The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South
Arkansas Arts Center – 2/28/14 – 6/1/14
[My Father Was Big as a Tree, 1955]
My friend Ann convinced me to drive over to Little Rock to see the Carroll Cloar exhibit, and I’m very glad I did. I don’t like traveling, but when I do, art is often my inspiration to leave home.
Carroll Cloar [1913-1993], a southern painter from Earle, Arkansas explored a variety of realistic, although surreal painting styles. This exhibit, organized by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Arkansas Arts Center, is your best chance ever at seeing a significant number of Cloar’s paintings in one place. I knew little of Cloar beforehand, or his work, and had only accidently seen a couple of his paintings at the Brooks. This is a great opportunity to see a huge exhibit of Cloar’s artwork. Cloar capture’s memories of a time and place in vivid dreamlike colors, that is both haunting to the soul, yet pleasing to the vision.
The Eyes of an Era
Cloar was born three years before my mother in 1913, so I see his paintings as memorializing her generation. Even the paintings Cloar painted in the 1980s are memories of life in the 1920s and 1930s, and often they remind me of family photographs I’ve inherited from my mother and her family. Cloar’s paintings are a unique view of southern life. One of his paintings, “Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog” reminds me when we lived in Marks, Mississippi in 1960.
[Where The Southern Cross The Yellow Dog, 1965]
Cloar was white, but often painted black people. It is very hard to separate his paintings from the racism I encountered when I lived in Mississippi in 1960 and 1966. I grew up in Miami, but sometimes lived in the south, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and other times lived in the north, Ohio, Pennsylvanian and New Jersey. Living in the south was always a culture shock for me in the 1950s and 1960s. Cloar is an artist whose work totally fits within my lifetime, even though his inspiration was his youth that coincided with my mother’s growing-up years. In other words, both my memories, and history of the times, corrupt my ability to see what Cloar shows me in his art. What he saw and what I remember gets mixed up. That’s both good, and bad.
I believe Carroll Cloar worked to remember the past without the racism. What he painted was visual life. You don’t see the polarized conflict, which is why he seldom painted pictures with both blacks and whites in the same scene.
Cloar captured the beauty he saw, as if it was a timeless memory, but all too often people viewing his paintings will remember the ugliness of the times. If you are from the South, and of a certain age, experiencing these paintings are going to trigger reactions and emotions different from say seeing 19th century French Impressionistic paintings. My friend Ann would cry while viewing some of Cloar’s paintings.
It was especially hard emotionally to learn of Cloar’s childhood friend, Charlie Mae, a little black girl. While kids, they were close, but a dispute over a puppy separated them as friends. Later in life, Cloar would often paint memories of Charlie Mae, who strangely ended up living near him in Memphis, yet they never met again.
[Charlie Mae Practicing for the Baptism, 1974]
What To Read Before You Go – Or In Case You Can’t
- The Art and Life of Carroll Cloar – Memphis Magazine
- A gallery of Cloar’s paintings online at the Brooks Museum
- Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog by John J. Tackett
- Carroll Cloar at the David Lusk Gallery
- Carroll Cloar in His Studio
- Paintings at ArtNet.com
- The Art of Carroll Cloar
- Summer of Cloar
[Wedding Party, 1971]
JWH – 5/5/14