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VOL. 128 | NO. 126 | Friday, June 28, 2013

Dan Conaway

Dan Conaway

Local Color

By Dan Conaway

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CARROLL CLOAR PAINTED US. Boyle is throwing a birthday party at Brooks for themselves and Carroll Cloar.

Everybody from around here is there – there on the walls, the ghosts of where we’ve been, specters of who we are.

The small town that’s everywhere in this big town. The fields and the cabins and the simple folk and simple joys that are so close to the streets and the complicated life of this city. The memories and visions of childhood and coming of age that are so much a part of our collective experience and our shared view from this corner of the South. The colorful, soulful characters raised in the humidity of poverty and the heat of opportunity presented side-by-side in the saturated colors of our storytelling character.

All there.

Over there, we see that “My Father Was Big As A Tree” and we see a man in purposeful stride “Where The Southern Cross The Yellow Dog.” Just there, we can join “Faculty And Honor Students, Lewis School House” and we can cross “The Bridge Over The Bayou” against a brilliant yellow fall backdrop. And there, we can be part of “The Wedding Party,” attend “The Baptizing Of Charlie Mae,” or hear a “Story Told By My Mother.”

All there at “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South.” The exhibition at Brooks through Sept. 15 marks the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth and the 80th anniversary of Boyle, the title sponsor. Works from private and museum collections are included, among them Brooks, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, the Whitney, Crystal Bridges and the Hirshhorn.

Some 70 times, we see ourselves in the haunting vision of Carroll Cloar (1913-1993). Arkansan from Earle by birth, Memphian by choice, Cloar gave, in the words of MOMA educator A.L. Chanin in 1956, “concrete expression to the ghosts of old memories.”

And he’s in mine.

In 1976, I asked him to do a painting for The Phoenix Club, intended for a Christmas card and limited edition print to raise money for The Boys Club (just boys in those days). “I don’t do commissions,” he told the nervous young man in front of him, “never have. But I’ll think about it. If I come up with an idea I like, I’ll paint it. If you like it, you can have it.”

We liked it. Two boys stand at the edge of an Arkansas field, snow in the rows, picking bright red berries to decorate the tree. “Did that with my brother,” he said. And they’ve been doing that on my wall in a print from that edition ever since.

I visited him several times. There in his newspapers-as-wallpaper studio. There in his little wooden sculpture of a house on Greer, way back from the street, an original fronted by a huge painting, later a mosaic, by the original man inside, gone now just as he is.

But the memories remain.

I’m a Memphian, and the there of around here is in Carroll Cloar’s paintings.

Dan Conaway is a lifelong Memphian, longtime adman and aspiring local character in a city known for them. Reach him at dan@wakesomebodyup.com.

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