Flannery O’Connor as inspiration: artists talk at the author’s childhood home

Betsy Cain and Betsy Cain

Back in February, I wrote a lengthy, illustrated preview of Southern Discomfort: Art Inspired by Flannery O’Connor.

It was first and foremost an art exhibit — an invitational one that my co-organizer Beth Howells and I wanted to be as good as possible, whether people turned out or not and whether or not the silent auction was successful.

"everything that rises . . . #2" by Betsy Cain

But the response was beautiful, and it proved a signature event for the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home. It’s probably not one we’ll do again in 2013, however, despite its success.

Blanche Powers’ gallery 1704Lincoln proved a perfect venue. (Special thanks to Blanche for donating the space and donating a piece to the show too.)

Part of the success lay in the exhibit’s novelty and surprise; that’s not something we can replicate every year.

We ended up with 43 works by 25 artists. The vast majority of them sold via silent auction (with starting prices determined by the artists themselves), with the Childhood Home taking half the sale price and artists taking half.

A number of artists decided to make full donations of their work, an incredible act of generosity.

Mary Hartman

So Southern Discomfort ended up being a financial boon for our small non-profit as well as an artistic success.

I think the most heartening thing for me was the level of engagement of the artists.

We had asked some of the most serious and experienced artists in town to participate, and I knew all these people were serious about their work, but I still wasn’t prepared for the intense connections that the artists established with O’Connor’s vibrant words.

"And the Meanest of Them Sparkled II" by Mary Hartman

It was just plain exciting.

Click here to see 39 images from the show.

Click herefor Bob Jones’ great photos from the reception.

This past Sunday as part of the spring lecture series at the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home on Lafayette Square, 5 of the participating artists talked about their work and about O’Connor’s inspiration to them.

Like with the show itself, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Sunday’s talk, but it was utterly fascinating to hear the five — Betsy Cain, Mary Hartman, Marcus Kenney, Katherine Sandoz, and Christine Sajecki — try to contain in words the meanings that O’Connor’s work has for them.

Betsy Cain, who had a great show at the Jepson last year, was up first. She talked about the 3 pieces she did for the show — images of Mason jars with “vapors” coming out of them. She got the idea from a Mason jar that her studio mate Andrew Hartzell had left on her table.

For Betsy, the images showed the “residual after effect” of reading O’Connor, and she noted how the “lingering sorrow, mysticism, and southern gothic” connects to her own work.

Marcus Kenney

Mary Hartman was largely unfamiliar with O’Connor’s work until I dropped off a copy of The Complete Stories for her last fall.

At the beginning of her remarks on Sunday, she said that she assumed she knew who O’Connor must have been — a southern writer, mid 20th century, and all that would entail.

But she found herself shocked as she immersed herself into the work.

“You can’t skip a line in O’Connor,” she said.

untitled photograph by Marcus Kenney

Mary ended up bringing us 5 great pieces, each somehow reflecting O’Connor’s bold imagery.

The most stunning to me was “And the Meanest of Them Sparkled II” — an image of The Misfit as he’s cleaning his glasses at the end of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find”.

Marcus Kenney began by noting that he’s not an expert on O’Connor, and then added: “I’m not even an expert on what I’m doing.”

Marcus has been primarily a painter and mixed media artist in recent years, but he submitted a couple of large photos to Southern Discomfort. I did not know at the time that they are part of a large body of photo work that Marcus has been doing over the last year or so.

He announced on Sunday that he’ll be having a show of the work at a SCAD gallery this fall — exact time and place TBA.

Katherine Sandoz

And that’s incredibly exciting news for those of us who have followed the arc of Marcus’ career. As an owner of two of Marcus’ photos from Mexico years ago, I’m especially excited.

I was even more excited because Marcus had a few dozen images scrolling behind him as he talked about the twin influences of Flannery O’Connor and photographer Robert Frank’s book The Americans.

Katherine Sandoz points out changes between a preliminary drawing and her finished piece "Finding Joy"

It’s difficult to describe the full effect of Marcus’ new work, but my first reactions are that it’s very southern, rural, honest, and even intimate in the way it captures the occasional human subjects in vulnerable, provocative moments.

Katherine Sandoz gave a fascinating overview of the various tensions, themes, and processes she explored in creating “Finding Joy”.

The piece began with a consideration of various meanings in “Good Country People”, but then evolved in beautiful ways.

Christine Sajecki

Katherine took those ideas to create an image of Joy/Hulga holding her artificial leg as a dark-clad hunter loomed.

Later the piece took on colors — including those of the eye in a peacock feather.

Christine Sajecki organized the talk and was the final speaker.

I had known Christine slightly for many years, but I had no idea of her interest in O’Connor until hearing about it from Betsy Cain as we organized the show.

Christine’s enthusiasm, energy, and creative skills made her a perfect fit for the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home board of directors, which she joined a few months ago.

And Christine has a great show up right now at 1704Lincoln — “American Villages”.

During her remarks, Christine displayed photographs of abandoned cars on Ossabaw Island — a tiny junkyard quickly being overgrown.

She said that she thinks of each O’Connor story as a car, with its own destination, which led her to the beautiful — and somewhat eery — image that she produce for Southern Discomfort:

"The Complete Stories" by Christine Sajecki