Flannery O’Connor: A Born Writer

“He’s a born politician.” “She’s a born actress.” “He’s a born preacher.” “She’s a born lawyer.” These are examples of an expression I heard often when I was a young man describing someone who seems to possess an innate talent or skill for a profession or avocation. People who excel in this fashion often exhibited certain predispositions at an early age that their family and friends recall and associate with their success. I am not qualified to comment on the influences of DNA over environment in determining aptitude, but most of us can remember that one child who seemed almost obsessed with a certain activity, pursuit, or area of interest and eventually grew up to turn that fixation into a lifelong career.

  • The librarian who as a child organized into collections and sub-collections every single book, DVD, and CD in the house
  • The biology teacher who as a child captured and studied every living creature within a one-mile radius of home and could spout off a half dozen facts about almost any major species
  • The information technologist and software architect who as a child voraciously read encyclopedias and was fascinated by computers and programming (think young Bill Gates)

When I served as the director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation in Milledgeville, Georgia, I frequently gave presentations about O’Connor, which included a brief overview of her life that was cut short at the age of 39 from the effects of lupus. Along with many others who have studied her life and work, I perceived that Flannery O’Connor was indeed a born writer. I’m sure the same case could be made for any number of writers, but I know much more about the childhood of Flannery O’Connor than any other author.

Mary Flannery O’Connor (her full name) was born in 1925 in Savannah, Georgia, and was the only child of Edward and Regina O’Connor.  She was raised by a Catholic family that sometimes viewed children much like small versions of adults, a perspective largely abandoned by the 19th century. Young Mary Flannery thrived in this atmosphere. She was a bold, precocious little girl who took herself quite seriously. She referred to her parents by their first names, not “Daddy” or “Momma.” When he was away from home, her father wrote her affectionate letters that he playfully addressed to “Lord Flannery,” and she would sign her correspondence to him with the same title, addressing them to “King of Siam.”

Young Mary Flannery was encouraged to read, and perhaps the most recognizable photograph from her childhood shows her in profile sitting with a large book in her lap, staring down at the page with a look of determined concentration. She would later use that same fierce gaze to observe the world around her and depict it through a grotesque and outrageous filter. As a young reader she collected a small library of familiar children’s titles and took the liberty of writing brief reviews on the flyleaf or title page of the books. Always assertively opinionated, the young critic praised some books as “First rate,” while others, such as Georgina Finds Herself, she dismissed as “the worst book I have read next to Pinnochio.” It is worth noting that, at the height of her career, Flannery O’Connor wrote more than a hundred book reviews for two Catholic diocesan newspapers in Georgia. Also, she carried to adulthood her sharp words in assessing the value of books, as is illustrated in her acidic comments about the works of other southern writers such as Carson McCullers, Truman Capote, and Tennessee Williams. To put it in today’s vernacular, she was savage.

Not unlike many bright children, Mary Flannery wrote stories from her own imagination. Some of them were about animals with human characteristics, which is a typical theme explored by aspiring young writers. However, she went a few steps further than most children. Not only did she write clever and often hilarious stories, she also illustrated them, bound them with yarn, and made multiple copies of them to distribute to friends and family.  She was absolutely fascinated by the whole process of both writing and publishing, which later translated to a keen understanding of writing as a profession. The volume of her published letters, The Habit of Being, includes correspondence to her agent, editors, publishers, and other professionals in the book industry where O’Connor demonstrated shrewd business acumen.

As a high school and undergraduate college student, Mary Flannery turned her artistic energy to cartoons, which she created through sketching and drawing but more elaborately through printing with linoleum blocks. Although she ended up in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop under the direction of Paul Engle, she initially entered graduate school at Iowa thanks to a scholarship in journalism — she intended to pursue a career as a cartoonist. O’Connor’s biting satire and wicked humor were clearly developing even as a cartoonist, not just in the illustrations, but perhaps even more so in the captions. Some critics have argued that, as a mature fiction writer, Flannery O’Connor continued to exhibit the eye of a cartoonist in the creation of her most exaggerated characters. Little wonder that, when asked why her stories were so shocking, O’Connor explained “for the almost blind, you draw large and starling figures.”

