This was what a writer had to say about my art at a whiteness symposium Mississippi State University on March 22, 2013
SMASHING THE MAGNOLIA: SAMANTHA BALDWIN’S GOTHIC DECONSTRUCTION OF SOUTHERN BELLE AND SOUTHERN BEAU WHITENESS
Howard Zinn offers a foundational principle to the optic of whiteness studies included in works later written by whiteness-focused historians like Nell Irvin Painter (Painter), when he tells us “…We must not accept the memory of states as our own. Nations are not communities and never have been….[In] a world of victims and executioners, it is the job of thinking people, as Albert Camus suggested, not to be on the side of the executioners” (10). For a clear view of whiteness in the South, we must square this idea with Faulkner’s famous assertion that in Mississippi, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past” (73). For most historical reenacters of the Battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi, for instance, whose participants are overwhelmingly Caucasian, the event itself implies that the memory of a state such as the Confederacy is the memory of a community. The implicit urging of such a reenactment is to incite people who look like Samantha Baldwin — a Caucasian folk artist from Mississippi — to see herself implicated in the interests of antebellum millionaires even today, to see herself united with a literary figure like Stephen Vincent Benet’s post-bellum Confederate mourner Lucy Wingate, who is “…white and gold as a lily bed,/giving toy ribbons to all her dead” (n.p.). However, in her work, Baldwin explicitly questions her connection, and her actual home town of Toccopola, Mississippi’s connection, to the white-columned Southern-genteel mythos. She refuses to memorialize a past that is not truly her own heritage as a Southern woman in a poor-white community, and the past she reenacts in gothic elegy and effigy is a rejection of any truth that comes from a lost-cause mythology. Particularly for the women of her community, who have been told, like all Southern white women, to use Scarlett O’Hara as a measuring stick against which to judge themselves, this is problematic, as no one in Toccopola has ever owned a white-columned mansion, and the demands of their real lives – underpaid blue-collar work, the raising of too many children on too little money, are too onerous to consider the wearing of a hoop skirt, even for a reenactment of some fallacious and inherently insulting kind. Her artwork therefore rejects all ideas of Southern (alleged) gentry as she attempts to excavate the truth of her community’s past and present, with every canvas smashing the idols of the Southern Belle and the Southern Beau and their false portrayal of life below the Mason-Dixon Line.
I call Samantha Baldwin a folk artist despite the fact that, although she uses some mixed media, including tree bark and berry juices, she usually paints in acrylics on canvas. My justification for this is two-fold: she is first and foremost the ultimate outsider artist, painting without ever having taken a class at any academy. She paints as she sews, simply doing what the quilters of Gee’s Bend do to create their glorious abstractions (24-5) – praying, using her eyes and hands, and making, in the manner of all traditional feminine handiwork, that which seems aesthetically pleasing to her and to her household without regard to any other institution’s objectives. I also declare her a folk artist in that she is an artist of vernacular themes without obeisance to any school of art, and so her works are surprising, even as they ironically deconstruct one Southern vernacular figure using the old tools of the academy to construct masterpiece.
In her Colonel Reb series, Samantha Baldwin reappropriates and mocks the disneyfied (and now mercifully replaced) mascot for the University of Mississippi’s athletic teams, all called “The Rebels,” after the manner of the Confederate dead who are memorialized on the Oxford Campus and still serenaded with “Dixie” at every sporting event there. The campus still elects a student to represent Colonel Reb at the homecoming dance in the name of tradition. However, this tradition does not date from the time of the Civil War or even Reconstruction, but dates back only to the 1970s. Like less apparent fallacies of the lost cause mythos, the creepy old man in the red zoot suit and handlebar moustache is an invention of the early disco era, not an august pastime of anybody’s ancestry. This, however, did not stop the Klan from protesting his ouster .
Baldwin sees this two-dimensional figure for what he is, a Pokemon card for racism, a dancing santa rather than a religious icon, and in her series she renders him a thing. In Mona Reb (Baldwin, Mona Reb), she makes him into a caricature of Da Vinci’s enigmatically smiling siren. In Rebel Gothic (Baldwin, Rebel Gothic), she renders him as the unsmiling farmer in Grant Wood’s classic painting American Gothic (Wood), and in Rebel Yell (Baldwin, Rebel Yell), rendered in expressionistic idiom, the cartoon colonel yelps out Munch’s existential scream. On other canvasses, Baldwin renders the colonel cubist, loopy after the abstractions of Joan Miro, and gives him back to us over and over in a manner that lets us understand his inherent artifice. Chez Baldwin, the Colonel is no more a representative of any truthful Southern experience than Mickey Mouse represents years of zoological research. In allowing us to see him as a fallacy decontextualized from Mississippi’s past, we are permitted to dismiss him the way we would toss out our plastic mouse ears after a visit to Epcot Center. We viewers might have permission to enjoy the fantasy of this colonel while we gaze at him, but we cannot logically allow ourselves to believe in his actual existence in any time or space.
