We will be hearing a lot in the next year about Selma, most of it related to the historic events that surrounded “Bloody Sunday” and the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965. Those events put Selma on the map, both nationally and internationally, but the town has been on Alabama’s map for a very, very long time, and what you don’t know about Selma may surprise you. One thing you might not know? There have probably been more creative and literary people in Selma per capita than in any other place in Alabama—maybe the whole South.
The curious coincidence that brought this to mind is the presence of two wonderful works of art that are currently in our galleries. They just happen to depict two members of a Selma family—two members who lived almost one hundred years apart.
The first is found in Romantic Spirits: Nineteenth-Century Paintings of the South from the Johnson Collection. The painting is by an artist named George Cooke who came to Alabama in the summer of 1848. He was traveling and took commissions to paint members of Alabama’s Black Belt planter families. He was given the task of painting a young boy named Joseph Fairfax Lapsley, known to his family as “Little Fax.” Like many children in the nineteenth century, Little Fax had a brief life, dying when he was only two. Little Fax’s father, Colonel John Whitfield Lapsley commissioned the painting as a memorial of his young son. Little Fax stands on a porch overlooking what was certainly the Alabama River as it winds past Selma. Up the river we see a steamboat, carrying away people and goods to a world little Fax would never know. It is a melancholy painting, intended to remind his parents of a life cut woefully short.
Flash forward to 2004 and a photograph by Selma artist, Jerry Siegel in the exhibition Creator/Created: Jerry Siegel Portraits and Artists from the Permanent Collection. It depicts the painter John Lapsley, the great-grandson of Colonel John Whitfield Lapsley, and an artist who is well represented in the MMFA permanent collection. Unlike Little Fax, John Lapsley had a long, very productive life as an artist, dying at the age of 90, but they are both depicted at the end of their natural lives. John Lapsley died a year after the photograph was made; Little Fax’s portrait was made the year after his passing. Those who knew John Lapsley knew a genuine Alabama character; like another Alabama native, author Truman Capote, he had a sharp wit and a sense of irony that was always present. John’s works in the Museum’s collection date from the 1930s to the late twentieth century, fulfilling his destiny in a way that Little Fax unfortunately could not.
And there’s one more Selma art family to consider—that is the Siegels. Photographer Jerry Siegel was preceded one generation by his uncle, Jerome E. (Jerry) Siegel, Jr., who was for many years one of the best and most respected dealers in Southern art. As a true, old-fashioned gallerist Jerry nurtured the careers of artists such as John Lapsley, Crawford Gillis, Charles Shannon and others now in our MMFA collection. His nephew continues that tradition through his photographs of artists in their studios, and although he makes his home elsewhere now he clearly knows his roots, artistic and otherwise. His own self-portrait in Creator/Created was made at the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site of “Bloody Sunday,” and a reminder that Selma is at the heart of Alabama’s history, both artistic and social.
Alabama’s greatest storyteller, Katherine Tucker Windham (and, yes, she was also from Selma) would have made a fine tale out of the Lapsleys, the Siegels and their lives across the centuries. Like all us Southerners, she did love a good story.
Margaret Lynne Ausfeld
Curator of Art