Rick Bragg on Nall

I used to believe I came from a place without art. My Alabama had been cotton fields that stretched so far, and so long, you wondered if there was anything at all on the other side, or if the world just ended there, like some map from the Middle Ages. Don’t try to tell us, Bubba, that the world ain’t flat.   If it ain’t, how come nobody who leaves this place ever comes back? Surely, beyond the pine barrens, the red dirt, the pipe shops and cotton mills and the hard-eyed preachers, there was a ledge that you would step right off of, and vanish.

This was a world of men who worked cussing under V8 engines hanging from tree limbs by a chain, their knuckles chewed to mush from a slipping wrench. It was a world of women who pierced their fingers with the sewing machine needle at the sweat shops, got a Band-Aid, and went back to work.  They did not buy paintings or shop for sculpture.  Most of our pictures were of Jesus, enshrined in a dime store frame and a film of dust. Art? Who had time for art? Art was for the rich folks, who lived in the white houses, not the tarpaper ones, who paid for portraits of thin-nosed women and hung them on walls of eggshell white and delicate yellow. Art was for the mommas who had other people clean their floors, who taught their children not to touch us, and who would point with pride at the portrait of

Great-Great Uncle So-and-So, who had survived the “War-ah”—the War of Northern Aggression—to die peacefully in his own big bed. There were no portraits of us, no record of us at all, except maybe at the courthouse, when we got caught making whiskey or, as sometimes happened, we knocked some rich man off his horse.   Instead of art, we had work.

Instead of paintings, we had the calendars from our ten-dollar-a-month life insurance policies from State Farm.   Instead of sculpture, we had a hoe handle, or a neck of a whiskey bottle.   We were blacks, poor whites, faded gentry whose money had vanished or whose reputations had been somehow soiled, and a few Indians who had somehow evaded the Trail of Tears and genocide, and we powered the culture with our sweat and blood. Did we ever sit in a museum, admiring an Impressionist? We considered ourselves blessed

if, when the sun finally sank into the pines, we could get someone to rub our back.

I am a grown man now, and I know better.   I know I just wasn’t looking hard enough.

Art was in the quilts my grandmother sewed from scrap, turning other people’s leavings into precious keepsakes.   It was in the stories my uncles told on the front porch, their words painting as rich and as vivid a portrait as any oils ever could.

It was in the baskets and fishnets the old men and women wove, the patterns as delicate as spider webs, and in the cornices and lattices my uncles carved and hammered into place, hanging from ladders, nails between their teeth. No, we always had art in us.  We may have had a secondhand sofa sitting on our front porch, but we had, by God, art.

When the painter Nall, who left Alabama a long time ago for fame and a life among art’s world-class elite, first asked me if I would write something for this collection, I did not think I could.  I did not think I was qualified.

But after talking with him, and learning how his own family had once been looked down upon in south Alabama because of a closet’s rattling bones, I felt a little better.   And when I got a look at the art of some of the pieces in this collection, at Nall’s “Dogwood” that seems to drip blood, at the eerie beauty of Clifton Pearson’s sculpture, I was convinced. This collection contains a little bit of everything, from artists whose works have hung in Paris, to artists whose works have hung on the back porch. It is done by people like Jimmy Lee Sudduth. No one taught him to paint. He just does, using six shades of mud, and pine needles and leaves and grass, to get colors that are probably not for sale in Soho. But it’s art, I reckon, for sure.

Rick Bragg

New York Times correspondent, author, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Journalism