“Artists are like astronomers who postulate the existence of unknown planets by the pull of their gravity on known celestial bodies. The mystery is invisible but felt, tugging gently at whatever is within it, unknowable until the next panel is painted.”William Gay, “Calves Howling At The Moon”
Mystery Outside the frame:
the literary landscapes of william gay
by DAWN MAJOR & J. MICHAEL WHITE
While William Gay is well-established as a Southern Gothic author, most people are unaware that he was a painter, and further, that the images he painted match up with scenes and settings from his literary landscapes. Gay would explore the same subject matter—forests, roads and windows, dilapidated barns, farmhouses, and shanties— in his writing as he did in his artwork. These were images found in his rural environment and he explored the same themes and working symbols in his prose and his paintings. Visiting his hometown of Hohenwald, TN is like time-travelling to the 1930s and 1940s. It can feel like entering Gay’s fictional town of Ackerman’s Field. And because Gay articulated those lost sights so vividly with his prose, the reader viewing Gay’s artwork can find illustrations of many of his stories. Having Gay’s paintings adds another level of richness to his fiction.
Most of Gay’s paintings he gifted to friends and family and because Gay loved Christmas, many of the paintings have the holiday, Christmas, along with the year, his signature, and sometimes the recipient’s name in the bottom corner. The images in the paintings have a transitory quality as though the shanties are fading into obscurity or disintegrating into the earth. Gay’s fascination with dilapidated buildings captures a lost time. But he was not holding onto the Antebellum South. He and his family were as poor as they came, and the lost voices and images he was attracted to are those of his characters and the places they inhabited.
Gay’s earliest known painting was an image of a clown on a paint-by-numbers kit given to him as a Christmas present when he was a teenager. Not one to follow rules, he never painted the clown, but flipped it over, and painted a train on a trestle on the back of the canvas board. He gave the painting to his mother who hung it over her mantel until she passed away.
It is common practice for folk artists who lack the material to create to use whatever is available, and for Gay, who lived in poverty for most of his life, and could not afford canvases, it meant painting on old album covers, bits of cardboard, and old sheets of wood paneling that were rough on one side and held the paint better. Later in life, when he could afford art material, he painted oil on canvas. And, once he became famous as a writer, he realized he could supplement his income by selling his paintings and started painting more. He sold out at his one and only galley show in Oxford, Mississippi.
In his short story, “The Lightpainter,” the protagonist, Tidewater, is a painter, like Gay, who is passionate about capturing light on canvas:
He was drunk on the power to re-create light on canvas. He painted one picture after another in an orgy of creativity…He painted firelight flickering warmly on the walls of a room, soft yellow lamplight falling through a window, lanternlight from a sleigh on reefs of drifted snow, moonlight on snowy mountains, the light from bonfires on the faces of homecoming game revelers. They were pictures of a time that was irrevocably gone and perhaps had never truly been (270-271).
Like his darker writing there is something eerie about his paintings, even scary, as if they are haunted, or depict places that are haunted. After a winter storm hits, Tidewater observes the effect it has on the sky: “Above the light the sky took on the color of wet slate. The light swirled toward him like a silver mist rising off some country already locked in a seize of ice” (280). Visually, Gay writes about light and dark images as an experienced painter or studied photographer who can calculate shadow or brightness.
While Gay made few references to artwork or artists in his writing, the painter, Andrew Wyeth’s the famous 1948 painting, Christina’s World had a profound effect on him. In his short memoir, “Calves Howling at the Moon,” from the collection, Time Done Been Won’t Be No More, Gay recounts his earliest experience of art:
While Gay made few references to artwork or artists in his writing, the painter, Andrew Wyeth’s the famous 1948 painting, Christina’s World had a profound effect on him. In his short memoir, “Calves Howling at the Moon,” from the collection, Time Done Been Won’t Be No More, Gay recounts his earliest experience with art:
“The first painting that ever affected me deeply was by Andrew Wyeth. I was in elementary school, about the fourth grade. Wednesday was library day, and although most of the books were off-limits to fourth graders, I looked forward to roaming around the shelves, and picking out titles that I promised myself I would read one day…The school librarian noticed that I was always drawing pictures, comic-book panels with Zane Grey Westerners pummeling each other with their fists or battling with six-guns” (119-120).
