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VOL. 128 | NO. 121 | Friday, June 21, 2013

Summer of Cloar

Six art museums honor beloved Memphis artist

By Bill Dries

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Stanton Thomas remembers his first encounter with Carroll Cloar’s art. It was eight years ago as Thomas, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s curator, was about to interview for the job he now has.

Visitors walk through the exhibit, “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South,” at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. The exhibit runs at the Brooks through Sept. 15. 

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

He and his wife walked through the museum so he could familiarize himself with the collection, and they came across Cloar’s “Where The Southern Cross The Yellow Dog.”

“I said, ‘This is the most beautiful regionalist painting I’ve seen in years. It’s just extraordinary and it’s late – it’s like 1965. I’ve never heard of this woman,’” Thomas said of his mistaken assumption that Cloar was a woman. “I always talk about how Cloar taps into the unconsciousness of what it is to be American. It is the small town in all of us. It’s the family memories, the family stories. It’s not yours. It’s your grandparents and your parents.”

What Thomas found in that first Cloar work is multiplied many times over in a “The Summer of Cloar,” the set of exhibits showing this summer in six museums and galleries in Memphis and West Memphis including the Brooks.

The unique collaboration, backed by a wealth of material in numerous public and private collections in Memphis and across the country, began to get specific a year ago, but several of the institutions already had exhibits scheduled in 2013 to mark the centennial of Cloar’s birth.

The exhibitions of Cloar’s work this summer also include a set of Cloar drawings at the Sam and Beverly Ross Gallery at Christian Brothers University.

“We had it on our schedule and Brooks had it on their schedule,” said Lisa Abitz, assistant director of the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. “We learned about each other. … Everyone started emailing each other, not about what each of us was going to do but the dates and titles of our shows.”

Cloar’s paintings in various museum collections, including the Brooks and private collections, are just part of the story.

The “In His Studio: Carroll Cloar” exhibition at the Art Museum at the University of Memphis through Sept. 7, includes Cloar’s studio, which was photographed in great detail following his death in 1993 and then taken apart.

Carter Hathcock, 2, plays with Nevaeh Williams, 3, and Melissa Williams in an interactive gallery in the exhibit, “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South.” 

(Daily News/Lance Murphey)

Cloar’s studio, in the front room of his house on South Greer in Memphis, was famous for its wall coverings of newspapers and a bullfight poster, plus other items Cloar added over the years. It was stored at the University of Memphis library’s Special Collections Department. Special Collections also has Cloar’s writings – the stories behind drawings also in the collection along with 31 lithographs.

“We went through and read all of the material, which is some 29 boxes in the archives and connected the stories to the drawings we have and got small pictures of finished paintings from David Lusk,” Abitz said, referring to the Memphis art gallery owner who represents Cloar’s estate and whose gallery also has one of the six “Summer of Cloar” exhibits.

The writings include an unpublished manuscript from Cloar’s New York City days.

“He thought of himself as a writer and a painter. When he first did the lithographs … that gallery owner discovered they were based on his memories and I think Carroll was encouraged to write those down,” Abitz said. “It’s an unpublished manuscript called ‘Arkansas Tales.’ And then he continued writing for the rest of his life.”

The stories confirm Thomas’ conclusion that while Cloar’s images connect with people who don’t know the stories, they have a specific intent and aren’t just the products of whimsy.

“I think people often forget that he’s an extraordinarily gifted craftsman and in the traditional sense of an artist – someone who not only has sketches but grand ideas – really profound ideas about what they want to communicate,” Thomas said. “One of the great revelations of working on the Cloar project is seeing those finished drawings as they related to the finished paintings and they are really beautiful. They are really masterful works.”

The collaboration among the six institutions includes social media connections to reinforce the collaboration including a Twitter hashtag, #summerofcloar.

And Thomas has organized a June 29 bicycle tour for Brooks members in West Memphis that starts with the exhibit at DeltaARTS at Mid-South Community College and then moves to sites in Cloar’s native Crittenden County in his paintings.

“I was shocked to go to Crittenden County depot to see that it looks identical to the painting,” Thomas said of the depot in the painting “Waiting for the Hot Springs Special.” “It’s virtually unchanged.”

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