observations, there is nonetheless a tacit sense of sympathy with his subjects, both black and white.
Interestingly, in this same issue of the Atlanta Journal (p. 18) there is an advertisement for New Orleans and Its Living Past, a book by Mississippi writer David L. Cohn with photographs by Louisianan Clarence John Laughlin, whose reputation was then increasing. Laughlin's photography grows progressively less sympathetic and straightforward than his earlier work, and becomes more surreal, constructed, and artificial. Through his book Ghosts Along the Mississippi, Laughlin became well known for a subject that would parallel John Faulkner's "Vanishing South" series.
Additionally, an ad for Mellowed by Time, a collection of drawings by Charlestonian artist Elizabeth O'Neill Verner, cites her as "one of America's most distinguished artists" (p. 19). Like fellow Southerner John Faulkner's paintings, Verner's drawings and paintings portray her subjects sympathetically. She fluidly depicts vendors selling their vegetables at market or women carrying bundles of laundry upon their heads. Unlike Faulkner, Verner had received art training, and her works consequently convey the sense of the immediacy that comes with training followed by a lifetime of constant drawing.
Like William, John came to art early in his life, through the influence of his grandmother and great-grandmother, both of whom were amateur painters. Their brother Dean also possessed artistic talent; before his death in a plane crash, he was considering a career in commercial art. Their mother, Maud Butler Falkner, took lessons with artist-art teacher Ellen Bailey. As a point of interest, Bailey's home, the Shegogue-Bailey house, was later purchased by William and is now known as "Rowan Oak." (14) William himself encouraged his mother, "Miss Maud," to paint. (15)
Although she began painting as a hobby, Maud ultimately produced over six hundred paintings, and earned a livelihood with her portraits, cabin scenes, still lifes, studies of birds and dogs, and copies after Old Masters. Initially, she studied for two weeks at the Mississippi State College for Women (now Mississippi State University for Women) before she met and married Murry Cuthbert Falkner, but she always harbored a desire to be an artist. Her opportunity to continue her art studies came in 1941 when a friend needed one more person to meet the necessary quota to conduct a WPA art class. She quickly seized the opening, receiving sufficient training to create credible artistic compositions (Silver, p. 21). Additionally, she painted wedding invitations and ceramics, as well as a variety of other works for which she received commissions. Her medium of preference was oil, although she painted the wedding invitations in watercolor, usually illustrating a scene with a cottage, hollyhocks, and a mailbox with the name of the newly married couple (Silver, p. 29).
An early riser, she breakfasted quickly, then proceeded to her dining room-studio where she had set up her easel near a window having north light. Here she began to paint, and often remained at her easel through dinner time. She declared that when she became tired, she would walk out and leave the work behind (Silver, p. 22). Despite her brief art studies, she is known to have objected to being referred to as a "primitive." She claimed, "After all, I had art lessons once" (Silver, p. 21). One is reminded of the story of fellow Oxonian Theora Hamblett, who painted simple, colorful compositions having an unaffected child-like appeal. Upon enrolling in art at the University of Mississippi, Hamblett was told that the best advice she could receive was to continue to paint without art lessons, for art training would certainly destroy the unique vision she already possessed. Hamblett's acceptance of that advice served to reinforce her natural style. In contrast, Maud benefited from her art studies, especially in her modeling of shapes and in her rendering of light and dark. Her skills in the use of chiaroscuro advanced with her small copies of works by the Dutch Masters, specifically Jan Vermeer van Delft, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Frans Hals.
In the October 1956 McCall's interview, Maud classifies about thirty of her paintings as being "originals" painted from memory rather than copied from photographs or other paintings. Many of the scenes were drawn from the past, especially her cabin scenes, which often depict Mammy Callie sitting in a rocking chair oil the front porch. She recounts how one rainy day she began considering the way rain would look if viewed from inside one of the cabins in which the black community lived. When she decided to begin a painting based on the subject, William urged her to "put in a lot of people," since so many of these cabins were crowded (Silver, p. 22).
Maud continuously clipped from magazines a wide variety of images she could consider as potential models and sources of artistic inspiration. She used a grid, drawn on tracing paper, to proportionately reproduce compositions after the Old Masters. She retained these small preparatory sketches among her possessions, obviously for re-use. She often cut various elements of still lifes and other images into separate components. She rearranged these elements to her satisfaction in organizing her own compositions--especially those depicting flowers and fruit, where the vivid qualities of the subject were transient and fleeting.