In the private journals Flannery O’Connor kept as a college student, she undoubtedly believed that being an artist was so much more than a career choice.  It was a vocation. As she focused her attention toward writing, O’Connor yearned for her work to be used by God. She wanted to craft stories that would miraculously reveal God’s grace. As she matured into one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, she became less sentimental, but she never lost her appreciation for the mystery of art as it is interpreted by the Church, to which she remained devoted for the rest of her life. Perhaps she returned to the intensity of her younger years. She certainly became much more confident. When repeatedly asked why she decided to become a writer, without hesitation O’Connor always replied, “Because I’m good at it.”

Most of us get some level of education and eventually find a job that, with any luck, will get us out of our parents’ hair and their bank accounts. We will end up with about five different full-time jobs before we finally clock out for the last time, and our career paths will largely be determined by factors such as education, employment opportunities, salary, family obligations, and just plain old simple fate. But for a select few, a seed will be planted at a very early age that will germinate into a thriving métier that brings with it fulfillment and a deep sense of purpose. The term from my Southern Baptist heritage was “a calling.” The vocation of writing for Flannery O’Connor required serious devotion, discipline, sacrifice, and a form of genius that appears only a few times in each generation of artists. She was born with an incredible gift, which she carefully and skillfully nurtured, and her readers are the fortunate beneficiaries.

A New Steward for Andalusia

My wife and I were invited to a ceremony on August 9, 2017 making official the transfer of ownership and stewardship of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor, to her alma mater, Georgia College, in Milledgeville. The great American novelist and short story writer lived on this farm with her mother, Regina, for the last thirteen years of her life. In her first-floor bedroom, O’Connor worked faithfully every morning for several hours, struggling on her manual typewriter to construct sentences and paragraphs that would not only entertain her readers but help them envision the action of grace on characters who were often violently resistant to it.

Andalusia transfer ceremony 8-9-17
Andalusia transfer ceremony 8-9-17

We were invited to this special occasion because I served for thirteen years as the founding director of the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation, the nonprofit organization that gifted the 544-acre site to the College. The current chair of the Foundation, Donna Barwick, explained to the people gathered that rainy August morning how she and her fellow board members arrived at this decision. “We would never, as a small organization, be able to raise the amount of money that it will take to maintain this place in the way it should be for Flannery’s legacy,” she said. “So we’re confident that this place will be treated properly.” Sadly, she is absolutely correct. Private entities that are responsible for the care and preservation of historic homes have an extremely difficult time raising the capital to do the job — in many cases, it is an insurmountable task. Andalusia is no exception. With a sizable two-story Plantation Plain house and a dozen outbuildings, this literary landmark will require millions of dollars to completely restore it and then a respectable annual budget to maintain it and keep it open to the public.

When I first began as the director of the Foundation, I had unrealistic expectations of how much money we could raise to restore the farm. I was sure that wealthy benefactors would be eager to drop thousands, if not millions, of dollars into our lap in honor of such a great writer. After all, she has friends in high places, at least financially. Celebrities like Bruce Springsteen, Tommy Lee Jones, Bono, Jerry Bruckheimer, and the Coen Brothers have all publicly paid verbal tribute to the author. We made overtures to all of these people, but they either never responded or indicated that they were focusing their charitable giving on other causes, like world hunger.  It’s hard to trump world hunger.

Toward the end of my tenure at Andalusia, I had a meeting with the incoming President of Georgia College, Dr. Steve Dorman, and we spent considerable time then and later discussing the ways in which our Foundation and the College could collaborate. We even toyed with the idea of the College taking over the operation of the site, although we never truly talked about any specific plans or what such an arrangement might look like. Now that the mantle has officially been passed, I am giving some thoughtful consideration to this next chapter for Andalusia. I feel a certain allegiance to Georgia College because it is the place where I earned my BA in English and my MA in History. Naturally, I will always have an emotional attachment to Andalusia, the home of the author whose work I so admire and the place that I devoted so many years to preserving.

