Exorcising Your Ghosts, Honoring Your Dead

Carroll Cloar Halloween

Carroll Cloar “Halloween,” (1960)

With Halloween here and All Saints/Souls Days following on its heels, it seemed a good time to share a few pieces from painter Carroll Cloar.

I was surprised to see a blatant presence of the Klan in Cloar’s “Halloween.” His work captures and presents every day life with, as iDiva put it, “stories of panthers and baptisms and dead neighbors and lost friends.”  Typically I see a more subtle approach with a mix of deadpan and nostalgia, and a feeling of simmering tension in what we’re not being told shown. While there has been some discussion of what “Halloween” might mean, it seems that there are still more questions than answers.

“Patty Bladon, during her recent talk about Cloar at the Georgia Museum of Art, feels the girl came over the hill and found the white-sheeted men,” says gallerist David Lusk. “I’m not sure whether the masked girl is running away or just paused as she runs toward the house. There’s the issue of the masked girl and the white-sheeted men.  Why did Cloar have them all behind a guise?  Are the white-sheeted men ghosts or Klansmen?  Why does this young girl have on an old-person mask?

“From my research this is the only painting with klansmen depicted.  He painted many paintings that venture into social realism and depiction of societal misfortunes.  He grew up in the rural south at a time when the klan was in full swing, so certainly he knew about them, and he might even have known members of that group.

“Keep in mind that Cloar’s best friend growing up was Charlie Mae, a black girl his age, whose parents worked on the Cloar farm.  He shows himself in paintings and stories as completely color-blind; that attitude would have been a difficult position to maintain in the early 20th century, especially in Eastern Arkansas.”

When tomorrow comes my attention will turn from Halloween to the Day of the Dead. In 2008, I wrote a Southernist post likening the Mexican tradition of Day of the Dead to the Southern tradition of Decoration Day. I’m not sure many bought it. Cloar’s “Gibson Bayou Anthology” feels like it ties the two together as well, unintentionally of course.

“…there is always an undertone of mystery and sadness to Cloar’s work,” said curator Stanton Thomas. “In many ways his paintings are visual parallels to the Gothic tendencies in the works of Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner. And like those masterworks, Cloar’s most powerful paintings draw us into a world which, although beautiful, is often filled with primal fears, bitter injustice, familiar ghosts, family tensions, fitful dreams, the irretrievably lost past, and the desire for, and yet the struggle with, faith.”

Carroll Cloar "Gibson Bayou Anthology" (1956)

Carroll Cloar “Gibson Bayou Anthology” (1956)

“Gibson Bayou Anthology is Cloar’s riff on Spoon River Anthology and Our Town, in my mind,” Lusk continues.  “Yes, I agree, it’s All Souls inspired.  His religious background was evangelical Methodist, so presumably All Souls/Saints day wouldn’t have been part of his upbringing.  However, he certainly experienced that during his years in Mexico.  He knew all the folks in the painting — relatives, friends and townsfolk, alike.  What I particularly like is his signature, placed like a foot-stone.”

“If you will go northward in Arkansas, you will see people who might have stepped out of my mother’s album; early American faces, timeless dress and timeless customs. But they are changing too. They are the last of the Old America that isn’t long for this Earth.” Carroll Cloar (source)

The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South is on view at the Georgia Museum of Art in Athens until Jan 5, 2014.

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