One of Maud's favorite artists was Irish-born William Michael Harnett (1848-1892), whose still life paintings repeatedly served as visual inspiration. Harnett, who came to Philadelphia as a child, worked briefly as a silver engraver while attending art school at night. Rich coloring, meticulous attention to detail, and the illusionistic simulation of surfaces characterize his work. His trompe l'oeil subjects include compositions having a single candlestick with snuffed candle, pipe and matches, mug or porcelain decanter, and books resting atop a newspaper placed on a table or cabinet. Other works depict hunting gear or musical instruments hung on a wooden door with ironwork hardware. The decanter-candle-pipe-books theme certainly held an appeal for Maud and her circle, for she painted at least six versions of this painting, varying details of the composition according to the person for whom the painting was intended. At times the title on the book's spine reflected the intended owner, or sheet music, map, or aviator's map replaced the newspaper. In one version the titles on the spines read Dante and Roma.
Like Harnett, she concentrated on trompe l'oeil effects. Her paintings are competent, especially in her rendering of detail and in her use of umber to achieve the contrast between light and shadow. In some of Maude's still lifes with freshly killed animals, the proportions may not be precise, yet the paintings are otherwise accomplished. The complicated compositions differ from many of the nature morte paintings popular in the South during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in which dead birds, ducks, squirrels, or fish are simply suspended from a nail. These latter works, in which a simple shadow at one side of the subject suggests depth, do not have the timeless appeal of the more complex compositions of Harnett, John Frederick Peto, and other still life painters whose work inspired Maud. Their works served her well in teaching her European painting traditions, particularly lighting. She drew her paintings to. a reduced scale, and her copies are often no larger than 7" x 5." She painted numerous portraits of family members and friends. The portraits, usually painted after photographs, are often pastel in their overall tones--unlike her paintings after European masters.
By 1956 she decided not to sell her "originals," but upon request for one of these pieces, to paint copies. She signed each copy with the date that the original was completed (Silver, p. 22). As a result, it is difficult to tell when some of these works were actually painted, but it was a practice that would ultimately affect John's decision to make copies of his original paintings of "The Vanishing South," and to retain the original work. Although John's original paintings were dated, he did not date the copies. John was also influenced by Maud's success, for it was in 1956 that he decided to concentrate on painting. Maud signed herself "MFalkner" with a conjoined "MF." When asked about William's signature with a "u," she responded that her husband's grandfather, Colonel William Clark Falkner, had dropped the "u," and William simply restored it. This variation in surname did not affect her, especially with regard to the manner in which she signed her paintings, for she had legally been married as "Falkner." John's appreciation for his mother's accomplishment becomes apparent in his widow's recollection that when John faced a technical problem he could not solve, he would consult his mother. (16) John's subjects differ from Maud's, particularly her love of those in European paintings and pastels like Degas's dancers. Although he signed his first works as "Falkner," after his writing success he signed himself as "Faulkner."
Although arriving to painting late in life, it is through artistic expression that John finds a niche that generates satisfaction, as well as compensation. Underlying many of John's stories is evidence of his rivalry with his brother. This is unmistakable in those works in which he uses the first names John and Bill. One of the most successful of these stories, "See You on the Beach," merely refers to the two male protagonists as "Eighteen" and "Seventeen," in reference to the ages of the two youths. Former friends who fell out over a relationship with "the Girl," the younger of the two comes to grips with the depth of his feelings when, before going into battle, he gives a marine a note with Eighteen's name on it. His simple message, "See you on the Beach," referring to the "One with the Pearly Gate," becomes more poignant when the omniscient narrator (John) relates that during the ensuing battle ninety percent of the men were lost--including Seventeen and Eighteen. (By John's own hand, this work was "retired 11/8/46." (17) Like many of John Faulkner's typescripts this story is typed on stationary of the Mississippi State Highway Department.)
It is a decade later, when John Faulkner begins his artistic career, that he is free to express himself. Feeling passionate about the disappearing ways of his homeland, he creates a record of "ways gone by." With the technological boom that followed World War II, the rapid rate of change became even more pronounced than during the decade before the war, and John felt it deeply. Though perhaps inspired by some of his mother's paintings, his visual, expression is strictly individual.
One recalls stories of the French sculptor Antoine Bourdelle and the Italian painter Giuseppe Ribera. Bourdelle, a former student of Auguste Rodin, was asked why he was leaving Rodin's studio. Bourdelle replied insightfully that, "Nothing grows under the shade of a mighty oak tree." Bourdelle went on to earn a reputation separate from that of Rodin. Although Bourdelle is included in the main canon of art history, it is still Rodin who is universally known. Under the shadow of the great artists of Rome, Ribera left his own country to establish his studio in Spain, where he became fondly known as "Lo Spagnoletto," or "Little Spaniard." Today Ribera is as widely revered in Spain as any noted native Spanish artist, and his works are collected in the Prado and many other museums and palazzos.
Unlike Bourdelle and Ribera, John Faulkner could not leave his home, but his departure in an expressive medium set him apart in a way that was certainly gratifying, for his works found an immediate appreciative audience. John's record books from 1958 until his death in 1963 indicate that he made significant earnings from his artwork, mostly from the "Vanishing South" series.
