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Fresh Air Remembers Artist William Christenberry, Chronicler Of The Rural South


This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. William Christenberry, a photographer and sculptor dedicated to capturing the good and bad elements of his native Deep South, died Monday of complications from Alzheimer's disease. He was 80 years old. Christenberry was born in 1936 in Tuscaloosa, Ala., during the Depression. He found his greatest inspiration in Hale County, Ala., one of the poorest counties in the state. He began photographing that county's battered buildings and kudzu-overrun landscapes in 1958 and reflected the Deep South in intricate sculptures and collections, as well. One piece called the Klan Room was a work he continued to develop for more than three decades. Examining the iconography of organized racism, it included nearly 400 objects, including hundreds of dolls menacingly dressed in the hooded disguises of the Klan. Many of Christenberry's other sculptures are miniatures of abandoned shacks and boarded-up general stores and diners. Terry Gross spoke with William Christenberry in 1997 and asked him about the dolls dressed in hooded robes in his Klan Room piece.


WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY: I guess, for me, when I conceived the idea of a doll in this case - or originally - it was a Barbie doll dressed as a Klansperson. But the Barbie did not flex or bend at the joints. And in 1964, G.I. Joe made his appearance on the scene. And I'll never forget going to Zayre Department Store in Memphis, where I was living at the time. And I bought 20 G.I. Joe dolls one night. And, recently, I was able to - or asked to be a part of a wonderful place in Philadelphia called The Fabric Workshop, where they can do anything you've ever dreamed of with fabric. And we made there - or I began there - a number of dolls that are much tougher, meaner, uglier, where I appear to sort of punish them by pouring wax on them, binding them up, sticking pins in them and the like. But it is - it's meant to be a composite or a tableau. I don't think it can be photographed adequately, or I don't think you can sense what it's about unless you walk into the space.


What was the presence of the Klan in your life when you were growing up in Alabama? How open were they where you were? Did you ever see - knowingly see - Klanspeople?

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, in the late '50s, you would hear rumors of Klan meetings. But, usually, they were secret meetings, maybe way out in the country or in the attic or loft of an old building, an old warehouse. But it was in 1960 in my hometown of Tuscaloosa, Ala., where I first encountered the Klan at the Tuscaloosa County Courthouse. And it was enough to frighten me. I still have almost nightmares about that meeting. Well, I didn't see but one Klansman. But out of that encounter came a lot of work. And that stimulated or helped stimulated this need on my part to, as I've said many times, come to grips with that aspect of evil that we call the Ku Klux Klan.

GROSS: So what were you doing there? They were holding a meeting, and you were curious?

CHRISTENBERRY: I'll tell the story. I read in the Tuscaloosa newspaper that they would be - on the front page, down the left-hand bottom of the page - that there would be a Klan rally down at the county courthouse. So I said to a friend - I said, why don't we go down there and see what it's like? I was curious. And we got down there that evening. And there was no evidence of any Klan activity. The street lights were on. There were cars out front. I didn't see many people. And I certainly didn't see any people dressed as Klansmen. And I said to my friend, let's go inside. Let's go look inside. He said, no. You go. Obviously, he was a little fearful. And he was Jewish. And I think he thought twice about going in there. So I started up these old, marble stairs. Second level - nothing. Third level - just as I got to the top of the steps, to my left, standing as a sentinel was a Klansman in full robe and hood. And he didn't turn his body to look at me. He just - he didn't even turn his head. He just turned his eyes to the right and looked at me through those eyehole slits. And I just ran back down the steps. And that was my first encounter ever with a Klansman. But by the '60s - certainly by the mid-'60s - the Klan was being forced out of cover, so to speak, trying to improve their image, if that's possible. And you could go - we could go to open meetings. I attended two meetings in Memphis in the summer of '66 and one outside of Tuscaloosa in 1966. And the one in Tuscaloosa or outside Tuscaloosa was - how shall I say? - full-blast theater. It was an amazing experience.

GROSS: Well, share some of the images from that that really made an impression on you that you've been trying to recapture in your art since then.

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, I think, always, it's been that hooded-head form. I've been for a long time and continue to be very much interested in the mask, any kind of mask throughout mankind's history. And this hooded head that the Klan uses - this hood that - where the apex of the triangle is at the top, which sort of reverses the structure of our head. In other words, we can imagine our head - the human head - having a triangular form of sorts, the apex of the triangle being our chin. By reversing what we think of - what we know as our head, they have made this thing somewhat, well, I think, unbelievably frightening.

GROSS: Have you ever held a real Klan robe in your hands?

CHRISTENBERRY: Yes. I have one that was given me by a collector of political memorabilia. And it probably dates - it's his guess - from the '20s. For some reason, he believes it came from West Virginia. It's a pretty frightening thing, especially the hood, because all around the eyeholes is hand-stitched. And it's muslin. It's not satin like the contemporary Klan. It's a frightening object.