I believe that Georgia College is the most logical beneficiary for this remarkable treasure. The College has the staff, resources, and state-wide support needed to protect and preserve Andalusia. I would imagine that Flannery O’Connor and her mother considered other colleges for the future writer to attend, but they decided on Georgia State College for Women, which is now Georgia College. As the state’s designated liberal arts college for the University System of Georgia, this institution is also home to the world’s preeminent Flannery O’Connor studies program, which was cultivated for many years by Dr. Sarah Gordon and is now directed by Dr. Marshal Bruce Gentry. The College publishes the Flannery O’Connor Review, edited by Dr. Gentry, which is the longest running journal devoted to a female author in the world. I am convinced that the administration understands the value of this donation, which was expressed by President Dorman at the signing ceremony: “We are grateful to the Andalusia Foundation for entrusting us with its future and look forward to continuing to share this piece of American history with the world.”

I had the pleasure of spending an afternoon with a good friend of Flannery O’Connor, Marion Montgomery, who taught English at the University of Georgia for thirty years. He shared with me a conversation he had with Regina O’Connor not long after after her talented daughter had died. She may not have completely comprehended what Flannery was doing in her fiction, but Mrs. O’Connor understood the importance of the work and that Flannery’s professional papers needed to be preserved for scholars who were already exploring her genius and many more that would follow. Mrs. O’Connor confided to Professor Montgomery that she was struggling with the decision about where the papers should be reposited. Colleges and universities in various locations around the country were expressing deep interest in acquiring the archive, including Georgia College. Professor Montgomery asked her where she thought the material belonged. “At the College here in Milledgeville,” Mrs. O’Connor replied. Mr. Montgomery said, “I agree.” Since that time, hundreds and hundreds of scholars have spent countless hours poring over the O’Connor Collection at Georgia College, the place where a young woman’s talents as a cartoonist began to evolve into drawing startling figures with words instead of pictures. And now, some fifty years later, the landscape that sparked a brilliant artist’s imagination is exactly where it belongs.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian

My mother loved Indians. More accurately, she loved the traditional characterization of the Indians in American arts and crafts. It was a romantic view of the people who were inhabiting North America when Europeans began to migrate west and “settle” on the continent. My mother was not interested in bows and arrows, spears, or war paint. She collected inexpensive artwork (prints, plates, figurines, etc.) featuring lovely brown-skinned people in traditional Indian attire as they were portrayed by Hollywood, for the most part. I would be the last to criticize her taste because some of the pieces she decorated our house with were indeed beautiful. She probably didn’t know much about the history of the numerous nations and tribes that were scattered all across North America, and she didn’t need to in order to appreciate her image of the Indian.

When I was young, one of our family’s favorite vacation spots was Gatlinburg, Tennessee, a tourist mecca in the Great Smoky Mountains with attractions, miniature golf, sky-lifts, and shops selling everything from taffy to stuffed black bears. To get to Gatlingburg, we had to go through the smaller town of Cherokee, North Carolina, which is also the home of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation. We always stopped in Cherokee because, in the 1960s, it was a place of wonder where local residents used about the only thing they had, their history and heritage, as a way to scrape out a living. The town had live bears wasting away in cages, shops filled with Chinese-manufactured Indian souvenirs, and the occasional celebrity walking around the town to be photographed with visitors. I had my picture taken with Jon Provost, whose name probably means nothing to most folks today, but to a young lad in the late 1960s, he was an almost grown-up version of a television hero: Timmy Martin, the boy who had a dog named Lassie.