John's earlier writings display surprisingly minimal descriptive prose and visual images, e.g. the short story "Semper Fidelis," in which the introductory passage describes the arrival of a clipper to an island, the island itself, and men on a dock. Faulkner then becomes more narrative in approach as he shifts to a short incident about the rivalry of the U.S. Navy and the U.S. Marines, all this being the prelude to the story that follows. (18) "Those Who Knew," another story based on World War II, includes reference to the First World War. Here visual references are minimal. As two characters talk about a previous battle, they walk "beneath the spread limbs of the umbrella trees...." One of the men prefers only to hand out supplies rather than fight. One of the stronger visual images, coming after word arrives on the island about the bombing of Pearl Harbor, is a reference to two new rifles "recently wiped free of cosmoline in which they had been packed, and on each of them hung a steel helmet and a filled ammunition belt." (19)
The most descriptive of his war stories is "Success," published in the Mississippi Literary Review, a Maupassant-like story in which a tour bus filled with sightseers views the fictional estate of multimillionaire Thaddeus Greenlee. Here particularly, John paints a picture using color symbolically--most prominently red, gray, and green--to create a pictorial image of a man's material success based on his exploitation of the public, specifically on a greed that in the end backfires and confines him in isolation and misery at the death of his son. (20)
One passage reads: "The crowd on the bus top followed the [guide's] gesture that included the length high [red] brick wall enclosing the vast estate that surrounded the red-tiled roof, clear-cut above the landscaped trees, like an island." Hereafter Faulkner uses color as metaphor, beginning with Greenlee's surname, spelled with four "Es" that reverberate with the echoes of greed, and his repeated use of the word "tarnish." The image of the green spires is obvious in its reference to greed and corrosion. He writes: "Against the scintillating spires of his quick, sharp success, two faces passed in never ending cycle." Greenlee sees the face of his young bride "emanating from the gray, miasmic past" and his infant son's face "held gently against a pastel breast." Faulkner continues: "the yellow glow [from his wife's and child's faces] changed to the green glitter of greed, the gold of well-won respectability assumed the tarnish of cheap brass." He persists in this imagery, writing, "the tarnished green glitter overshadowed the faces," once again citing "the tarnished spires."
One looks to John's written work for parallels in approach to his painted subjects. In Dollar Cotton there are often long descriptive passages of fields and lands. The reader is presented with visual phrases like "The gray fall afternoon became grayer dusk" in which man "merged slowly into the shadows of coming night." (21) In Men Working; he takes a narrative approach that is at times visual, but there is not the sensual painterly approach to sight and sound that readers might expect from a writer who later turned his hand to art. One does not find the deeply penetrating psychological treatment found in the work of William Faulkner, although he comes closest to this in Dollar Cotton.
John's early publications were illustrated by other artists in various styles, e.g. straightforward halftones, consistent with the content of his stories, as in his 1942-43 Collier's "Treasure Trail," "Good Neighbors," and "Lawd! Lawd!" (22) The covers of his "Cabin Road" books were printed in bright colors with an emphasis on the erotic. Although these slick covers are typical of pulp paperback publications, their manner of depiction is diametrically opposite John's own creative style.
John's artistic presentation is consistent with his writing, especially his "Vanishing South" series. He accompanies each painting with a written text. The text is direct and appropriate to his intention of recording a vanishing way of life. One does not find the puffery of prose that accompanies text panels for the photograph of New Orleans photographer Clarence John Laughlin, who also documents a vanishing South through its architectural losses. Laughlin mandated that his explications must accompany his photographs when they are exhibited. Unlike Laughlin's complicated prose expressing an abstract or emotional response, John Faulkner is straightforward, and in most instances the verbal description is truly essential in understanding the scene depicted. Additionally, Laughlin speaks to the literary elite, while Faulkner speaks to "everyman."
One also has to contrast John Faulkner with Alabama folk artist Howard Finster, whose objects differ radically. Finster maintains a four-acre "garden" of crafted objects made of "found" objects, junk, and painted. forms cut out with a jigsaw. His land, a city block purchased in 1961 for $1,000, is located one hundred miles northwest of Atlanta in a valley near the edge the Blue Ridge Mountains. Finster's early pieces feature popular images or easily recognized images like Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, William Shakespeare, and John the Baptist. Although he ostensibly began to focus solely on sacred art in 1977, there are still many popular and cultural subjects in Finster's headquarters and properties. (23)
The "garden" is a factory-like enterprise, complete with assistants and fabricators, bulk mailings, and order forms for the object of one's choice and the size desired. Whether Finster was familiar with John Faulkner's "Vanishing South" series is unknown Finster's intent deviates from that of Faulkner, who passionately wished to preserve and share with others a disappearing way of life, with cognizance of the ultimate change. Additionally, Faulkner recognized the future appreciated-value of his originals, which he wished to retain for posterity, and he maintained that he "improved" with each successive painting of a subject. This implication suggested that he felt that the person who commissioned one of his works received something of himself that was a little better. While Finster is considered a folk artist without artistic training, Faulkner was largely self-trained with minimal academic instruction, beginning with lessons from his mother.