GROSS: You live and teach in Washington, D.C. And in 1979, your studio was broken into. And a lot of the Klan work was stolen. From what I understand, the thieves were never found. But you suspect it was the work of the Klan? Why do you suspect that?

CHRISTENBERRY: No. No, I do not.

GROSS: You don't suspect that?

CHRISTENBERRY: That was my first fear. That was my first and greatest fear when it happened because the theft was devastating not just in terms of the loss but the effect it had on my wife and small children. The nature of the theft, the obsessiveness of it - the door was locked back up. There was no vandalism. I would - I could better have understood the fact if I had found the room vandalized and things broken and strewn about. And, therefore, initially, you couldn't help but think, could it have been the Klan? But I don't think so now. I think it's somebody that probably just wanted, in the wrong sense - in the negative sense of the word - possess the work. And that's frightening, too. But no, I don't - I think the Klan would really like for me to have known that they took it because they have a tendency to leave calling cards and the like.

GROSS: The Ku Klux Klan work is just one part of your work. There's a lot of your work that's really tied up with, in a way, a South that no longer exists, abandoned country stores, abandoned diners, abandoned shacks, small wooden churches that are closed up. Why does this architecture of the past capture your imagination?

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, I want to say right up front that it's not nostalgia for the past. I have very strong, mostly positive feelings about where I'm from and a deep affection for where I'm from. The way I was brought up in a very closely knit family, the storytelling tradition that I grew up with - but I tend to gravitate towards the things you mentioned because - I don't know if I achieved this - but I see a kind of poetry or poignancy in these things that are disappearing. The South is changing rapidly. It's becoming a more affluent part of this country. And it's - unfortunately, too - it's beginning - that's not unfortunate. But it's unfortunate it's beginning to look like almost everywhere else. And these things that I photograph, that I've made sculptures of, that I've drawn and painted are not going to be around much longer.

GROSS: Now, was this architecture being used when you were growing up? Was the - were the diners actually...

CHRISTENBERRY: Oh, yes. Yes. And the churches - the country churches - the Christenberry family church, the church my father attended as a child, still stands. It was built towards the end of the Civil War - Providence Methodist Church. But it's truly, as the hymn says, the church in the wildwood. It's so far back out in the country now and hasn't been functioning in any capacity for the last 30 years or more. And I, for some reason - I can't explain this - had this fascination with this kind of pure middle form, this triangle that keeps coming back in a positive way and a negative way.

GROSS: Positive in the architecture...


GROSS: ...Negative in the hoods of the Klan.

CHRISTENBERRY: Yes. Now, at that time, I was not involved with any expression regarding the Klan, nor was I involved with drawing or painting the vernacular architecture that time. It came later.

BIANCULLI: William Christenberry speaking to Terry Gross in 1997. The renowned photographer and sculptor died Monday at age 80. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview from 1997 with Alabama artist and sculptor William Christenberry. He died Monday at age 80.


GROSS: It's interesting. The county that you grew up in in Alabama, Hale County, is the county that "Let Us Now Praise Famous Men" was inspired by. It's the county that Walker Evans documented in photographs and James Agee wrote about. And this is a very influential, now-famous book about Southern poverty. And you discovered this book when, I guess, you were a young man.

CHRISTENBERRY: In 1960 to be exact, when the second printing - the first printing of 1941 was remaindered. So I didn't discover it until the second printing came out in 1960.

GROSS: Now, over the years, you've taken photos of some of the same buildings that Walker Evans photographed and some of the same places that he photographed. But the interesting thing is he seemed so interested in capturing, literally, the faces of poor people, capturing their faces, their bodies. Who are they? Who are these people? Very few people in - I can't really think of any people, actually, in the photos and sculptures of yours that I've seen. You're really interested in the buildings and the exteriors of the buildings and the advertising on and around the buildings.

CHRISTENBERRY: Also, I'm interested in - how shall I say? - mankind's touch or mankind's effect on these things more than I am in the people. To be very truthful with you, I've never had any real desire to photograph people. I don't know why that is. I sometimes say this rather jokingly. Maybe it's because I feel uncomfortable being photographed myself. But that's not a good excuse. But I do like or do tend to look at the effect of what people have done to the landscape or to a structure. And certainly what time and the elements - how they have affected these things.

GROSS: Oh, absolutely, yeah. And a lot of the exteriors of the buildings that influence and inspire you are really weathered. And there's advertising signs that have peeled off...


GROSS: ...Or sheet-metal advertising signs that have rusted. And the paint is dulled. I'm interested in your interest in signs and in advertising. And a lot of the ads, you know, are for archaic (laughter)...


GROSS: ...For archaic products like Grapette soda and snuff, which I don't know if people use anymore, 31-cent-a-gallon gasoline (laughter).