I also remember that, along the roadside passing through Cherokee, there would always be local men, young and old, dressed up like Hollywood Indians. They wore leather loincloths and moccasins, were often shirtless, had their faces decorated with paint, and usually had full feather headdresses (for the record, the Cherokee traditionally did not wear full feather headdresses at all). Vacationers were expected to pay them for a photograph, and looking back, I can only hope that this type of enterprise was not their only source of income, although it certainly may have been. The town of Cherokee today still has a vestige of the tourist trap atmosphere of the mid-20th century, but much of the most deplorable exploitation I remember from my childhood is gone. Some would argue what has taken its place is just as bad. The tribe owns a fairly large casino resort in Cherokee operated by Caesars Entertainment under the brand Harrah’s. The Eastern Cherokee do not live on a reservation, which is defined as land given by the federal government to a tribe. They own 57,000 acres of land which they bought in the 1800s and which is now owned by them but held in trust by the federal government.

There is an attraction in Cherokee that has moved away from the trappings of my childhood memories and beyond my mother’s fantasies of the “noble savage.” It is a temporary refuge from the slot machines, the gift shops, and the traffic. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian offers a cultural and historical overview of the people of the southern Appalachian Mountains going back 13,000 years. Contrary to popular opinion about appropriate nomenclature, it is actually more acceptable and accurate to use the term “American Indians” than “Native Americans” when referring to the tribes that occupied the western hemisphere before European exploration began. Combining interactive video with intriguing displays, the museum invites visitors to take a self-guided tour complete with computer-generated imagery, special effects, and an extensive artifact collection.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The museum’s interpretation is divided into two permanent exhibits: “Story of the Cherokee” and “Emissaries of Peace.” The first exhibit follows the history of the Cherokee from the early origins when mastodons roamed the region, through the Woodland and Mississippian periods, contact with Old World explorers and conquerors, the tragic Trail of Tears removal, and up to the present day.  The second exhibit tells the story of Henry Timberlake’s visit to the Cherokees in 1762, and how he took Cherokee leaders to London to meet with King George III. These narratives are told through animation, audio-visual presentations, life-sized figures, artwork, and priceless artifacts.

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

The Museum of the Cherokee Indian is not a tourist trap designed only for entertainment or to perpetuate stereotypes about Indians portrayed in early motion pictures. It is managed by knowledgeable professionals who care about the Cherokee people’s heritage and dignity as an independent tribe. The executive director, James “Bo” Taylor, earned a degree in anthropology with a minor in Cherokee Studies from Western Carolina University. He has learned the Cherokee dances, which he performs regularly, and can read and write the Cherokee language. Taylor also teaches the Cherokee language in intensive ten-day immersion classes. The museum’s education director, Dr. Barbara R. Duncan, earned her Ph.D. in Folklore and Folklife from the University of Pennsylvania in 1982 and has lived in the southern Appalachian Mountains since 1983. She has written and edited award-winning books about Cherokee history and culture, including Living Stories of the Cherokee and Cherokee Heritage Trails Guidebook (with co-author Brett Riggs).

Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Museum of the Cherokee Indian

In addition to exhibits, the museum offers workshops, performances, guided tours of the region, publications, and classes. The museum archives is a repository of thousands of books, photographs, manuscripts, personal papers, and digital collections, all of which are accessible to museum members and qualified scholars. Visitors to the museum can spend an hour or two strolling through the halls, or a day or two becoming completely immersed in the displays and collections. This facility is a real treasure and not to be missed by those who are truly interested in the story of the Cherokee Indians, or as they originally called themselves, Aniyunwiya, “the principal people.” Enjoy the casino, but take a break from the tables and check out the Museum of the Cherokee Indian, and make sure to use part of your winnings to purchase a souvenir from the museum’s gift shop.

Pilgrims to Andalusia, the Home of Flannery O’Connor

During the thirteen years that I served as the director of Andalusia, the home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, Georgia, I had the privilege of meeting thousands of fans of this gifted writer. They came from every state in the country and from almost every continent around the globe. O’Connor is one of those rare authors whose work attracts an amazingly diverse audience. On any given day at Andalusia farm, we might have welcomed a busload of World War II generation grandparents in the morning followed in the afternoon by college students dressed all in black with spiked hair, black fingernail polish and lipstick, tattoos on all visible surfaces, and metal piercings decorating their faces who would walk in the door and say, “Flannery O’Connor is so kick-ass!” Her fan base covers almost every segment of society: straight, LGBTQ, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, agnostic, atheist (one of our largest donors was an atheist biology professor), Democrat, Republican, alt left and right, blue and white collar, and readers representing all income levels. Her books have been translated into at least twenty different foreign languages, indicating the cultural diversity of her following too.

