I received my first painting as a gift from grandparents (art collectors themselves) when I was four. They had commissioned a Louisiana artist to paint a small oil on canvas of Betsy Ross sewing the American Flag; I had a mild obsession with her and with Dolly Parton, my first divas. When I got to school after the winter break and classmates shared what they had received for Christmas (my elementary school was affiliated with the very conservative arm of the Presbyterian Church, the Presbyterian Church in America, so even saying “winter break” was viewed as odd), I got some pretty strange looks from my classmates when I said, proudly, “A painting of Betsy Ross!” In a more hostile environment, that could have translated to my later hearing “Kid, give me your lunch money,” but luckily it did not.
But growing up around art, principally because of my grandparents’ collection of primarily Southern art, allowed me to understand that creativity had value: social, economic, and familial. I loved walking around my grandparents’ house as if it were a gallery or museum and hearing Billy or Dot (they, being far too fabulous, bristled at the idea of any traditional monikers to mark them as “advanced in age”) talk about Walter Anderson, Andrew Bucci, Bill Dunlap, Theora Hamblett, William Hollingsworth, or Clementine Hunter, among others. And there was always a rotating cast of characters in the collection, as I understood that paintings were bought and sold rather regularly, as Billy, Hickey Freeman clad and pocket squared, has always been one to pursue actively deal after deal. In fact, just a few months ago, as I walked through the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans, I saw one of Theora Hamblett’s best works, Making Sorghum, and I was taken back to Sunday night dinners at Dot and Billy’s house on Ridge Drive, where I first encountered that particular work presiding over their mantle.
That Dot and Billy started my collection has been one of their greatest gifts to me. And they continue to grow my collection, giving what they love—an exchange that is incredibly intimate and purposeful, curating a sense of taste in another generation. Or, maybe more appropriately, prodding another generation to develop a sense of taste, a point of view, an aesthetic bent that appreciates and places value on art and its communicative power.
The apartment where I live is a gorgeous space—part of an Italianate duplex built in 1870 on the campus of Western Reserve Academy. And every inch of wall space has something hanging: more is, indeed, more. I love the juxtaposition of things and try not to overcomplicate the curation or design of what’s going where. Work by a Sufi artist from Morocco is nestled amongst painted pieces of driftwood by a Bahamian artist; a photo of Square Books in Oxford, MS, is juxtaposed next to a photo of a man pealing apples on a houseboat in Kashmir by the incomparable Jane Rule Burdine. Everett McCourt’s haunting photograph that nods to Passolini and Salo hangs next to a visionary work (one that reminded me of Guernica) by Jaime Makinde, a Cuban artist working in Germany. Each wall is a visual conversation.
What I think draws me to collecting art, besides a familial predisposition, is an obsession with the narratives attached to, inside, and surrounding the art on the walls. There’s the story of the artist, the story of the canvas, the story of acquiring. Cue William Carlos Williams, “No ideas but in things.” Some pieces make visual arguments; all seem to invite the viewer to look closely or differently, in a similar way to what literary language does: adjusts our ways of making sense of the world. As much as I collect things that are interesting or challenging or beautiful, I collect the stories that swirl around those things. Is a Southerner really a Southerner who doesn’t value narrative?
I love how the advent and growth of the e-book puts pressure on the printed book to become an art object as well. When I realized that my first book was coming into the world, I wondered what it would look like—how a cover or piece of cover art could capture some aspect of the grief or love or anger that went into the book’s construction. The physical experience of the book—visual, tactile—is part of the aesthetic experience.
I had recently moved to Birmingham, Alabama, and was spending time getting to know the city; I fell in love with Forest Park, a historic neighborhood that easily blended beautiful residences and a fun retail and dining scene. One Saturday, I went into an art gallery that was in a converted bungalow—not forbidding or severe as some galleries can be (though, admittedly, I am often still drawn to these spaces as well).
When I opened the door, I saw a cluster of small-scale collages on wood panels all by a Chattanooga-based artist, Hollie Chastain. I saw several collages that I thought presented interesting opportunities for a book cover. After snapping some pictures and sending them to Charlie Jensen, the book’s editor and my dear friend, we agreed that the piece called “Losing Track of the Tragic Seasons” was perfect for the book. Hollie was generous enough to allow us to use the image for the book, and she also then inspired me to become an avid collector of her work.
Hollie also provided stunning artwork for The Queer South: LGBTQ Writers on the American South, and she also fulfilled a commission for three of my favorite pieces, collages on book covers that pay homage to three Mississippi writers: William Faulkner, Eudora Welty, and Tennessee Williams. I provided her with a few quotes by each author, and then let her do what she felt best. I really did see the words of these important writers in new ways, thanks to Hollie’s vision.
While in D.C. for AWP this year, I went to a great gathering at Sandra Beasley and her husband Champneys Taylor’s house. I hadn’t had the opportunity to talk with Champneys before, but I knew that he was an accomplished artist. By the end of the evening, we had plans to go together to see a show that he was a part of; even better, it was hanging in the Austrian Embassy.
So while panels and book fairs and hotel bar conversations waged on, I went to the Embassy to see the show and immediately found myself drawn to his work: color, texture, gesture all demanding more consideration and appreciation of the concept at work. Each painting could be read or experienced variously—welcoming and hospitable, and I appreciated his commentary on the iterative process that sounded analogous to working with language.
A trip to his studio in NW D.C. gave more insight into the development of his work, and I found myself coming back to two canvases every few minutes. It was like a match on Tinder, without a bio or swiping or awkward conversation, and now those two paintings have found their way from D.C. to Ohio. And, through the whole process, I was reminded that art catalyzes growth, connection, and community; what is often created in solitude is celebrated communally.
When I read proposed budgets that talk of the intent to eliminate funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, I realize that the burden shifts to individuals and the private sector to support creative pursuits. Once again, we have to put our energy and money where our values are: buying each other’s books, supporting the presses and magazines that support the work of authors, buying art that speaks to us and hanging it on our walls, listening to the stories that people have to tell, embracing the role of patron as well as artist. Let’s not allow a budget proposal to stifle creative production; instead, let’s continue to create, collect, and celebrate with abandon.
I’m not suggesting we just accept this erasure of public funding to the arts—not at all. We do have to be prepared to think, act, and fund important work and projects through different channels and keep talking about (and voting for and lobbying for) the necessity of the arts in a creative, free, and productive state.