Carroll Cloar’s paintings — slices of silent narrative, many chiseled from the artist’s memories of childhood among the cotton fields, small towns, weathered churches and open spaces of eastern Arkansas — are so familiar that they have carved a secure niche in the Mid-South’s cultural heritage.
His artistic legacy includes so many iconic works that people might be forgiven for recognizing the images without knowing the artist’s name. Such paintings as “My Father Was Big as a Tree”; “The Lightning That Struck Rufo Barcliff”; “Arrival of the Germans in Crittenden County”; “Halloween”: “Grandpa and the Panther Tree”; “Historic Encounter between E.H. Crump and W.C. Handy on Beale St.”; “Where the Southern Cross the Yellow Dog”; “Story Told by My Mother” seem like part of a inheritance that encapsulates public and private versions of the rural South, filtered through Cloar’s memory and mythic sensibility.
If anniversaries are appropriate times for celebration, then 2013 is important in the biography of Carroll Cloar, an artist whose work it would not be inappropriate to call “beloved.” This year marks the centennial of his birth — in Earle, Ark. — and the 20th anniversary of his death by suicide in Memphis, where he had lived since 1954.
A variety of commemorative exhibitions involving Cloar’s work opens this week at local and regional institutions, including Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Christian Brothers University, the Art Museum of the University of Memphis, David Lusk Gallery and Mid-South Community College in West Memphis. The exhibitions celebrate the artist’s drawings and paintings, his early lithographs and even his studio.
Cloar’s heritage and reputation seem secure.
Since his death, prices for the artist’s paintings and drawings “have increased dramatically,” said David Lusk, whose eponymous gallery in Laurelwood handles Cloar’s estate. “A good painting around the time of his death would have gone for $15,000 to $18,000. A similar piece now would demand $50,000, with some going for significantly more.”
Cloar’s audience may not be broadly national, but “there’s a lot of interest along the East Coast and in the Southeast,” Lusk said.
While Cloar relied heavily on recollection and local legend, on old photographs and illustrations for ideas and visual stimulus, his paintings could never be classified as mere memory recording. Cloar’s approach, at least through the mid-1960s, was strangely oblique and dreamlike — enough so that his work is sometimes called surrealistic — slyly witty and oddly isolating and lonely. Though his style of rendition was utterly realistic, his vision and choice of detail, use of color and light and shadow lent his subjects an otherworldly aura that’s part documentary, part folk tale.
Carroll Cloar’s distant and imposing father, Charles Wesley Cloar, farmed 2,500 acres of cotton outside of Earle. The boy was closer to his mother, a religious woman, part Welsh, part Native American, who supplied her son with a trove of weird stories, rumors, legends and family tales. As a lover of Western movies and comic strips, Cloar’s first artistic ambition was to be a comic book illustrator, but despite winning a prize for drawing in high school, his art teachers in Memphis and New York insisted that he was a poor draftsman, as well as a mediocre painter in oil.
Cloar graduated from Southwestern at Memphis in 1934, spent some time traveling through Europe visiting museums, and returned to Memphis to attend art school. In 1936, he went to New York and began studying at the Art Students League, hoping to improve his drawing and launch on a career as a cartoonist for The New Yorker, though he ended up working more in lithography. A McDowell Traveling Fellowship in 1941 sent him to Mexico for a year; the threat of the draft brought him back, and he joined the Army Air Corps, the result of which was a desultory military career as a radio operator, always one step, it seemed, behind the action.
After the war, the artist spent more time traveling in Europe, Mexico and South America. Returning to New York in 1947, Cloar took up the medium of casein tempera, a difficult method that influenced the dry, precise, rigorous yet transparent manner that balanced the sense of the memorial that often came over his work. His first one-man show occurred in Memphis in 1953, at the old Book Shelf. His first one-man exhibition in New York was at the Alan Gallery in 1955. Critics in newspapers and magazines noted not only Cloar’s subject matter, the evocative South where he grew up, but also his sense of realism tempered with touches of whimsy, folklore and mystery.
In the mid-1960s, Cloar switched from casein tempera to acrylic paints, a shift some observers felt diluted the power of his color. The change in medium or perhaps some coincidental transformation in the artist’s thought process seemed to bring about a change in the way Cloar approached his typical motifs, and for the rest of his career his work was brightly colored, more richly detailed yet psychologically and emotionally simpler. None of these aspects harmed the artist’s burgeoning popularity. An exhibition of new and old work held at the old Bingham Kurts Gallery in 1991 sold out in one day.
That subject matter came under scholarly scrutiny in 1991, when Melinda Parsons, then an associate professor of art history at Memphis State University, wrote about Cloar’s work in a monograph published to accompany a retrospective exhibition mounted by the University Gallery, now the Art Museum of the University of Memphis. The show included 70 paintings, drawings and lithographs chosen by the artist.
“Carroll was always pleasant and hospitable and helpful,” Parsons said in a telephone interview from Media, Pa., southwest of Philadelphia. “As a total outsider, I was really attracted to his art, which I found moving and beautiful.”
Not that the artist condoned with all of Parsons’ interpretations.
“There was a clear sense that he wanted to control his reputation and legacy,” she said. “He knew how sick he was, so that’s understandable. At the same time, he never said, No, you can’t say this. His attitude was that I should write about what I saw in the paintings, even if he didn’t agree.”
In conjunction with the exhibition, Cloar was given the 1991 Distinguished Achievement Award for the Creative and Performing Arts, the highest award the university gives; he was the first visual artist to receive the award since it was launched in 1979. “Everyone will wonder what I’m doing in that list of musicians,” Cloar said then. “They don’t know I’m the only one of them that plays the ukulele.”
Cloar ended his life with a gunshot to the chest on April 10, 1993, in the bedroom of the house on South Greer that he shared with his wife, Pat. He had been battling cancer for several years and had become increasingly debilitated.
In 1994, Pat Cloar announced that her late husband’s archives — consisting of thousands of objects, including preliminary drawings for his paintings and other works on paper; letters, diaries and various kinds of ephemera; a hoard of photographs he collected over the years; personal effects; the studio itself, with all its artist’s equipment and memorabilia; and the mural Cloar created for the front of the house — would go to Arkansas State University in Jonesboro. But after several years of negotiations, the plans fell through. Most of the material is in the Mississippi Valley Collection at the University of Memphis.
Exhibitions commemorating the work and career of Carroll Cloar for the 100th anniversary of his birth:
Already open: “Crossing Place, The Carroll Cloar Drawing Collection,” Beverly and Sam Ross Gallery, Christian Brothers University, through July 26. 650 East Parkway S. Call 901-321-3243.
June 7: “Carroll Cloar: Southern Raconteur,” David Lusk Gallery, through July 27. Paintings, drawings, lithographs. 4540 Poplar in Laurelwood. Call 901-767-3800.
June 8: “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South,” Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, through Sept. 15. 1934 Poplar in Overton Park. Call 901-544-6200.
June 8: “In His Studio: Carroll Cloar,” Art Museum of the University of Memphis, through Sept. 7. 3750 Norriswood, Communications and Fine Arts Building. Call 901-678-2224. Also on view will be “Early and Rare: Selections from the Carroll and Pat Cloar Collection,” at Special Collections, University of Memphis Libraries, June 6-Sept. 15.
June 14: “Carroll Cloar, Native Son, Crittenden County Collective,” Mid-South Community College, through July 19. 2000 W. Broadway. Call 870-733-6722.