What draws readers to O’Connor’s work, and why do they travel great distances to visit Andalusia, the place where she finished all of her published books? From my standpoint, there are only a few definitive answers but plenty of speculation. When we welcomed visitors to the farm, the first question we asked them was, “How did you find out about Andalusia?” Their answer would usually give us some clues of how to structure their tour to give them the best experience possible. If their response was, “We just saw the sign on the road and wondered what was back here,” then we would give them plenty of biographical information to introduce them to O’Connor’s life and the significance of her contributions to American literature. If on the other hand they told us that they had been teaching O’Connor’s work for 25 years and had always wanted to see the place that inspired her fiction, we would go in a different direction, encouraging them to ask questions that would satisfy their curiosity about O’Connor’s environs.

Andalusia, Home of Flannery O'Connor
Andalusia, Home of Flannery O’Connor

Anyone who has read O’Connor’s fiction even once immediately recognizes that her characters are particularly odd and not altogether admirable, which is probably the most polarizing point for her readers. Consequently, there are few lukewarm reactions to O’Connor’s stories; people either hate them or absolutely adore them. The haters walk away puzzled at why the lovers become nearly obsessed. Many of the die-hard fans who visited Andalusia had a mission to locate every place on the property that supposedly appears in the stories: the hayloft where Hulga lost her wooden leg; the milking parlor where Asbury drank the unpasteurized milk; the equipment shed with its tractor that ran over Mr. Guizac; and the white water tower in “A Circle in the Fire.” Other admirers weren’t as fascinated with such direct physical connections but were nevertheless impressed with how the farm clearly served as an inspiration for the fiction. O’Connor is revered by so many writers, some of whom made the pilgrimage to Andalusia while I was there: Allan Gurganus, Padgett Powell, and Salman Rushdie were among them.

Who else visited Andalusia and why? Here is where the story becomes more intriguing and just a tad O’Connoresque. A few examples may shed some light on how wide the spectrum was and render a snapshot of the author’s devotees. The true pilgrims were the visitors who regarded O’Connor and her home with a certain sense of reverence, like the woman who stepped up to the front porch and asked me if she should remove her shoes before entering the house, as if she were about to tread on holy ground. I assured her that I always kept my shoes on in and outside the house. Those who were specifically drawn to O’Connor’s use of grace bestowed, if not slammed, on her characters truly considered Andalusia to be a place of religious significance.  This was especially the perspective of practicing Catholics and most notably clergy, like the two priests who requested to hold a prayer vigil in the guest bedroom on the second floor where they would be less likely disturbed by, or be disturbing to, other visitors. They were up there for an hour. I was impressed with their stamina — the room was hotter than three hells in the summer, which was the time they elected to visit, in full black vestments.

A common observation shared by so many Andalusia visitors was a sense of the author’s spirit being present in the main house and on the property. For some this was merely a recognition that the authenticity of the place — buildings, furniture, and furnishings original to O’Connor’s time at the farm — helped them somehow feel closer to its famous occupant. Of course, we also had our fair share of ghost hunters and paranormal investigators who, for reasons that defy understanding, believe that the departed with celebrity status are more easily detected than your run-of-the-mill homeowner. I have never understood why ghost hunters don’t spend more time at hospitals, the very place where so many people pass on to the “next plane of existence.” I could usually tell if a visitor had high hopes for a Poltergeist encounter by the familiar question, “So, did she die in the house?” She did not. She died in the hospital.