CHRISTENBERRY: Right. Well, 31 Cent Gas - that picture was made in 1964. And that - you do see through my work - in my work - a good bit of evidence of the passing of time and how things have changed. But I've always loved old signage, especially signage, as you said, that is weathered and been affected by things. It's what I call the aesthetics of the aging process. And I have quite a wonderful gathering - I don't really like the word collection - of these signs that I have begged, borrowed and sometimes stolen (laughter). Not stolen, really - but you say to an owner of an old country store - this is back in the '60s and '70s when these things were very prevalent - I really like that old Coca-Cola sign out there. And would you take 50 cents for it? And he usually would say, you'd really like that thing? If you see any more, just take them. (Laughter) They were going to have to get rid of them. And now that's a vanishing aspect of outdoor advertising. It's changed dramatically. And would you believe these objects now have monetary value, even in the condition that they're in, that I like so much?

GROSS: Well, one wall in your current museum show is totally taken up with six sheet-metal ads for Royal Crown soda. And I have to say I thought they were just really beautiful (laughter).

CHRISTENBERRY: Well, when you see them in that context, not just in a museum context but put on a wall like that, here we have one to the left - would be in pretty good condition. Then by the time you get to number six, it's essentially - it's the same sign. But through that stage - those stages - is now total rust. And I just thought that was - I still think that's a beautiful thing. So we grouped them - or I grouped them - like that kind of to show the passing of time and how things are affected by nature and whatever.

GROSS: One of the walls in the current museum show in Philadelphia is giving over to the pages of a calendar that your grandfather had. And this, also, just as a found object, is - it's beautiful. The calendar it was published by a company specializing in laxatives. And so some of the ads - one of the ads reads, let's shake on this. When you are in need of a good laxative that is economical, too, Black Draught is the friendly, favored choice, popular with four generations. Did you remember this calendar on your grandfather's wall?

CHRISTENBERRY: I do. My grandfather Christenberry was bedridden the last several years of his life with asthma and a heart condition. But he kept that beside his bed - that calendar. And, periodically, he would take it down and, with pencil, write in important dates and the family's history. The earliest date I've found is 1866. He writes, Mammy Duncan's (ph) birthday. That would've been his wife's mother's birthday. So this was in our family after his death. And, as you can see in the exhibition, it's very fragile. It's all in old newsprint. The calendar dates 1947. And in 1973, one of my father's older sisters had this. And I was - I knew that. And I ask her - we called her Aunt Sister - always thought that was a good name. I said, Aunt Sister, I would like to be considered to have this, eventually. Could it possibly be handed down to me? And she said, I think you should have it. And I immediately framed it archivally because I knew it would not hold up if it were not protected. And in that same year, I had the idea. Why not sort of pay homage to him, to D.K. Christenberry? And I put up the 12 months framed, a walking stick that he had carved and a receipt for taxes paid in the year 1949 for $29 and some few cents. So it's called Calendar Wall For D.K. Christenberry. And it's a very valuable thing to me because it is a fascinating record of the history of the family, both the tragic and the comic. He had a sense of humor. He also must have been a rather sensitive man because he would sometimes record the first dove coo of the spring or the first whippoorwill call or when he bought his first pickup truck. It's a wonderful history. And I value it very much.

GROSS: A lot of your work is about the passage of time. And you're in your 60s now. And, in that sense, time is passing in your life, as well. And I wonder if you see the past differently as you get older - if the meaning of the past or the pull of the past changes for you.

CHRISTENBERRY: I think it becomes more intense. I was 60 this past November. And as I get older - now realizing more and more - not dwelling on it - but realizing more and more my own mortality. All of these things become more intense and unwavering in my desire to, as I said at the beginning, come to grips with every aspect of what I'm trying to do. But this passing-of-time element - oh, it's only been 12 or 15 years ago - that I really began to look at in my work or through my work the fact that what I've been doing is, in essence, sort of recording in a way - in one way or another, the passing of time. So now, being 1997, I will go back to the places that I photographed if they still exist from 1967 or '77 or '87. You never know. Many of those things that I've dealt with are gone and are going rapidly as the place changes so much. But it is still something that I most desire to do - not so much show the passing of time but to deal with the things that I know and care so much about.

GROSS: I want to thank you very much for talking with us.

CHRISTENBERRY: Thank you very much.

BIANCULLI: Sculptor and photographer William Christenberry speaking to Terry Gross in 1997. He died Monday of complications from Alzheimer's disease at age 80. After a short break, we'll listen back to Terry's 1992 conversation with Charlie Rich. He died in 1995. But a new tribute album was released this fall. And film critic David Edelstein will review "Jackie," the new movie starring Natalie Portman as Jackie Kennedy. I'm David Bianculli. And this is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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