“Walks to the Paradise Garden: A Lowdown Southern Odyssey” by Jonathan Williams, Roger Manley and Guy Mendes “provides one last look at the artists and place-makers of the Southern United States just before the arrival of a new and interconnected world,” editor Phillip March Jones writes in introduction.
Williams, who died in 2008, authored his account around 1992—augmented by photos and testimony by Manley and Mendes—but the manuscript moldered for two decades on a shelf in Mendes’s studio without a publisher. (Though bits and pieces did make it into the 1997 book “Self-Made Worlds: Visionary Folk Art Environments” by Manley and Mark Sloan, with an intro from Williams.) Thank heavens that Institute 192 of New York City and Lexington, Kentucky, has finally brought it into print.
The “wonder book, a guide for a certain kind of imagination”—in Williams’s words—arrives as a time capsule recording rollicking road trips into knobs and hollers from Virginia to Louisiana to the Ohio River to the Everglades between, roughly, 1984 and 1991. The three white fellows endeavored to track down rumors of visionary artists, yokels, crackpots, cantankerous eccentrics, religious prophets, broken-hearted dreamers, mystics and “magic people.” Sometimes these are glimpses of artists who later became famous. Mostly the artists are poor, driven outsiders scrounging up supplies to give the world a piece of their mind.
Williams describes them as people “defenseless and open to the hard, destructive nature of the venal American juggernaut.” People “directly involved in making paradise for themselves in the front yards, the back garden, the parlor, the sun porch, the basement. Making things for them has been a way to salvage a little dignity from often poor and difficult lives.”
There’s a Louisiania “mystic” who covered his home with warnings of imminent Revelation and indictments of his ex’s alleged infidelities: “Keep out here crazy bastards whore mongers.” A Kentucky farmer carves wood into horses and cowboys. Williams recounts the sad story of a woman who invented what became Cabbage Patch dolls and how she got ripped off. He tells how Vollis Simpson of Lucama, North Carolina, went from jury-rigging wind-powered washing machines while building landing strips for World War II bombers in the Mariana Islands to becoming a mechanic and repair man to eventually building a lake at a crossroads and decorating it with giant whirligigs.
“Churchill Winston Hill told somebody that he wanted to do something to interest everybody and something nobody had done before,” Williams recounts. The Tennessesse man’s answer was a van customized to honor Elvis Presley—including chrome, blue velvet, and renditions of Elvis’s gold records on the exterior with buttons that triggered songs to play on a jukebox inside.
Sister Gertrude Morgan, a New Orleans street preacher, founded a mission and became a painter of religious scenes. Annie Hooper filled her home at North Carolina’s Outer Banks with figures recounting 300 Bible stories—until you could barely walk through the place. In Atlanta, sculptor Eldreen Bailey says, “I don’t know why I was doin’ ‘em. I don’t know what for. It just broke out of me.” Lonnie Holley makes art of recycled sandstone and junk. Williams attests: “He’s a man beset by being a black artist in a culture which has no place, or any respect, for such as that.”
Williams writes as if you’re a friend perched on a barstool next to him in some honkeytonk or riding shotgun with him in some jalopy as you bump down dusty summer country roads with windows down and music turned up and he’s smiling and excited and hollering to be heard over the din. His manner is joyous, opinionated, rambling, gossipy, full of asides. Like when he concludes his account of the Elvis van artist: “Roger Manley and I were then so ignorant of local wonders that we didn’t have sense enough to visit The Ridgewood Restaurant, just a couple miles up the highway, for the world’s most cosmic bar-b-que sa’mich.”
Williams’s down-home style can obscure the fact that he was a sophisticated, gay Black Mountain poet, someone who attended folk art conferences at the Library of Congress and co-founded Jargon Society Press.
“So few of the places that Williams, Manley and Mendes visited still exist,” write curators from Atlanta’s High Museum, where a corresponding exhibition called “Way Out There: Art of Southern Backroads” appeared this spring. These folk art worlds succumbed to weather, overzealous/thieving collectors, and “communities that had no interest in preserving their properties after their deaths.”
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