Delo to Joey: I dreamt things didn’t go well for us, and we had to move into a double wide studio type trailer. There was carpet in the bathroom but it had a huge whirlpool bathtub, and we were happy.
* All photos taken by Cheree in November 2007 and February 2008. All rights reserved.
Downtown Clarksdale. I love the colors. Most people–those not entirely blinded by the invented romance of “the Blues”–think of the Delta as barren and desolate, a cliched tragedy or a scene out of the most unforgiving Cormac McCarthy novel. (In fact, the area was a serious location contender for The Road before the producers settled on the outskirts of similarly notorious Braddock, Pennsylvania and post-Katrina New Orleans.)
I think of the Delta as vibrant, messy, friendly, noisy and astounding. It’s a place where you can still get moonshine in the bars, if you know how and who and where to ask. It’s a place where they have the best pies I’ve ever tasted (coconut or chocolate, Resthaven diner, Clarksdale), a place where crop-dusters soar overhead and white boys sing the blues while black kids hone their raps and talk about that friend of a friend of an uncle who got a record deal up in Memphis. It’s a place with no faith and a lot of love, or maybe no love and a lot of faith, or sometimes plenty of both, a place where every road leads to a church and every church swells with the gospel–singing or preaching, one and the same, earnest and loud.
Someone once told me that the reason so many buildings are painted sky blue in tropical shanty-towns and heat-blanketed, soft-air places like Havana is because “bugs won’t land in the sky.” This picture was taken in February, but taken with summer in mind. Summer is when the Mississippi air feels like a caress, and yeah, the bugs come out. They come out but don’t land in the sky.
With the exception of her time at Rhode Island School of Design, Erica Flannes has spent her whole life in Jackson, Mississippi. She’s a fine artist (“if you can call it that,” she scoffs), a tattoo artist and to many people in our small city, an anomaly. Rather than know Erica, it seems you know of Erica. Mythologies form around this girl. I have a friend who used to spot her at the mall, peering at the sickly-yellow world behind a thick veil of dark hair. For some reason, he decided that she is essentially Allie Sheedy’s character in The Breakfast Club—which makes her awesome in his book. She has a shy-tuff thing going on. When you see Erica out at night, which is rare, she’s an elusive figure in heavy eyeliner and killer hairpieces, a girl who seemingly speaks only in response. Yet the photos (often self-portraits) that create her morphing online persona depict a vampy starlet, a burlesque queen, a storybook heroine, or dozen other archetypal femmes that ooze, in various parts, danger, surreality and sugary-sweetness. But this online persona also seems disarmingly candid and loyal. She promotes her friends’ bands, their artwork or, through her own photographs and paintings, her friends’ themselves. During the day, Erica keeps things flowing at The Inkspot Gallery, a hip tattoo-parlor-cum-pop-art-space. She covers frilly dresses with gingham aprons before aiming her gun at others, and often she tattoos in heels.
She’s also the only artist in the shop with a prep school education and study abroad (Italy) decking her resume. Both her personal work and her tattoos share illustrative sensibilities, but I’m most impressed by her profusion and her range of styles and mediums. She spans the spectrum from macabre to whimsical, referencing among other things, art-deco, French royalty and Tom Waits. Erica’s work is accessible and often humorous. And for all the swirling hype, Erica comes across as genuine, friendly and, for a girl with 40-odd tattoos, surprisingly wholesome. She loves her dogs, she goes on mission trips, she wants to do well at work, and basically she’s just living and creating as it comes to her.
In mid-September, Greely Myatt was the focus of a citywide, 8-venue exhibit celebrating his twenty years of service teaching sculpture at the University of Memphis. More recently Myatt exhibited at Mississippi State University, a school he briefly attended on athletic scholarship in the 70’s. After the accompanying panel discussion, I had a brief chat with Greely. Among other things, we discussed our mutual admiration for Dave Hickey’s essays and pondered what Hickey would think of Damien Hirst for working over the art market, rather than letting it work him (conclusion: Hickey would love it).
Greely grew up in tiny Aberdeen, Mississippi in the 50’s and 60’s. There was little exposure to “art,” but there were Biblical illustrations, paintings in History textbooks and best of all, comic books. His childhood sounds idyllic: jigsaw puzzles, erector sets, homemade tree houses and go-carts, laying the foundation for a lifetime of making things.
Clever and subtly humorous, Greely’s work is a dialogue between esoteric allusions and “simple” vernacular methods. Maybe it’s even an example of high-art being subverted by folk (low-brow) art. His work is made from found objects that reference the narrative of daily southern life (broomsticks, road-signs, decorative food tins) but it makes sophisticated statements about canonical art. Essentially, Greely is critiquing art as institution both from within the institution—the public university and the museums—and from outside the institution, as a rural southerner and a vernacular artist. While remaining generous and genuine, his work comments on how vernacular art functions (dismissively) in the academic canon and how this canon has come to define how we think about art.
But you don’t have to get the joke to get the art. Greely has a genuine respect for his materials, for their history and connotation, and for his own geography. If you’re seeped in southern culture, even if you know nothing about art, Greely’s work is touching and validating to your daily experience. A scholar will see one thing, a casual observer another, but both will get something from of the experience—and something different from what Greely, in his perpetual quest to amuse himself, is getting.
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When we first stepped up to the plywood building, off some unfamiliar highway somewhere between Starkville and Montpelier, I was psyched to be going to a real Mississippi roadhouse.
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