That school librarian must have seen something special in Gay who goes on to describe a momentous day when she allowed him to take “a coffee-table book of prints of the great American landscapes” from the high school library (120). As for the painting, it is psychologically stark. The woman’s hand reaches for something out of sight. Constantly reaching or striving for the unknown or what is unattainable, seems a fitting image for Gay’s life as a writer who lived in total obscurity in Middle Tennessee and did not publish until he was fifty-nine years old. Without a formal education and only a high school diploma, Gay was completely self-taught.
Andrew Wyeth’s Christina’s World stayed with Gay from childhood to adulthood. He would later use the image to describe one of his fictional settings. In the short story, “Up to Bat with the Bases Loaded,” Gay describes how Wyeth painted an image of a disabled woman he knew from his own town who refused to use a wheelchair and would crawl wherever she needed to go. In order to get to the train station, she would have to climb a hill. In Christina’s World, Wyeth depicts the image of this woman sitting at the bottom of a hill. As an adult, Gay eventually discovered the inspiration for Wyeth’s painting, but he felt the backstory was not relevant for him, what affected him “about the painting was the mystery…The woman seemed affected by the gravity or enormity of something just out of view” (120). That sense of mystery pervades Gay’s own artwork. The viewer wonders what is behind the window or what is happening behind the door. And Gay plays into those mysteries by occasionally adding just a breath of a figure inside the doorframe or a gray ghostlike form in the woods.
In that same short memoir where he wrote about his early influences, his relationship to art and to artists, he also wrote about the South as his subject matter:
It is a good place to find subjects to paint or to write about because it is a place obsessed with time, by the lives once lived here, the very atmosphere scored by hard times and rough ways…All these lost lives seem to exist and to go on uninterrupted around you and every life exists simultaneously, every one layered like stacks of imaged glass that, held to the light, show all these past lives without precedence or priority, time itself having become pliable and of no moment. If you try to paint this landscape, a force that is invisible and just outside the frame (but there all the same) seems to affect whatever you are laying on the canvas. (123-124)
That atmosphere or invisible force that Gay alludes to in this quote permeates his writing and artwork. It seeps out through the written word, through the yellowed square of lamp light flickering from windowpanes, vivid horizons merging into bleak rural landscapes, moonlight reflecting off dusty roads, and the roughhewn, faded, wooden slabs of a shanties lost forever in time, but rendered in his paintings. It is alchemical and casts a spell on reader and viewer alike.
Gay never viewed himself as an artist, however, even when he was painting and writing about painting the South, he disqualified his talent: “I’m not an artist, I just paint for the reasons most people do the things they like, because they’re fun and because of the satisfaction you get when you have completed (or decided you’ve completed) a picture. And because you have an idea in your head, you try to paint pictures that equal it. They never do, but the feeling that you get a little closer each time is part of the satisfaction” (119).
Gay was highly influenced by his surroundings and incorporated what he saw visually into both his literary work and art. The images in his paintings help create a greater connection between William Gay, the author, and William Gay, the artist. Gay was intimately connected with nature and the places that populated his real world returning to the same settings and painting the same images multiple times. The rural settings and landscapes depicted in his artwork and prose, both lyrical and vibrant, provide an immersive experience for the reader who can now fully engage with his art.
His art was the driving force of his life, and he cared about little else. Gay was a free-spirit and lived like a true artist in a self-ruling world. To many of the people around him he seemed aloof and detached. He lived a hardscrabble, earthly life, rugged and simple. It really did not matter to him where he was; he lived in a writer’s trance. He served his art and let his art serve him. He was creating something original, something brand new, high energy, cut to the bone, coming out of the darkness with an element of danger, exploding on the page and canvas. He was a gentle person, but in his books life was cheap. Sitting up writing or painting in the still of the night, he wrote prose and painted canvases that are heartfelt and melancholy. In a world that did not seem to care, he was an earth angel singing from some imaginary corner of the universe which he imbued with beauty and concern for all life.
WHERE: Decatur Library. 215 Sycamore Street. Decatur, GA 30030 DIRECTIONS
WHEN: THURS-SATS From 1-5 P.M. EST. (also by appointment) beginning 2/17 and ending with the Lost Southern Voices Festival on 3/25.