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Leverage

I believe that Southern art and its pursuit down so many blind alleys and treacherous roads has proven a victorious cause. It is not an oxymoron, but a melding of all things Southern—things known, accepted, and appreciated no longer only by natives, but by a larger audience as well. I reflect now about how this career of mine came to be and, from this seasoned vantage point, can understand that it was the South and my love for it that led me to the art. My first art purchase— literally the first painting I bought, a small canvas by William Aiken Walker, obtained from Herman Schindler, a shopkeeper on lower King Street in Charleston—resonated, in a fundamental and powerful way, with some portion of my Southern experience.

Clearly, most folks do it the other way around. They get a diploma and, in the process of doing so, seek out, research, and document paintings. Through such scholarship, they earn both documentation and validation, passports that launch them into the wider world of art. Those of us with English degrees from ivy-walled institutions are fond of saying that a liberal arts education teaches one to think, a school of thought with which I wholeheartedly agree. But it was more than the broad exposure earned in required college courses. My very life had been a walk in Southern woods, eyes open to the wonder and truth of what the South is—and would be to me.

In his introduction to the Greenville County Museum’s Southern Collection catalogue, Tom Styron provided us with an enlightening explanation as to just what that art—Southern Art—is. “We have defined the Southern connections in generous terms: an artist may have been born in the South, worked or taught here, or portrayed a subject of significance to Southern culture or history.” Randy Delehanty gave, perhaps, the most prosaic brief history in his Art in the American South, a catalogue of works from the Ogden Collection. Numerous other scholars have taken the specific, smaller topics and made them fit wonderfully well into a unified whole. These essays and explorations were not there when I began in 1972.

Today, there are major museums devoted to the subject of Southern art. Without question, the Greenville County Museum of Art in South Carolina, Morris Museum of Art in Augusta, and Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans share the institutional center stage. Other noteworthy institutions collect material specific to their regions or a particular branch of history, but have not dedicated their heart and soul to the art of the South. The Virginia Museum, for instance, does not collect Virginia art with any special enthusiasm, but the Virginia Historical Society, just next door, has built a stellar collection. The Gibbes Museum of Art in Charleston has long benefited from the largesse of an ancestor-proud community and thereby amassed an exceptional collection of portraits of its citizens. In more recent years, it has enthusiastically supported the work of a thriving colony of resident painters. The Gibbes, like so many institutions, has stirred community support to keep or bring masterpieces of local interest home as they have become available. The Cheekwood Museum and Botanical Gardens in Nashville collects “the Eight” and, heaven knows, the High Museum in Atlanta will always cast its lot with whatever plays well on the international front. I am thankful for the High’s Southern castoffs, won fair and square against estimates from both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. Interests and appetites change, and this will always mean opportunity.

Wall Street types call it arbitrage. To my mind, I have simply leveraged my Southern roots. I saw that Columbus, Georgia watercolor at Kennedy Galleries and recognized the subject: the textile mill in which my father worked, the courtyard where I had played as a child. I had seen Cincinnati and counted its hills. I knew that the bed for Virginia’s Highway 11 is laid on top of the Natural Bridge. Familiarity bred commerce.

There is a bend in the Mississippi seventy miles down river from New Orleans. On April 24, 1862, Admiral Farragut’s Union fleet of heavily armed, steam-powered warships overpowered the land fortifications of the Confederates there. Union success in this conflict led to the surrender of the Crescent City to federal forces five days later. I know that countryside, but better know the details of the battle, having owned major and minor versions of the painting that I believe best illustrates it.

In 2008, Jane and I were in New York on business and visited Alexander Gallery, one of the more interesting stops that anyone in the pursuit of fine art can make. My standard query for Southern pieces produced several paintings, one of which was a battle scene that they felt just might meet my parameters. The gallery’s principal, Alexander Acevedo, had loaned the painting to the American ambassador to the United Nation’s residence. Regardless, we were encouraged to see it, but there was security to clear. An appointment was scheduled for the following day.

Alice and Courtney, two of Alex’s associates, met me at the Madison Avenue gallery for the cab ride to the Waldorf. Waiting in the lobby for the elevator that would take us to the ambassador’s apartment, I put my hands in my jacket pockets and—uh-oh—fingered the round forms of several shotgun shells. As the elevator doors opened, I bent down and dropped the contraband in the brass waste can, looking not unlike a giant shotgun shell itself.

While Alex and his staff may have suspected the scene to be Southern, I knew it to be. I had been there. I don’t believe, however, that James Hamilton had. Though the climactic combat of the April battle took place in morning darkness, Hamilton depicts the scene at sunrise, the brilliant light providing a showcase for the artist’s attention to detail. In painting Battle of Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson some two years after the event, Hamilton, a savvy marketer, relied on the earlier expositions of others to create a personal interpretation of a timely and topical subject. The very popularity of such pictorial accounts, as much as anything, led me to an easy identification—and Alex to an easy sale. We brought the painting back to Charleston. Soon after, I sold it via cell phone as I drove my tractor on Calm in the Shadow Farm. Today, this magnificent painting is in a private collection in New Orleans. I continue to spend time on the tractor.

James Hamilton (1819-1878)
Battle of Fort St. Philip and Fort Jackson (1864)
Oil on canvas
20 x 30 inches
Owner: Private Collection, New Orleans, Louisiana
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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