Some of our guests went the extra mile to make their visit to Andalusia a truly memorable experience. A couple of folk singers recorded an original song on the front porch. Artists painted landscapes and farm buildings. Writers drafted stories while sitting in the iris gardens. Photographers snapped shots everywhere their eyes pulled them. One young woman was so taken by the beauty of the place while she was attending the college in town, O’Connor’s undergraduate alma mater, that she decided to have her wedding on the front lawn under the enormous oak trees, complete with peacock feathers in her hair. (O’Connor raised many different breeds of domestic birds, but peacocks are the species so identified with her life at Andalusia.)

O’Connor fans have found inventive ways to demonstrate their devotion to the author, from naming their daughters “Flannery” to having elaborate tattoos of peacock feathers permanently decorating their bodies. It was a pleasure to meet them all and to hear them share their admiration for this comic genius. Some made great sacrifices to pay homage to O’Connor at Andalusia, like the four scholars from Japan who spent most of a Saturday at the farm. When I asked what brought them to the states, the only one who could speak any English at all looked at me with a surprised expression and then smiled warmly and said, “Flannery O’Connor.  This place.” I was moved.

Flannery O'Connor's bed
Flannery O’Connor’s bed

The impact that O’Connor’s work had on some visitors’ lives was immediately apparent when they walked in the front door of the main house. Their countenance, their excitement, and their strong emotions spoke volumes. Several claimed that O’Connor had drawn them to the Catholic Church. Others credited O’Connor for launching their vocations as writers, artists, teachers, or ministers. It is rather ironic that a writer who has brought great joy to so many readers also endured great suffering for the last third of her 39 years as lupus slowly took away her life. This is an inescapable part of her story that no sensitive visitor to Andalusia would ever miss. I watched big, burly men apologize to me as they wept standing at the doorway of O’Connor’s first-floor bedroom where she slept and worked. No need to be sorry — I cried too, more than once.

The Garden at Musée Rodin

Visitors to Paris will often want to include in their itinerary a side trip to the Palace of Versailles, which is about a thirty-minute train ride from the city.  The round trip isn’t so time-consuming, but actually seeing the palace and grounds takes a minimum of half a day, even more if one truly explores the garden, which is 800 hectares (over 1,900 acres) in size. Unfortunately, some travelers are on a tight schedule and hardly have enough time to see the major attractions in Paris, much less places outside the city.  There is no substitute for seeing the Palace of Versailles, which is quite magnificent and offers a visual representation of the wealth and power of the monarchy in the 17th and 18th centuries. The garden is certainly spectacular and difficult to match; however, if there is a substitute in Paris that can serve as a rival, albeit on a smaller scale, the garden at the Musée Rodin must be near the top of the list.

Rodin gardens from mansion balconey
Rodin gardens from mansion balcony

The Musée Rodin is housed in a mansion, formerly called the Hôtel Peyrenc de Moras, now known as the Hôtel Biron. Auguste Rodin was a 19th-century French sculptor who is known for creating several iconic works, including “The Age of Bronze,” “The Thinker,” “The Kiss,” and “The Burghers of Calais.” The collection in the restored mansion is interesting for the novice and probably a treasure for artists and art historians, but almost everyone can appreciate the beauty of the garden.  Its size is minuscule compared to Versailles, but it is still impressive. The grounds are divided into a rose garden, north of the mansion, and a large ornamental garden, to the south, while a terrace and hornbeam hedge backing onto a trellis conceal a relaxation area, at the bottom of the garden. Two thematic walks are also part of the garden: the “Garden of Orpheus,” on the east side, and the “Garden of Springs”on the west side.

Rodin garden roses and shrubs
Rodin garden roses and shrubs

In addition to the abundance of plants, the garden is also decorated with some of Rodin’s sculpture.  Rodin started to place selected works in the garden in 1908, together with some of the antiques from his personal collection. Male and female torsos, copies made in the Roman or modern period, after Greek works, were presented in these natural surroundings. Other pieces were added after his death. The first bronzes were erected in the gardens before World War I. Since 1993, they have been regularly cleaned and treated so as to preserve their original patinas.

