In November of 1917, in the New York Evening Mail, essayist and journalist H. L. Mencken first published a version of his essay entitled The Sahara of the Bozeart. Reprinted in a compilation of essays in 1920 (Prejudices: Second Series) this essay, condemning the South as a “cultural wasteland,” caused quite a stir. In several thousand words Mencken damned the region as “that gargantuan paradise of the fourth-rate,” and although defenders of Southern society and culture rose up in its defense, his pronouncements were regularly repeated, and for generations the South was consistently branded as “sterile, artistically, intellectually, culturally, as the Sahara Desert.”
This unfortunate, and even in Mencken’s era inaccurate, reputation was one reason it was difficult for artists living and working in the South to find their way to acceptance within the larger art world in the early twentieth century. Those who wished to make a professional career of art, such as Ann Goldthwaite and Clara Weaver Parrish, quickly took themselves to art schools in New York and Paris in order to obtain the necessary “credentials.” Later, other artists found this journey more difficult, and less rewarding.
Late last year the Museum acquired an important watercolor for the permanent collection by one such artist, the Selma painter Crawford Gillis (1914–2000), In Custody (Project for a Southern Armory), 1936, watercolor on paper, Gift of George W. and Sue Royer, Jr., 2013.13. In Custody is a powerful indictment of Southern society in the 1930s. It is evident from the painting’s composition—a frightened black man in the custody of National Guardsmen—that he was referencing the social climate that predominated during the years of the Great Depression, in which poor people both black and white were subject to harsh living conditions, and sometimes brutalized by authorities. The painting’s subtitle, Project for a Southern Armory, was most likely an ironic reference to the possibility that an image such as this one would be an appropriate mural subject to place in an armory building that was planned for Selma. When asked if he had witnessed what transpired in the composition, he told the reviewer that, “I didn’t see it. They announced they would build a new armory in my town, and this is the way I felt it would work out.”
Gillis is an example of a talented Alabama artist who was fully dedicated to his work but unfortunately lived in an era when achieving wider recognition was complicated—first by the Great Depression and then by the disruptions of World War II. In addition, he fought the prejudices of a society that accepted Mencken’s opinions as gospel—since there was no culture in Alabama, as Mencken adjudged it, there would be no artists.
This attitude created a challenge for those who saw Crawford Gillis’ insightful works on exhibit in a New York gallery in 1938—and then had to come to terms with his origins in the South. The reviewers of the January exhibition essentially dealt with the perceived contradiction by patronizing the artist characterizing him as “self-taught” despite the fact that he had studied art for many years in Selma, and then attended the National Academy of Design, studying under Charles Courtney Curran (1861–1942) and Leon Kroll (1884–1974). In spite of these quite acceptable art world credentials the reviewers did not get past his “past”.
While H. L. Mencken was no admirer of the South, by 1930 he would have at least found something to admire in Montgomery. In that year the founders of the MMFA created the State’s first art museum, and Mencken himself married a Montgomery girl, Sara Haardt, who was a Professor of English at Goucher College. Ever since Montgomery’s art museum has been proving that prejudices are just that, and that art is indeed alive and well in the “Sahara of the Bozeart.”
Jerry Siegel, Crawford Gillis, 1994, Collection of the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art, Auburn University
Margaret Lynne Ausfeld
Curator of Art