It was one of those suffocating summer days we call "dog days" down South. The kind of day that makes you sweat non-stop. "Dog days" come near the end of summer, when the Dog Star rises at the same time as the sun. It's also the time when buzzing flies, mosquitos, and knats are swarming and the locus are dying in even greater numbers. Twice a week the bug sprayer truck makes its rounds through the neighborhood, emitting a small cyclone of toxic smoke. Even he can't eradicate the bubbling larvae of baby mosquitoes growing in my backyard birdbath. It's also the time of year when the Wisteria are blooming in lilac color, and the Night-blooming Cereus unfolds her fragrant petals after midnight only once a year during "dog days". Her yearly ritual I'd guess is in homage to the Dog star Sirius. My ninety-two year old mother sets her alarm for the event and invites her relatives and friends to view the spectacle - out in the darkness. She even tries to convince the local television stations to air the Night Blooming Cereus midnight act, but so far they have no interest in it.
After a two month trip by jeep and public bus through the jungles of of Venezuela and Brazil, I was glad to be back in my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. Weeks in the small pensiones and jungle canoe trips made my Victorian house with clean water, electricity and modern nicities a welcomed change. I was in my studio working on a large painting of a mermaid. My small black and white television, which I rarely watch was turned on.. It was tuned to a special with Dan Rather on the failed rescue mission of the US hostages in Iran. The helicopters crashing was in harsh contrast to the serenity of the mermaid gliding through the sea in my painting. A telephone call broke my concentration. It always seems that when I am intently working on my art, that something disrupts me. Aggravated, I answered it.
"Hello" I said.
"Is this Anton Haardt?"
"Yes," I impatiently answered.
"My name is Virginia Boone," the caller said. "Iím a social worker. I thought maybe you could help me. Iíve read about you in the newspaper promoting the artist, Mose Tolliver. Iím trying to help a woman who makes clay sculptures. I thought you could give me some advice?"
"Maybe. How I could help you?" I thought to myself, another call, another distraction. I didnít expect too much. Probably a lady making corny greenware. But I felt obligated to sound polite.
"What kind of clay sculptures does she make?" I asked.
She explained that the womanís husband had died recently, and left her with no money or means of supporting herself. She told me that the woman clearly needed help but wouldnít accept it, refusing to apply for food stamps or participate in government assistance programs. "I know this may sound strange," my caller said, "but she says she already has a job making these clay sculptures. She won't take welfare when she already has a job, but her job doesn't bring in any money for her. Well, itís hard to explain. Do you think you could come with me to meet her?"
She sort of put me on the spot. When I am contently working on my art, I hate to leave my house for anything. I reluctantly conjured up the energy to take time from my routine to accompany her.
"Well I guess so," I said. "When did you want to go?," almost hoping I could get out of it.
"Is tomorrow all right?", she asked.
"Well, I guess tomorrow is fine."
When I hung up I walked back to the table where Iíd been contentedly painting my mermaid only moments before. The paints were all still wet. I started back to swirl on some more blues and greens, and before I knew it a very large 30 x 40 image was complete. Iíve always believed that when I was really painting good and I was "in tune," then if I could get to that state, magic things would unfold. Was that phone call the magic line? But I caught myself and soberly reminded myself not to fantasize too much the experience would probably be a hot trip for nothing, a waste of time.
The next day Virginia Boone came to my door. She was about 55, gray-haired, and conservatively dressed like a librarian. She wore a light blue oxford shirt, a khaki skirt and loafers. I invited her into my studio and showed her around a little. After looking at some my art work and a few Mose Tolliver paintings, we set off on our trip. It was another sweltering afternoon. We drove in Mrs. Booneís station wagon, which year and model I have no idea. I stopped recognizing our models and years back in 1957 when my cousin Dianne taught me very car and model on Earth including the Edsel. But the station wagon was neat and orderly inside as I would expect.
We travelled south out on Highway 31, and along the way Mrs. Boone told me a little more about the woman she wanted me to meet.