Rodin mansion 3

Anyone who has visited Paris knows the frustration of wanting to see more, to do more, than limited time will allow. Tourists have to be selective, discriminating, and reasonable about what they will be able to cover during the time they are in the city. Any attraction that offers more than one type of experience is probably worth including. The Musée Rodin fits that description with historic architecture and provocative sculpture but also a landscape that is in itself a work of art, offering the visitor an opportunity to rest and reflect.

Art and Social Change

Do artists have a social responsibility?  That was the question posed for discussion to participants in lunch breakout sessions at the recent Symposium on Arts and Social Change sponsored by the Lillian E. Smith Center of  Piedmont College, a small private liberal arts college in Demorest, Georgia.  The Symposium, titled “Between Dream and Reality,” focused on public art as an inspiration for social change and was held at the college’s second campus in Athens, a town dominated by the presence of the University of Georgia.  Each breakout session had no more than a dozen people, so the conversations were manageable but lively.

Jen Delos Reyes
Jen Delos Reyes

The Symposium featured keynote speaker Jen Delos Reyes, Associate Director of the School of Art and Art History at the University of Illinois Chicago. Reyes is a creative laborer, educator, writer, and radical community arts organizer. Her practice is as much about working with institutions as it is about creating and supporting sustainable artist-led culture. She is the director and founder of Open Engagement, an international annual conference on socially-engaged art that has been active since 2007 and hosted conferences in two countries at locations including the Queens Museum in New York.  In her early-morning presentation, she highlighted three artists who are also community activists, people who have used creative approaches to address serious challenges in their neighborhoods with projects such as restoring row houses to safe, habitable homes that had become drug-infested death traps.

Other featured speakers at the Symposium included Ellen Elmes, a retired college art instructor who has painted twenty-five plus murals in several different states that celebrate community. Another presenter was Hope Hilton, an Athens-based artist, educator, designer, and writer who works with communities and students of all ages to inspire and facilitate a sense of place, history, and agency.  Broderick Flanigan is a freelance artist in Athens who is a community activist and the founder of Flanigan’s Portrait Studios.  The event was moderated by Barbara Brown Taylor, the Butman Professor of Religion at Piedmont College and author of thirteen books, including the New York Times bestsellers Learning to Walk in the Dark and An Altar in the World.  All of the presenters at this Symposium are devoting significant time and energy in their capacity as artists to promote, encourage, and facilitate positive social change.

Symposium logo
Symposium logo

Throughout her career as a writer and humanitarian, Lillian Smith examined how the arts engage people around issues of social injustice, segregation, and isolation.  Art was her passion, and she held a deep conviction that the artist has a responsibility to engage her audience in the conflicts and struggles of her generation, an opinion not necessarily shared by the students of The New Criticism movement, the literary theory that dominated the mid-20th century.  Smith emerged in the 1940s at the forefront of the Southern debate on segregation, where she was at least a decade ahead of other white liberals and stood virtually alone in calling for an immediate end to segregation laws and practices.

During the tumultuous years of the mid-20th century, when lynching, convict labor, and Jim Crow laws were still casting dark shadows across the South and African-Americans all over the country were pleading for justice and equality, there were plenty of elected officials and prominent leaders who were endorsing a patient, moderate approach in addressing the crisis.  Lillian Smith was not one of them. In a speech prepared for the Institute on Non-Violence and Social Change on the first anniversary of the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, Lillian Smith wrote these words:  “You have done many good things, down here in Montgomery.  But one of the best, one of the most valuable, has been the fact that you have dramatized, for all America to see, that in times of ordeal, in times of crisis, only the extremist can meet the challenge.  The question in crisis or ordeal is not: Are you going to be an extremist?  The question is: What kind of extremist are you going to be?”

