Making Vivid a Fading South
Alabama Occupies a Special Place in Christenberry's Art

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 25, 2006

In an unusual move, Smithsonian American Art Museum curators gave 69-year-old Washington artist William Christenberry a new job -- that of curator for his own show and for a selection of folk art from the museum's holdings.

"Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry" and his outsider-art choices enjoy prime spots among the newly renovated museum's inaugural shows. His own artworks will remain on view for almost a year.

Hale County, Ala., is Christenberry's muse. He's visited every year since 1968. "Passing Time" includes 60 of the works that have come out of that place, including photos, sculptures, paintings and works on paper. A catalogue by Aperture accompanies the show.

The images Christenberry gives us, of a faded rural South peppered with austere old churches and run-down honky-tonks, are affectionate but sober, with a touch of sadness. Alongside these melancholy views hang the charged works of Christenberry's Ku Klux Klan series, including multiple sculptures of Christenberry's signature form -- the elongated white structure with the pointed cap he calls his "Dream Building." The structure suggests a Klansman in the way our own Washington Monument can.

Recently, Christenberry sat down with The Washington Post to discuss his work as a curator and his ongoing love affair with Hale County.

Q: Placed in the unusual position of designing your own exhibition, you chose to illustrate your images with quotations from [William] Faulkner and [Eudora] Welty. How does their work frame your examination of the South?

A: Southern writers -- Faulkner, [Flannery] O'Connor, Welty, [James] Agee -- have had a profound influence on my work and what I wanted to say. Not in a narrative way, but in terms of feeling.

How would you characterize that feeling? Is it nostalgia?

Not nostalgia. Not time past -- time passing. As I get older, time passing is even more important. One of the writers that most affects me as I get older is Emily Dickinson. Of course, she's not Southern. But that wonderful quote, "Memory is a strange bell, jubilee and knell" [included in the show] really rings true. It resonates with me about the whole exhibition. Memory is certainly a major part [of my work] as I get older. I have so many fond memories from my childhood. Then going back and seeing the things disappear . . .

Isn't that disappearance a metaphor for innocence lost? Perhaps you can't keep your childhood Eden intact.

I wonder. If I still lived there, I honestly doubt I'd be doing the kind of work I'm doing. I don't think so.

One of your most interesting endeavors has been to chronicle vernacular architecture across decades. Sixteen panels capture the Bar-B-Q Inn from 1964 to 1991. In the final frame, it's shocking to see the building's gone. As viewers, we become attached to the building, too. Another photo series on view documents a green warehouse. Apparently that building still stands.

I've known that building since childhood. A few years ago, I was setting up my camera and the [man] who owned the land where the green warehouse is set . . . comes up breathing heavily and says, "William, I thought I should tell you. Before you come down next year I'm going to paint the green warehouse." And I said, "Oh, do you have to?" He said, "Don't you worry, son. I'm going to paint it the same John Deere green just for you." After he passed away, he left instructions to his two sons to keep that building up for Bill Christenberry.

But isn't that a false kind of preservation? If it weren't for you, the owner might have razed the warehouse. Instead, he's keeping it up to protect Bill Christenberry's image of the past. Seems you're a preservationist without realizing it.

I suppose so. But I love vernacular architecture and I hate to see it disappear. Where I'm from, there are some of the richest, most beautiful pieces of vernacular architecture.

In his essay for the Aperture book, Andy Grundberg writes: "All his work, from photographs of buildings to nearly abstract drawings of gourd trees, revolves around a vocabulary of signifiers of the rural American South." Yet the Confederate flag is conspicuously absent. Why?

It always has troubled me how the Confederate flag is used and abused by ill-minded people. As far as making it a big issue [in my work], I never had any desire to. As for the KKK, the issue with me was to do my dead-level best to not become pedantic or preachy. In the exhibition, I don't know if you noticed those strange drawings, in the room with "The Klub" photograph.

The trio of works on paper -- "Portrait I, II, and III" -- depicting Klansmen.

Those three big drawings -- they're called transfer drawings -- deal with all of those issues. Everything, including the eye sockets, are [made up of renderings of tiny] weapons. Guns. Pistols. Rifles. Holsters. A lot of people won't even notice those forms. This is [my] way to sneak up on you.

Your work focuses on a specific place. Does it translate for Americans at large?

My work is rooted in a place, but it is not just a regional thing. It's a universal, an attempt to make a statement that deals with all of us as human beings. Beauty and ugliness. It's about a profound feeling about many things and a need to make these [feelings] visible.

Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry, at the American Art Museum, runs through July 8, 2007.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company