Theora Hamblett signed the guest list for John's 1963 Memorial Exhibition, held from October 6 through 26, on the last day of the exhibition. Her own highly appealing, brightly painted rural scenes differ in intent, content, style, and approach from John's. Her visit to the gallery was a touching tribute to her fellow Oxonian painter, an indication of the esteem in which John was held in his community.
John's paintings parallel his writing, for they give visual expression to his memories of scenes and incidents he experienced during his life. Despite his passion for his theme, his paintings convey a marked sense of restraint. The body of works is pronounced for its introspective qualities. Even those scenes he painted multiple times retain a sense of freshness. He brought to each new rendering variation in tone, value, and detail. Because of his dedication to his conceived series of the vanishing ways of life, John Faulkner has left a body of works that document cultural practices and architectural landmarks that have now disappeared. His artistic accomplishment merges with his literary works to portray the land of his youth, with many scenes that would otherwise be unknown to successive generations.
(1) Murry Cuthbert Falkner, "The Vanishing South and Other Pictures From the Collection of and Compiled by his Son Murry C. `Chooky' Falkner" (Memphis: privately printed, 1994), p. 24. Photographs by Wall Mixon. (16 copies)
(2) "Kroll, Faulkner Discuss Books at Ole Miss Forum," Commercial Appeal, November 1, 1942. Curiously, Harry Harrison Kroll stated that he wrote with the hope that his "comment might promote the welfare of the South." John Faulkner's eventual path takes him close to this line of thought.
(3) Phil Mullen, "John Faulkner's Talk, As Well As His Paintings, Delights Allison Audience," Madison County News, February 4, 1960, p. 1. A memo from proprietor John E. Fontaine, Jr., indicates that there had been a mailing to about 150 colony members, "and otherwise circulated." Fontaine sent the memo along with a copy of the broadside announcing John's exhibition of paintings at Allison's Wells.
(4) Madison County News, February 4, 1960, p. 1.
(5) Ann Yates Whitten, "John Faulkner Talks on Canvas," Oxford Eagle, July 11, 1957, p. 4.
(6) Oxford Eagle, January 2, 1958, Sec. 2, p. 1.
(7) "Faulkner's Paintings Shown at Club Meet," Oxford Eagle, October 1, 1959, p. 2. Mrs. Gladys Guyton served as co-hostess for the event.
(8) Phil Mullen, Madison County News, February 4, 1960, p. 1.
(9) "Local Artist to Open Show Sunday," Oxford Eagle, January 28, 1960, p. 1. The workshop was held from February 11 through February 13.
(10) Oxford Eagle, January 28, 1960,p. 1.
(11) "Art Workshop Planned at Allison's Wells," Oxford Eagle, April 14, 1960, Sect. 3, p. 4.
(12) Oxford Eagle, July 11, 1957, p. 4.
(13) "This Business of Writing," Atlanta Journal, in "Rich's Book Album," November 30, 1941, p. 21.
(14) "Here lives a man who dreams," Memphis Press-Scimitar, June 17, 1938, Sec. 2, p. 15.
(15) Margaret Silver, McCall's Visits "Miss Maud." McCall's 84 (October 1956), 21.
(16) Donald La Badie, "Brother John," Mid-South: The Commercial Appeal, November 30, 1980, pp. 4, 7-9. John Faulkner's comment appears on page 9. The surname of John's widow, Lucile Ramey "Dolly" Falkner, is often spelled "Faulkner."
(17) "See You on the Beach," original typescript, pp. 1-13, private collection.
(18) "Semper Fidelis," original typescript, 21 of 22-page ms. ("retired" April 20, 1943), private collection.
(19) "Those Who Knew," original typescript, pp. 1-5, private collection.
(20) "Success, A Story" Mississippi Literary Review, 1 (November 1941), 16-17 also; published as "Success," Atlanta Journal, November 29, 1942): p. 2.
(21) John Faulkner, Dollar Cotton, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942), p. 4.
(22) Collier's, 111 (March 6, 1943), 60, 65-68; Collier's 110 (7 November 1942), 17, 60-62; 66; Collier's, 110 (10 October 1942), 62-65.
(23) Robert Peacock, with Annibel Jenkins. Paradise Gardens: A Trip Through Howard Finster's Visionary World (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1996).
JUDITH H. BONNER United States Air Force Academy Xavier University of Louisiana
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|Author:||Bonner, Judith H.|
|Publication:||The Mississippi Quarterly|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2001|
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