In a powerful essay titled “The Creative Process” written in 1962, James Baldwin made the following observation:

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone. But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

There can be little doubt that, through her novels and nonfiction works, Lillian Smith was indeed trying “to make the world a more human dwelling place.”  Does art exist in a vacuum?  Should the artist seek to be completely separated from society, unattached and oblivious to the pressing social issues of the day?  The answers to those questions can be debated over and over again with no real resolution.  What is clear, however, is that art has the mysterious power to transform minds and emotions, to spark imagination, to inspire collaboration, and to motivate people to act.  Once the work is done and that power is unleashed, the artist has very little control over the ultimate impact of what she has created.  Perhaps recognizing that indisputable truth is where the responsibility of the artist begins.

“To find the point where hypothesis and fact meet; the delicate equilibrium between dream and reality; the place where fantasy and earthly things are metamorphosed into a work of art . . . this is what man’s journey is about, I think.” –Lillian Smith, The Journey

Edward Clark Potter

Enfield, Connecticut, is often associated with the manufacture of gunpowder and weapons, but it is also the place where Jonathan Edwards preached his famous sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Edward Clark Potter, born in 1857, was raised in this small township just across the border from southern Massachusetts.  Educated in local schools and at the Williston Seminary in Easthampton, Massachusetts, young Edward defied his mother’s plans for him to enter the ministry and instead enrolled at Amherst College in Massachusetts for three semesters before heading to Boston in 1879 to study art.  A few years later he moved to Vermont to work at a marble quarry, overseeing stone cutting  there for Daniel Chester French, an established sculptor working in Boston.  In the late 1880s Potter studied in Paris with figure sculptor Antonin Mercié and animal specialist Emmanuel Frémiet.  He returned to the United States in 1890 and married May Dumont of Washington, D.C.  The couple started a family back in Potter’s hometown of Enfield.  His friend and mentor Daniel French encouraged Potter’s interest in modeling animals, and the young artist eventually earned a reputation as one of America’s leading animaliers by the turn of the twentieth century.

Potter and French collaborated on numerous commissioned projects, mostly statues of famous personalities on horseback with Potter being responsible for sculpting the horses.  Potter’s own five equestrian groups, including those representing Henry Warner Slocum and Philip Kearny, demonstrated his growing talent and ability to express the unity between the rider and his horse.  Potter won a gold medal at the Louisiana Purchase Universal Exposition in 1904 for the equestrian De Soto Sighting the “Father of the Waters.”  When his statue of a Civil War bugler on horseback was unveiled in 1915 in Brookline, Massachusetts, it was praised as innovative and unconventional.

Edward Clark Potter
Edward Clark Potter

Potter and his family preferred to stay in the rural countryside, where he could take care of the animals he raised and used as his subjects for sculpting.  However, Potter also enjoyed his proximity to New York where he was involved in the art community.  He was a charter member of the National Sculpture Society and took a leadership role in the National Academy of Design.  He also made significant original artistic contributions to New York City, including a marble statue of Zoroaster on the cornice of the New York Appellate Court House in Madison Square.  Surprisingly, his most famous sculpting contribution to New York, or any place for that matter, did not come in the form of a person or a horse.

Around 1910 Potter received a commission of $8,000 on the recommendation of Augustus Saint-Gaudens, one of America’s foremost sculptors of the day.  Potter teamed up with the Piccirilli Brothers, renowned marble carvers, to create two statues constructed of Tennessee pink marble.  The two pieces were originally named  Leo Astor and Leo Lenox, but sometime in the 1930s, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia named them Patience and Fortitude, for the qualities he felt the citizens of New York would need to survive the economic depression.  Architecture critic Paul Goldberger praised the pieces as “New York’s most lovable public sculpture.”  These two majestic lions flank the Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street entrance to the New York Public Library.  Patience still guards the south side of the Library’s steps, and Fortitude maintains his position to the north.  As a tribute to the Lions’ popularity and all that they stand for, the Library adopted these figures as its mascots. They are trademarked by the Library, represented in its logo, and featured at major occasions.

To learn more, consult Top Cats: the Life and Times of The New York Public Library Lions by Susan G. Larkin. This publication surveys their history through photographs, cartoons, prints, original drawings, memorabilia, and lively tales.