Shubuta & Other Stories
ONE HUNDRED SENTENCES
regarding SHUBUTA & OTHER STORIES
It may be understood that paintings are always primarily about painting.
Certain themes persist.
Maurice Denis tells us to “[r]emember that a painting – before it is a battle horse, a nude model, or some anecdote – is essentially a flat surface covered with colours assembled in a certain order.”
I did not set out to paint about slavery, or bigotry.
I did set out to paint about family stories and place.
The family stories are mine and the place is Mississippi.
What is unique about the South is not racism, not even its institutionalization – you can find that in the North, too.
Celebrating difference does not come easily for humans, even if recognizing difference does.
What may be unique about the South is its specificity regarding racism.
My family in Mississippi owned thousands of slaves.
There are records, signed contracts, inventory lists.
In 1828, my mother’s mother’s mother’s father’s father’s father was Governor of Mississippi and proposed to legislators that there be no more slaves brought to the state and the practice, “an evil at best,” should be ended within a generation. They didn’t go for it. In a state record of 1860, thirty-two years later, his own son was listed as owning 512 slaves.
I do not recount this to condemn my family. Having slave-owning ancestors doesn’t make you a racist, but being a slave owner does.
Being an artist doesn’t free you from bias.
I am interested in making paintings, not in making social statements.
I’m not even interested in making artist statements.
The financial benefits of slavery were not enjoyed only in the South.
Bigotry is not a rural phenomenon.
I am interested in family, memory, history, my own and others’.
I could look at other people’s family albums all day.
Specificity pulls me in.
Questions arise from stories, both factual and
apocryphal, passed from mother and father to son and daughter.
Want to pull out an old slide carousel?
We have all night.
Should art be interrogatory, not declarative? One has a certain fascination with unresolvable questions.
Thousands of slaves were owned by my ancestors.
I don’t know how many stayed in Mississippi.
Presumably tens of thousands of current residents of the state are descended from people once owned by my family.
Painting is about capturing.
Storytelling is about preserving.
I don’t know if that’s true.
No, drawing is about preserving.
The Corinthian girl so long ago traces the flickering shadow of her lover on the wall before he left for war.
There is a case to be made for preservation.
Or is preserving always romanticizing?
You guessed it, he didn’t come back.
We know romanticizing to be hazardous.
We know a romantic past is a daydream.
When we long for a lost paradise, what we mean is our garden was taken from us.
“We didn’t surrender the good times, they were stolen.”
“There were the good times, and now there is now, and someone is to blame.”
“It was an economic decision.”
“They didn’t hate their slaves”.
“The field hands were a good investment.”
The house servants tended to their daily needs and to their children.
If you want to say something good, use your words.
No, better to use your actions.
Is there anything less significant than a history painting in the 21st century?
Paint can do very little beyond itself.
If you want to do some good in the world, have an apple.
Walls are for collectors.
It is good to look at paintings quietly, daily, over a period of years, decades, generations if possible.
There is a dimension beyond what can be experienced at this moment, and it’s called make-believe.
Images are resolved formally not conceptually.
Imagery propagates itself.
We were taught that my mother’s family were intellectuals, philosophers, scholars, doctors and planters.
My great great grandfather, a child during the Civil War, remembered how the black Union soldier stationed at their home to protect them from jayhawkers and bandits during the chaotic time of the federal occupation of Natchez would whittle toy bayonets out of cane for the little boy to play with.
They played soldiers; well, one of them was playing.
He grew into a respected man, one people thought of as good.
While a law student at the University of Mississippi in the 1880’s, he and his friends on a lark held a mock trial of a young black man they met on a bridge.
For fun they held him, made up his crime, and convicted him right there on the bridge.
After the fun, they sent him on his way into the night.
In the 1930’s he referred to the Klan as a “necessary evil.”
“Servants” ” nurses” “maids” and “drivers” feature marginally in family letters, always with nurturing and friendly feelings.
Black people were often the last to see my ancestors alive.
Sam Brown, my great great grandfather’s great grandfather’s “trusted body servant”, was with him when he died beside his horse in 1823.
This continues right up to Wilfred, the yard man, my grandfather’s last hospital visitor.
And again to Sandra, the caretaker of my aunt and grandmother, both recently passed.
There may be little to glean here but interconnectedness.
In the minds of many white Southerners was not hatred of black people, but restoring the “previous social order.”
And fear, of course.
The previous order was seen as balanced, prosperous, natural.
As it happened, that previous order relied on white supremacy.
Memory is the same as History, just shorter and confined to one person.
History is the same as Memory, just longer and more crowded.
Both have unreliable narrators.
To intervene is to come between.
To interfere is to strike between.
Some are highly controlled and intentional, while others are improvisational, gestural: paintings, I mean.
I grew up mostly in a small river town whose system of race and class distinctions were strictly enforced by the ruling class.
Of course neither this town nor its system are special for that.
Is there any value in painting about something that even words — arguably a much more efficient medium — struggle to describe?
My work is finding a way to make paintings that are analogous to the way my mind works.
Not because the world needs to see how my mind works but if my painting is like my thinking, it will come without obstruction.
What artist doesn’t want that?
I recall Philip Guston’s long, long preparation for a few moments of innocence, and then I name my son Guston.
Trying to speak plainly about an uncomfortable subject is at least an alternative to catastrophic politeness.
On Sept 16th 1841, one of my ancestors gave $34.25 to his wife’s father to rent his servant William for three months.
After that they agreed he would be on loan as needed until April for $10 per month – about $263 today.
Painting can kick off involuntary thoughts and dreamlike associations in the brain.
For some, this is enjoyable.
The world needs good deeds to be done.
Painting does not do that kind of good in the world.
If I were raised on the ocean, I might paint what I observed about the waves.
If I were raised in the trees, I might paint what I knew of the canopy, of birds and bugs.
In real stories, everyone is human.
I would like to thank Julia Martin Wimmer, Sam Dunson, Jochen Wierich, Jessica Eichman, Anna Saterstrom, and Jules, Vivi, and Gus Saterstrom for encouraging me to make and show this work.
Shubuta & Other Stories is dedicated to my family.