The 1980s in the New South was a time of miracles and wonders, and poet Jonathan Williams, of Scaly Mountain, N.C, made it a point to visit those wonders while they still existed.
He organized regular road trips with his photographer friends, Guy Mendes and Roger Manley, to see the yard art and homespun masterpieces scattered in little towns like Buena Vista, Ga., and Moyock, N.C.
Today the wild-haired world that they toured has changed. Much of the work by the folk artists that they admired has been bulldozed, tossed, erased. But a good portion has become recognized by the mainstream, and collected, at a great price, by museums.
That includes the works of Eddie Owens Martin (“St. EOM”), Sam Doyle, Mose Tolliver, Thornton Dial, Edgar Tolson, Georgia Blizzard, Sister Gertrude Morgan and Howard Finster; All were visited by the jolly trio, and all are represented in the permanent collection at the High Museum of Art.
The three documented their adventures in words and pictures, with the intent of creating a book. But Williams died in 2008, and the manuscript for the book sat on a dusty shelf for 20 years, until Mendes suggested to his art-book-publishing friend Phillip March Jones that the project should be resuscitated.
Ten years too late for Williams to see it, “Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey,” is now a reality. Accompanying the book is a new show at the High, matching the words and photos from those journeys with the work that inspired them.
Williams writes in the book, “We have traveled many thousands of miles, together and separately, to document what tickled us, what moved us, and what (sometimes) appalled us.”
Mendes and Manley recently visited the High to speak at a forum organized by the museum. The AJC caught up with them beforehand, when they recounted memories of adventures with Jonathan.
“Jonathan did all the driving, and he liked to play Mahler on the radio,” said Mendes. The car was a green Volkswagen bug named Okra, and Williams was an imposing 6-foot-5. “It was not a big car. Then he would start directing, like a conductor, and you wondered if those long arms would hit you in the nose.”
Williams talked the duo into traveling with him because both were already interested in documenting folk artists, Manley in North Carolina and Mendes in Lexington, Ky. But some of the places that they had photographed in the past had already been destroyed by the time they arrived with Williams.
Jolly Joshua Samuels decorated several parcels of his Walterboro, S.C. property with cans in a work he called “Can City.” But by the time Manley brought Williams to see it, a windstorm had leveled it.
Others were luckier. Woodcarver Edgar Tolson, of Campton, Ky., had his work purchased by the Smithsonian, which helped and harmed him, said Mendes.
“It had a good impact on him and had a not so good impact on him. It fueled his alcoholism, but he enjoyed life. He was funny and fun to be around.” While Tolson’s wife and 18 children lived halfway up a hill outside of town, Tolson, stayed alone in a trailer on top of the hill, said Mendes. Recounting a visit from the time, Mendes said “He leaned back and looked at me, and said ‘I love living up here, drinking these soda pops and eating these baloney sandwiches’”
A reporter from Mendes’ native New Orleans once suggested that the results of these tours could be summed up this way: “You drive around and take picture of people.”
Manley points out that Walker Evans and Matthew Brady could be described in the same terms.
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Jones writes in a foreword to the book, “At the time of its creation, the authors and photographers could not have guessed that works by Henry Speller and Thornton Dial, among others, would be in the permanent collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art or that ST. EOM’s Pasaquan would receive a multi-million-dollar restoration from the Kohler Foundation. They did, however, clearly recognize the unconventional and fundamental talent of the artists contained within, documenting them and their works with enthusiasm, care, and a healthy dose of humor.”
If You Go
“Way Out There: The Art of Southern Backroads”
Through May 19. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Fridays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. $14.50, ages 6 and older; free for children 5 and younger and members. High Museum of Art, 1280 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta. 404-733-4444, high.org.
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