The Marchioness returns to the Canebrakes (Part Three)

Photo: David Poag

Alongside the highway between Eutaw and Demopolis there’s a large field dotted with strange sculptures. They’re made of hay bales, or welded together from junk metal. Any passer-by is welcome to stop and explore. I first visited the place at least twenty years ago. It was an afternoon in August and the heat silenced us all as we waded through the wet air. I was glad to see the display was not only still there, but that it had grown.

The outsider art of the American South has entirely changed my thinking on the role of the artist, and on how art can be shown. It reminds us that art should be a compulsion, and made to be shared. It taught me to unlearn ambition. The resulting freedom makes one’s craft a joy again- never dull, always playful and ever-evolving.

I learned that not everything you make needs to sell and I structured my time to create this kind of personal work. Mr. Bird, of Marengo County, Alabama, sets his hay bale art out by the highway. I load my creations into a truck or cargo van and ferry them from place to place. As I drove into Demopolis, I imagined my paintings saluting his sculptures as they glimpsed each other.


Photo: Kim Graham-Smith

What with hanging the show in two different locations, giving a talk on the series, painting at Lyon Hall, and taking every chance to catch up with old friends, the Bicentennial would turn out to be a very busy weekend. Throughout, I worked with the filmmaker David Poag, who had driven down from Nashville to document the event. In a couple of in-depth interviews, we discussed my vision as an artist.

Paintings of Lyon Hall, Demopolis, Alabama (all 2017)

When I lived in Alabama, I met very few people who knew the story of the Vine and Olive Colony. It’s not well known in the State, and hardly at all outside it. The city’s 200th birthday was not going to ripple throughout social media, and my show would come and go, quite invisible to even a regional art world. As I talked to David, however, I realized how these few days were fulfilling everything I hoped to be as an artist: I had brought my show to an audience that understood and appreciated my strange imaginings of a ghost in their midst, and I was showing this work in the kind of rare, untouched place I love to paint. Thanks to David, this culminating weekend was being carefully recorded.

David Poag filming Amy de Lira in Demopolis (wearing the dress she made for the Marchioness)

As I left for home on a lovely, gold evening, and found myself passing Mr. Bird’s work again, I felt profoundly grateful. I’ve spent my whole career painting the vanishing South. The sale of that work now supports and runs parallel to my role as a very different kind of artist- a painter of the imagination, a roving evangelical with a traveling show about murder ballads, about Napoleonic exiles, about whatever strange history I feel must not be forgotten. It was my turn to salute. I raised a hand to Mr. Bird as one outsider artist to another.

‘Her Former Path’ (The ghost of the Marchioness over Demopolis)