Robert Hirsch

The Muse of Place & Time
An Interview With William Christenberry

Page 4 Continued

RH: When did you begin making Klan imagery?

WC: The first drawing in my sketchbook is dated 1961. Moving to New York gave me some degree of objectivity. It was that distance from New York to Alabama that gave me perspective on what I wanted to do and what I am still attempting to do. Not just with oppression and violence, not just with the Klan, but also with all of my work.

RH: How did this evolve into your Klan Room?

WC: It began in Memphis in 1963. I bought a couple of Barbie dolls, made some sketches, and had a friend make a Klan costume for Barbie. When the "moveable parts" GI Joe doll came out in 1964, I bought twenty of them at once. The young lady at the cash register could not contain her curiosity. She said, "Mister, it is nowhere near Christmas time. May I ask you what you are going to do with twenty GI Joe dolls?" I said, "Young lady, if I told you, you wouldn't believe me." A friend, her mother, and Bill Eggleston's wife, Rosa, sewed the first doll costumes. By the time we moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968 I had the beginnings of a Klan tableau of some 200 dolls.

RH: Why haven't those 200 Klan dolls been exhibited?

WC: There was a theft from the studio in 1979, and that wiped out the dolls. All but one was stolen.

RH: Have any of the works ever surfaced?

WC: No. They disappeared from the face of the earth. I was able to re-create and enlarge the tableau, though, after the theft. This is what people see now when it's exhibited.

RH: How did this theft affect you?

WC: The worst thing was the effect it had on my wife Sandy and our two young children. To this day we do not know if the thief was pro-Klan,anti-William Christenberry, or just someone wanting to possess this work. I think somebody has it squirreled away, and it has become something like his or her shrine.

RH: How do you respond to critics who say you are beatifying, fetishizing, and/or glorifying the KKK?

WC: All of those things have been said, but I argue it is best to have it exist to provoke discussion. I think it is important to have an artist of my background attempt to come to grips with these issues. I am not just speaking out about the Klan but about injustice and racism. This was my way of doing it, and I stand by it. It is not pro-terror or pro-Klan, but the work walks a thin line between being understood and misunderstood and for a long time no one would touch it. Institutions, including the Whitney [New York], weren't willing to exhibit it.

RH: What is it like to be immersed in this imagery everyday?

WC: I don't have to tolerate it everyday because even when it was upstairs I would deliberately not go in there too often. Since it was last shown in Brussels and in Cologne it has been in storage because I've run out of space in the studio.

RH: Have you made new Klan dolls?

WC: Yes, I made some of my strongest pieces in the 1990s at the Fabric Workshop in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. These dolls were tortured and/or bound, and some had hot wax poured over them.

RH: Do you see your Klan work differently in the post-9/11 world?

WC: The Klan is only one aspect of terrorism and racism, but it embodies the whole shebang. That is one of the reasons that I can live with it. And why I stand by it. The Ku Klux Klan is very real to me as a Southerner and represents a powerful aspect of terrorism. It originated in Tennessee after the Civil War, but it immediately spread to Indiana and then across the country. The bottom line is that this terrible terrorist group is part of a broader mixture of fear, control, and power that manifests itself in many ways and in many different places. Unfortunately, sadly, I'm afraid that hatred and terrorism will always be with us.

RH: Have you ever collected authentic Klan items?

WC: I am not a collector of Klan memorabilia, but I have been given authentic items like Klan posters, a manual, and a calling card that says "The only reason you are white today is because your ancestors believed and practiced segregation, KKK College Park GA." I was given two Klan uniforms that I keep in a cabinet up in the attic. One is white muslin from the 1920s and the other red satin from the 1970s, and they terrify me. I plan to turn these artifacts over to a major American Studies program such as the one at Emory University

Church, Sprott, Alabama (1971) © William Christenberry; Courtesy of Pace/ MacGill Gallery

[Atlanta, Georgia]. They are currently in an exhibition at the Spy Museum here in Washington, D.C., called "The Enemy Within, Terror in America—1976 to Today."

RH: What is the relationship of your Klan Room to your work with vernacular architecture?

