Sunday, November 13, 2011

On Reading "The Help" and Growing Up Southern

With my painting Agape at the Embracing Our Differences art installation, 2009, Sarasota, Florida.
Embracing Our Differences is an international art competition where paintings are turned into billboards and school children from the area are brought to tour the exhibit. Teaching materials are available to help teachers in their dialog about this subject.

I'm reading The Help by Kathryn Stockett. It's a great book and I can see why it's been wildly popular and made into a movie. I love books about growing up in the south, a few favorite authors are Pat Conroy, Mark Childress and Rick Bragg. However the idea of having a maid or an African American nanny is not in the realm of my family's experience.

It has been interesting to contrast and compare the south of The Help with my own growing up in the south experience. I was raised on the space coast of Florida in the sixties and seventies and have always been proud of being southern, but sometimes I wonder if I really know what that means. Moving to Alabama in 1994 has given me a different perspective, maybe what they say about Florida not really being The South is true.
Agape, detail
My grandparents and great-grandparents were very poor laborers, share croppers and tenant farmers. They lived in tobacco sheds and roamed north Florida and south Georgia looking for work during the depression and in the couple of decades after. My great grandfather was an immigrant from Ireland and had six daughters, not a blessing for a man that makes his living cutting railroad ties.

My father joined the air force before I was born and that gave my nuclear family the boost it needed to latch on to the middle class American dream. He was the first in our family to get an education, going to community college as an adult on the GI Bill.

I missed the civil rights movement being too young to know what was going on but I do remember tension in the schools and hearing my parents talk about the black panther movement and the protests against the Vietnam War. My dad spent my 1st grade year in Vietnam.

Whenever I have encountered racism I'm always shocked and never know how to respond. When we first moved to Alabama I was surprised to find that there were NO public swimming pools. There were expensive private swim clubs you could join and that's what my neighbors did.

I just assumed that the taxes are so low in Alabama that there isn't funding for luxuries like recreation parks with swimming pools. A few years later the Birmingham News ran an article about how the Birmingham area dealt with forced integration in the 60's and 70's and one of the things was that when public pools were forced to integrate they were all filled in.

It was one of those times I was sad to be a southerner, but it gave me a great conversation starter with my kids.

There was a time when I was helping my daughter study Martin Luther King, Jr's I Have a Dream Speech. I got choked up. She didn't understand what all the fuss was about because she'd been raised with the gospel according to poet/writer Shel Silverstein.

“No Difference"

Small as a peanut,
Big as a giant,
We're all the same size
When we turn off the light.

Rich as a sultan,
Poor as a mite,
We're all worth the same
When we turn off the light.

Red, black or orange,
Yellow or white,
We all look the same
When we turn off the light.

So maybe the way,
To make everything right
Is for god to just reach out

And turn off the light!” 

I have done a couple paintings where I've attempted to talk about the issue of racism. My way to present it, is to paint it the way it should be, the way I see things.
Agape, 30x48, oil on canvas over panel, 2006
Harmony Works, 28x30, oil on canvas over panel
If so many things about the south bother me, why do I still have a warm spot in my heart for being southern? 

Here's a short list, the good things about the South I love... 

There's always room at the table for one more dinner guest.

We're not afraid of hard work, I think of my grandmother working at a canning plant to feed six children.

Our philosophy is why go with a handshake when a hug feels so much better?

You can't get better story tellers than Southerners, wish you could have heard my dad spinning yarns!

Southerners listen - that's what makes them such good story tellers.

Even though I'm officially the first artist in the family don't believe it, my grandfather's colorful pantry full of canned goods from his garden was a work of art. 

And a couple more details from the paintings.
Agape, detail
Agape, detail
Harmony Works, detail

Embracing Ours Differences is still going strong and you can enter the show and find out more about the program here.


  1. I just love everything you said and I too have the same background as you. My grandparents raised me--grandfather came from tobacco farmers in NC and grandmother's family were sawers from Florida. The military gave us the middle-class experience and I too settled with my family in Florida. Being older, I do remember the Civil Rights movement and the KKK. Thank you for painting such beautiful art that reminds us that we are all children of God. BRAVO!

  2. Thank you Deborah for sharing your story. Don't you feel amazed when you hear their stories of survival? I feel fortunate to be able to be an artist and think about these things. Thank you for reading my blog and for sharing your work and journey as an artist with us.

  3. My folks are from the deep South - Arksansas, Mississippi, Alabama - and like yours, poor farmers. I was raised until I was 12 in the North, but then my parents whisked me back to the homeland. It was strange moving to the South (Georgia) when I was 12, but I'd visited family every year down there. I like your list of what you like about the South - and your paintings are beautiful.

  4. Michael, Thank you. It must have been a culture shock moving down south at age 12. Hopefully the locals considered you exotic and not a "Damn Yankee":) Thanks for sharing your story.



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