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Getting There

We’ve all heard people say that you can’t get there from here. Perhaps it was first used to impart directions to a place you know in your heart exists, but is awfully difficult to find. Southern art is not an oxymoron, contrary to opinions routinely shared with me over the last three decades. (It is important to note here that the persons who have voiced this belief were usually “from off.”) It is only now, in a new millennium, colored by thirty years’ travel, that we can claim to have found our way, albeit by a twisted road. I can say, with all honesty, that this road has offered enough gullies along the way to make me wonder if the old saw was true. I am, however, living proof that you can indeed get there—or somewhere close to it—from just about nowhere.

Necessity has been my teacher. Certainly there have been extraordinary tutors: collectors, scholars, and other dealers. But, in large part, my best instructor has been the travel required to wander from an unrecognizable curiosity to an identifiable corpus. Margaret Mitchell was of the mind that “Southerners can never resist a losing cause,” and that might have been my motto. Good sense might have sent me down another road; an innate pessimism might have wised me up. I was excited by the notion that I could buy and sell something real, something that shared artistic elements with the county library posters I rotated through my high school bedroom.

The painting that literally turned me down the right path was a little watercolor by an unknown artist of what the Kennedy Galleries staff in New York thought to be an unknown subject. I did not even have the several hundred dollars needed to take it home. With incredible generosity, Kennedy’s Jacques Weigert gave me credit, and I took the small painting South, back to an appreciative Columbus Museum of Art in Columbus, Georgia. The scene portrayed the old Eagle and Phenix Mill, a dye house in the Confederacy. Nineteenth century greige goods, or unfinished cloth, had been brought there from the Southeast to be colored Confederate Gray, then floated down the Chattahoochee River to Apalachicola. From there, the fabric found its way to many other ports in Dixie.

I didn’t buy the piece and then take it home, magically inspired to make art my career. I didn’t even buy the piece because it was “Southern Art,” as I hadn’t yet figured even that out. The unvarnished truth is that personal familiarity with the mill captured my attention. I bought the piece because my father had begun his textile career in that very pile of red bricks in 1949, the year of my birth, and I remembered the site from childhood. The Reconstructed South and another hundred years of poor manufacturing economies had not substantially changed the building. That recognition, intersecting with the availability of the piece and, I suppose, my willingness to spend money I did not have, worked together to somehow add value. The successful—and serendipitous—outcome with something that just happened to be Southern made me want to do it again.

Unknown Artist, American ()
Eagle and Phenix Manufacturing Company ()
Watercolor and gouache on paper
9.5 x 13 inches
Owner: Collection of the Columbus Museum of Art, Columbus, Georgia; Gift of G. Gunby Jordan in honor of the Columbus Museum’s Silver Anniversary.
1451 River Road · Yemassee, SC 29945 · 843.412.8738
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