Artist William Christenberry is a storyteller whose tales are legendary among those who have followed his career. His portrayals of the American South, too, tell stories: a photograph of a building covered in kudzu, a bold abstract painting or a constructed sculpture of a church emerging from sifted, red Alabama soil. Separating this man from his art is unthinkable.
2006 was a watershed year for Christenberry: His work is prominently featured in an opening exhibition for the newly renovated Smithsonian American Art Museum, where he also curated a highly acclaimed exhibit of folk art. He also launched his new book, William Christenberry. Hemphill Fine Arts in Washington presented his early photographs. His photography is on exhibit in the Phillips Collection and the Berman Collection at the Getty Center in Los Angeles. And both his photographs and sculpture were featured in an exhibit last fall at New York’s Pace/MacGill Gallery.
Christenberry was born in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, in 1936, in an era of storytellers, both visual and literary: photographers Walker Evans and Dorothea Lang, writers James Agee, Eudora Welty and William Faulkner, just a few of those who drew from the rich cultural heritage of the South, its distinguished and depraved, its dignity and despair.
Christenberry first conceptualized a link between story and art when he was an art student at the University of Alabama and audited a class on the modern short story. Here “a wonderful, dynamic professor brought the subject to life,” he recalls. It was Agee’s “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” that would have a major influence in his life.
“What Agee was doing with the written word was what I wanted to try to achieve in painting and sculpture—so that was pivotal for me,” he explains.
In New York, where he lived for a year after college, he met photographer Walker Evans. “Walker was a big champion early on, the first champion or supporter, or believer in the little Brownie [camera] snapshots—this was 1962 when he saw them. He encouraged me to take those seriously. He said, ‘Young man, there is something about the way you use this little camera—it has become a perfect extension of your eye. I suggest you take these seriously.’ At that time I was about as interested in photography as I was physics: zero,” Christenberry recalls.
It is that “eye” that Walker Evans discovered that defines Christenberry’s work, an eye that sees what others pass by and edits with sensitivity. His large-format photography forms the basis of much of his work today. Photographs of churches, country stores, houses and grave sites are taken over time, many repeatedly, showing a country store eventually engulfed in kudzu as nature takes over and tracing the cycle of life told in the photograph of a building.
These buildings take on the third dimension in the artist’s constructions, not models or perfect photographic replications, but interpretations of the psyche embodied in the structure. Photographs, paintings and constructions, often of the same subject, convey his persistence of milking the culture for the very essence of place.
The construction of Christenberry’s Dream Building Ensemble embodies a half-century of work. In the buildings’ forms and images are the underpinnings of his photographs of country churches with their steeples, or the pointed hoods of the Klansmen—commenting on the duality of Southern life and culture. To grasp this significance in the Dream Building Ensemble is to know the story behind it.
Raised in the atmosphere of racism, he sought to clarify and understand the roots of injustice he saw around him, most particularly, the activities of the Klu Klux Klan. Running up the stairs of a courthouse one day, he was confronted by a real-life hooded figure, a member of the Klan. It had such impact, he turned and ran downstairs. This became the prime-mover for the development of his Klan Ensemble, a collection of costumed figures. Many disappeared when his former studio was robbed. Months later, Christenberry began having dreams of buildings—the inspiration of his Dream Building Ensemble.
Christenberry’s studio, a contemporary addition built in 1984, is adjacent to his home on a tree-lined street in Cleveland Park, where he lives with his wife, Sandra, whom he describes as “the nuts and bolts and bedrock of this place.” The high-ceilinged, light-filled room reveals the source and breadth of his work. In one corner are pieces of his Dream Building Ensemble, across the room, gourds rest on the top of a cabinet, the shelves underneath lined with jars of paint. A poster shows an ear of corn topped by wings, and then another gigantic ear hung vertically—reminders of the culture of the countryside, pre-1960, most particularly Alabama.
Christenberry still drives the roads of Hale County, Alabama, the seeds of his art blossoming into a rich visual experience, one of understanding our roots and the story of darkness and light that persists in all of us.
Contributing editor Barbara Karth is based in Chevy Chase, Maryland.
An exhibition of William Christenberry’s work is on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum until July 8, 2007. He also curated the museum’s permanent installation, “Folk Art.” His works in “Where we Live: Photographs of America from the Berman Collection,” are on view at the Getty Center in Los Angeles through February 27, 2007. The book William Christenberry, published in 2006, is available from Aperture. Visit the Web site www.aperture.org.