WC: Right after the Klan theft in 1979 I dreamed of a building on a backcountry road in Alabama with no windows and no doors and an unbelievably pitched roof just like the pyramidal hooded head. When I got up the next morning, the dream was still clear as a bell, and it continues to stay with me until this day. I decided that if Jasper Johns could fulfill his dream about painting an American flag, I could make my dream work. My first Dream Building was made in 1980, and I continue to mine that source because that form is still powerful to me.On the other hand, the architectural pieces, or "building constructions" as I call them, are structures based upon things that I have known for most of my life and/or photographed, such as Sprott Church. I first photographed Sprott Church with the Brownie in 1971. The sunlight on the façade and the bright blue sky make it one of my favorites and one of my best pictures. I lived with that picture haunting me in the best sense of that word. The image and the feeling of that little church, the nature of the Brownie Camera lens and where I was standing, which was a slight rise in the landscape, made it seem almost like a miniature object. It was a small church in the first place. I lived with that until 1974 when I said to myself, "Why not build it?" I made a small version and that was the beginning of the building construction series.

RH: Why do you call them "building constructions" and not models?

WC: In a model, you adhere to a strict floor plan and scale. The constructions are all built by eye and include idiosyncratic things that make each one unique. They have a similar feeling to a real building, such as the Palmist Building, which I photographed for decades and is now gone. These sculptures are my interpretations of the wonderful vernacular architecture that has vanished from this earth. I use balsa wood, paint, glue, Alabama soil, and metal among the materials. It usually takes several months to build a piece, but I think about it for a long time beforehand.

RH: What triggered your desire to physically make Sprott Church?

WC: My friend, curator Walter Hopps, was at the studio one night. I said, "Walter, I can't possess Sprott Church. I've photographed it, and I've drawn it and those things don't really suffice. I have a desire to make a small version. I've never done anything like that, and it might be a waste of time." He looked at me and said, "You'll never know until you do it." Since then I've made a dozen or so buildings that were based on actual pieces of vernacular architecture that I have seen or photographed. In recent years these have become less literal, and covered in white wax. I call them "Memory Forms." Referring to Miss Dickinson again, my memory of things is more important than the literalness of things. So the pieces are more simplified, more purely defined than the earlier ones.

RH: What are you working on today?

WC: I am honored to be having a large exhibition at the Smithsonian American Art Museum [Washington, D.C.] when it re-opens on July 4, 2006. Plus, I am really excited to be guest curating a large exhibition from the museum's wonderful American Folk Art Collection. Aperture is publishing a new book about my work that is due in April of 2006. Also, there will be exhibitions at Aperture's Chelsea space and at Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York in the summer of 2006.

RH: What is informing your current work?

WC: One of my cathartic activities, and my first love, is drawing. Drawing is so immediate; you either win the battle or lose the battle. And even if you lose the battle, it is just a piece of paper. Drawing is a release because I do my best not to consider them precious. The latest are very linear drawings of trees. Some are on large paper, so you almost feel physically involved with the subject. I am always simultaneously working on something sculptural also, so that I can move back and forth between the media.

RH: Has the role of artists changed in your lifetime?

WC: We live in a day where anybody and everybody can be an artist. We don't have the tradition of a nineteenth-century academy. Anybody can make work and look for acceptance. And this is wonderful. I grew up around Black Folk Art in Alabama. I would so admire the directness, the power, and the innocence of this work. I don't have that innocence. I have too much training.

RH: How has living in Washington, D.C., affected your relationship to the landscape of Alabama?

WC: My heart is still in Alabama, but the distance gives me a needed perspective. If I had stayed at the University of Alabama, I doubt I would be doing the kind of work that I do because I would be too close to it. When I go there, I see it with a fresh eye. I have an openness that allows me to immerse myself in the entire landscape. I don't want to be too comfortable. I want that edge to be there from the source. I am sixty-eight years old and feel I have a lot that I still want to try to make visible.

RH: What is the best thing about being sixty-eight?

WC: Having the flexibility to move past traditional boundaries and go from drawing to sculpture and of course to photography. I like it when people ask, "What is Christenberry? Is he a photographer, a painter, or a sculptor?" I see it all as one piece. There is no separateness. It is about the interaction, the intermingling or the coming together of these various means of expression. I am not just one thing.

RH: Do you think art is built off of other art, and if it wasn't for our predecessors, we wouldn't be doing whatever it is that we are doing today?

WC: I couldn't agree with you more. Influences… I've never avoided my influences. [Paul] Cézanne made a wonderful statement, and I wish I could quote it in French so it would sound better. He said, "Have your influences, but there will come a time when you will shed your influences like a snake sheds its skin." I am still shedding mine.

• • •

PAGE: 1 2 3 4
Download an Adobe PDF of this interview: kurtz interview
Get a free copy of Acrobat adobe acrobat pdf