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Traveling Man

I traveled an awful lot throughout those early years. Until recently—and perhaps with the exception of Charleston and New Orleans—there were never sizeable concentrations of either paintings or collectors of a Southern sensibility in any one place in the country, or even in the South. Spartanburg, South Carolina was a mighty good place to raise a family, but I had to take my stock on the road to find an audience.

My automobile was my gallery. A typical trip would have me leaving Spartanburg late in the afternoon, headed for the moneyed enclaves of Atlanta, New Orleans, and points beyond. My first stop was often an evening with Bob Coggins in Marietta—always dining at Montecalvos out on Highway 41 and always ordering “Angela’s Special.” Funny, I remember the name of the dish, but not its ingredients or flavor. The restaurant closed after Bob died, which surprised none of us. Deanne Levison, who learned the lessons of decorative arts early and well, introduced me to many collectors in Buckhead. Among them, Bill and Florence Griffin and Paul and Sally Hawkins greatly encouraged my interest in Southern material, not because they collected paintings per se, but because they were Southern through and through. They exposed me to the material culture, giving me a backdrop for what was to come.

From Atlanta, it was north toward Nashville and west to Memphis, down to Jackson, Mississippi, and on to New Orleans. Logan and Renza Sewell would kindly put me up en route for a day— more frequently two—and immerse me in the South from the Natchez perspective. The other way point on these trips was Mobile, where Jay Altmayer would inevitably tell me to “call Nan to see if she will let you spend the night.” I would and she did, and, over long and pleasant evenings with the two of them, I came to truly understand how a passion for the South and for America at large came together to build a collection of national proportion. On other trips, I’d switch things up by including stops in Birmingham or Montgomery, but the road show always culminated in Tuscaloosa. Gulf States Paper Corporation is in Tuscaloosa, and so is Jack Warner.

In 1989, on the occasion of our publication of Look Away: Reality and Sentiment in Southern Art, the Altmayers invited collectors from the Mobile community for celebratory cocktails. Jack and Elizabeth Warner, along with their curator Charles Hilburn, flew down for the evening. Each man was master of his universe, and I am not sure there has been so much bravado in any single room in the state of Alabama before or since.

Clients were, by and large, exceedingly considerate and generously hospitable, but there were a few exceptions. I have unloaded painting upon painting—painstakingly and painfully—in the baking summertime sun at a client’s office, only to be asked to put it all back and “follow me to the house,” where I would do it all over again. Deep in south Georgia, one fine and avid collector’s wife could not be bothered to pause in her game of computer solitaire to greet me upon arrival—or to offer so much as a peanut as the meeting extended long past dark. I called at one museum to meet their new director who was unnervingly cold. I mentioned the books available in her museum store that I had published and recalled the images of paintings I had sent to her attention a week or so before my visit. She said simply that unsolicited materials were thrown away. I am not, by nature, a grudgeful man, but that exchange made it difficult to remember that institution when paintings that might be of interest to it have come my way.

James Augustus McLean (1904-1989)
At the Railroad Shops, Smoky Hollow, Raleigh, North Carolina (1930)
Oil on canvas
40 1/8 x 30 1/8 inches
Signature Details: Lower right
Owner: Private Collection, Raleigh, North Carolina
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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