"Iím glad you could come with me," she politely said. "I didnít know who else to call."
"That's allright. I really don't mind. Where exactly are we going, down towards Snowdoun?"
"Yes, itís out past Snowdoun a little bit."
She turned down Norman Bridge Road and got onto Highway 331.
"Itís out near Ramer. Do you know where that is?"
"Yes, I think so."
We made some polite conversation along the way.
"You know Iím not too familiar with Mose Tolliver. But Iíve read about him. Heís a primitive, right?" she asked.
"Well, you could call it that. The term really is folk artist, or outsider artist. Thereís lots of names for what Mose does. But he wasn't trained in school. Self taught artist is another name."
"I see. Well that's what Juanita is, I guess. She's an outsider if I understand the work. I donít know if you would think sheís an artist or not."
So could you tell me a little about her?" I asked.
"Her name," she began, "is Juanita Rogers. She's a very unusual person. After her common-law husband died, she was left alone out in their rural shack. I was just out on a routine call to see if she'd sign up for welfare. She refused help. She said she works for a man named Mr. Stonefish. There's no sign of money coming in. There's no sign of this Mr. Stonefish either. She needs food and financial aid to care for herself. I'm really at a loss to know what to do about it all. Maybe you'll have some ideas."
As we drove past the bulleted Coca Cola signs and ubiquitous churches, I felt good to be back in Alabama.
I asked Mrs. Boone to tell me a little more about the sculptures, but it was still unclear what role I could play in this all.
"Well, it seems that Juanita dug up clay from around her yard and made these animals statues--I guess you'd call them that." The story was beginning to sound more intriguing. I grew more anxious to meet this woman who made "mud" and worked for a Mr. Stonefish. It sounded like some hoodoo scenario. I was beginning to realize that this time I had really stumbled onto something not to be overlooked.
We drove further out of Montgomery into the quiet rural area near the small town of Snowdoun. We passed rural fields, southern clapboard houses, and bullet- riddled Coca- Cola signs. Spanish moss hung from the large oak and pine trees bordering both sides of the road. That summer the green fields were just beginning to parch from the hot summer sun. Cattle and horses grazed in the shade of large oak trees, and grapefruit sized mock- oranges littered the pastures. Homes with man-made fish ponds stood in close proximity to abandoned barns and rusted tin-roofed shanties.
The rolling pasture-land was dotted with grazing cattle and widely spaced houses. Many of the houses were set back from the road. Trees and Spanish moss made shaded archways that gave everything a mysterious feeling. Every mile or so there was the ubiquitous small white church with its yard swept clean. Black folks out in rural areas liked to keep their hard-packed dirt yards swept clean and relatively free of weeds and grass -- a tradition that can be traced to Africa.
Soon we turned off the main road by a small white church and a cemetery overgrown with moss-covered bramble vines.
How did you ever find her place?"
"It wasnít easy. But Iím used to having to go out these country roads. Thatís my job."
Mrs. Boone pointed to the drab gray tombstone marker entangled by an old wild rose bush. "That's where Juanitaís husband is buried over there. He died about two months ago."
Then she steered the car onto a narrow dirt path in a field. Brambles scraped the car on the bottoms and sides. Before proceeding too far along this bare hint of road, we had to stop and open the gate to allow the car's passage. We drove right into what used to be the cow pasture but now was all grown up with weeds.
"Hereís the turnoff. We have to walk the rest of the way."
Mrs. Boone pulled up the barbed wire for me to pass under.
"Careful not to rip your blouse," she said.
"How does she get out of here? Does she have a car?"
"No, she has very little. Sheís just out here in the pasture. Youíll see."
I bent under the barbed wire, thinking to myself how most smart people right now are comfortably nestled in their air-conditioned living-room, sipping a cool lemonade. But as I looked up on the other side of that barbed wire, and saw Juanita's place, I realized I wouldn't trade places, not at all.
Copyright © 1998, 1999 ANTON HAARDT
All Rights Reserved.
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