More personally and poignantly, the majority of Samantha Baldwin’s current work revolves around the center of her real-life community, Toccopola, Mississippi, population 246 (n.p.). According to the 2000 census, only one African-American person lived in Toccopola. While that number has increased a little, it could not be wrong to call Toccopola a white space. That said, if there were a bit of truth in the promise of any prosperity or harmony in white privilege for Caucasians in Mississippi, Toccopola would not be as meth-infested, crime-plagued, and otherwise blighted as in fact it is. Toccopola’s median household income is less than two-thirds of the state median (n.p.), and Mississippi is always the poorest or one of the poorest states in the Union. This means that the reality of Toccopola itself contradicts any idea that may exist in Mississippi that segregation creates or preserves wealth.
This is the hometown in which Samantha Baldwin grew up, and unlike Faulkner’s decaying glories of Southern riches, the delapidation of Toccopola is a decay that claims no link to the smattering of millionaire cotton kings of the region’s past, but of people like the ones documented in The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy by Sally Jenkins and John Stauffer. That book talks about the “poor man’s fight” that the Civil War represented and the people who knew they held no stake in it. The book describes the hideout of the leader of that rebellion against the Confederate rebellion, Newton Knight, as it was seen by a journalist interviewing him well after the Civil War. It says the reporter got out of his Model T to find, “…a weather-beaten cabin, sheltered by lofty pines and crooked oaks, the sort the Confederate cavalry had hung traitors from” (2). The landscapes of Baldwin’s paintings evoke a similar gothic secession from secession. Her decaying houses are not houses of Usher, once great but now peering out with, to quote Poe in his gothic decay, “… vacant eye-like windows…” that speak “…a mystery all insoluble…” (n.p.). Rather, they are haunted in their decay by powerful Maggie-the-Cat-like tattooed pin-up girl goddesses, who point, like allegorical figures in a Botticelli revelry, toward a solution to the question these empty houses beg us to ask.
We see this in This Old Town She Ain’t What She Used to Be (Baldwin, This Old Town She Ain’t What She Used to Be), where tattooed roses reflect in swampy puddles in the foreground, while rusty weeds grow in front of what appears to be an abandoned church, over whom crouches an odalisque of distorted proportions, looking like a tattoo herself that has escaped a muscle-bound arm, smilingly sure of her primacy over this dilapidated landscape, sexy like a Betty Page and beckoning us toward her with a come-hither look. Her white skin is covered in a mesh of tattoos evoking the overgrowth of weeds below her. Yes, she is white, but nobody, not even the queen of this scene, has power. Baldwin throughout this series plants similar muses for us to regard, covered in the distortions of the tattoo parlor, thus marring the alleged power of white skin in this white space.
These inked-up white women, often accompanied by tattoo imagery of other kinds let loose from the parlor’s catalogs – flowers, snakes – point like game show prize girls to the anti-prize of the alleged privilege of white skin that has failed an entire town. Cars lie up on blocks, we suspect never to run again. Boards peel and fall off shacks that were never glamorous or even B-52-serenaded “Love Shacks.” No one has cut the grass here since anyone can remember. Baldwin’s tattooed ladies are the truth-tellers of her Toccopola Project. They bespeak a community-wide alienation from the American dream, a white space that has no white privilege worth defending.
We see this idea of the worthlessness of any white privilege to her hometown in one painting most particularly and directly decried. In Nevermore (Baldwin, Nevermore), Baldwin presents us with Poe’s Raven flying above an overpass strewn with patches of kente cloth, the bird itself grasping a swatch of African fabric as it wings past a graffito declaring, “KKK is Comin’ Back” that the artist really saw defacing a place on the edge of the real Toccopola. Read as text itself, it lets us know that this prediction could not have been made by a member of the 1965 gubernatorial White Citizen’s upper-crust Council of Mississippi, but rather a semi-literate vandal, one who does not profit much economically in Toccopola’s dirt-poor universe from white privilege. Hence the raven, not a tattooed goddess but a stand-in for both gothic decay and the truth the Holy Spirit flies over Christ’s baptism, against a sky that is red like blood and like sunset, corrects grammar, manners, and prophesy. The KKK isn’t coming back to this Toccopola, if indeed it were ever there, as nobody needs to defend a worthless idea of who they never really were. This bridge isn’t a bridge at Harper’s Ferry, and it is unfit for any kind of memorial to the Confederate past. It is just a highway leading through a town that is easily forgotten.
It would be wrong to suggest that Baldwin’s Toccopola Project contains nothing but decay, however. She is after the actual truth of the past, and she portrays real people from the past of Toccopola with a folk dignity. She also has a way of discovering subtle truths heretofore unspoken in the portraits she paints of real Caucasians in this white space without empire.
In Saint Maw Maw (Baldwin, Saint Maw Maw), we see an older grey-white woman holding a grey-white infant in her arms, and the hands of this woman are both gnarled and powerful, outsized growths of this landscape, rendered dignified in age and sturdy as a force of nature. Baldwin even gives her a halo reminiscent of Greek icons, whose Caucasian faces are often depicted in a similar sallow-gray cast, thus once again distorting white skin as any source of power in itself.
In Why the Long Face (Baldwin, Why the Long Face), we see another Caucasian woman, seated at a birthday party table, a garishly decorated cake cut, strewn favors, and an apron hanging on the wall above her. The painting’s title inquires about her expression, but we the viewers know the answer – it was not her birthday. Perhaps no one ever throws her a party. She is the only one to clean up this mess. The apron is hers and hers alone to wear here. If whiteness is a privilege, it seems to have passed this woman by – she cleans up after others.
In Judged by Grit (Baldwin, Judged by Grit), a group of men squeeze around the front of what may be a new car, but the image is evocative of homosensualized photographs taken for fashion. The central figure, a man with spectacles, looks uncannily like Richard Avedon’s Dr. Howard Levy, Dermatologist, New York City (Avedon), but the ensemble has the homoerotic quality of a Bruce Weber fashion vignette. These men are excited, ostensibly about the car, but their lips are pouty and pink, they huddle together, and perhaps the truth of their lives is the undercurrent unspoken regarding the clinging together over the hot machine. All these images evoke a Toccopola worth remembering, people who really were, maybe not really self-declaring the complexities of their identities here, but really living and breathing, and they have none of the Colonel Reb in them.
If history is not the memory of states, as Zinn says, and if our present is not to be defined in Mississippi by the mythos of plantation living and lost causes, perhaps the bridge between the Klan and the kente cloth intersects the highway on which Samantha Baldwin rides. If we are to imagine a South that does not define itself by white privilege, who has it and who may never have it, then perhaps an honest look at the myriad communities like Toccopola, a critical look at the absurd notions of Colonel-Reb-reenactments, prevent us from falling into the old trap of us-versus-them, of color lines and imaginary legacies. Perhaps the road out of Samantha Baldwin’s gothic deconstruction of Toccopola leads us to a place where we would all prefer to live, whatever the history of our skin color purports to tell others about us. In her Toccopola, we are rebels rebelling against rebels, and it’s not the fat lady but the tattooed one who sings the last song, and in this chaos there is hope, once the rubble is cleared, of new beginnings.
Arnett, William et al. Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt. Atlanta: Tinwood Books, 2006. Print.
Avedon, Richard. Dr. Howard Levy, Dermatologist, New York City. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photograph.
Baldwin, Samantha. Judged by Grit. Private Collection, Pontotoc. Acrylic.
Baldwin, Samantha. Mona Reb. Private Collection, Pontotoc. acrylic.
Baldwin, Samantha. Nevermore. Office of Steve Wooten, DDS, Oxford. Acrylic.
Baldwin, Samantha. Rebel Gothic. Private Collection, Oxford. acrylic.
Baldwin, Samantha. Rebel Yell. Office of Steve Wooten, DDS, Oxford. acrylic.
Baldwin, Samantha. Saint Maw Maw. Private Collection, Pontotoc. Acrylic.
Baldwin, Samantha. This Old Town She Ain’t What She Used to Be. Private Collection, Pontotoc. Acrylic.
Baldwin, Samantha. Why the Long Face. Private Collection, Pontotoc. Acrylic.
Benet, Stephen Vincent. “John Brown’s Body (e-book).” 1928. The Gutenberg Project. Electronic. 26 January 2013.
Censusviewer.com. 2010. Electronic. 26 January 2013. <http://censusviewer.com/city/MS/Toccopola>.
Faulkner. Requiem for a Nun. New York: Vintage, 1975. Print.
Jenkins, Sally and John Stauffer. The State of Jones: The Small Southern County that Seceded from the Confederacy. New York: Anchor Books, 2010. Electronic.
Maxey, Ron. “Col. Reb Loyalists Want Ole Miss Mascot Back.” The Commercial Appeal 27 April 2011: n.p. electronic.
Painter, Nell Irvin. The History of White People. New York: W.W. Norton, 2010. Electronic.
Poe, Edgar Allen. “The Fall of the House of Usher.” 1839. The Literature Network. Electronic. 26 January 2013.
Trulia.com. 2013. Electronic. 26 January 2013. <http://www.trulia.com/real_estate/Toccopola-Mississippi/community-info/>.
Wood, Grant. American Gothic. Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago. Oil.
Zinn, Howard. A People’s History of the United States 1492-Present: Twentieth Anniversary Edition. New York: Harper Collins, 1999. Print.