ART HUNT: THE FLATLANDS

THE FLATLANDS OF MISSISSIPPI

My childhood was rich. I was raised in a secure family, dwelling in the nostalgically beautiful southern town of Clarksdale, Mississippi, which sits on the Sunflower River, a small tributary of the Mississippi River, the widest river in the world and arguable the most aggressive.  This majestic entity—and its parallel levee—has appropriately been the setting for masterpieces by the literary Greats:  Mark Twain, Tennessee Williams, Walker Percy, among others.    

My neighborhood, one of the oldest in the Delta, is picturesque, with wide streets, large oaks and antebellum homes and boasting expansive porches.  Throughout time, Clark Street has attracted acclaimed politicians, artists, poets, lawyers, and eccentrics.  Sundays were quiet as most magneted to the local country club for swimming, tennis or golf.  Always, whiskey.  

Historic images of Clarksdale, Mississippi c. 1920.  Photographer unknown.  

Historic images of Clarksdale, Mississippi c. 1920.  Photographer unknown.  

My childhood in the Mississippi Delta taught me almost everything I needed to know about creativity.  The Delta’s open skies were a canvas for dreams, the local librarian held reading circles presenting books on faraway places as well as Mississippi’s indigenous and seemingly exotic Seminole Indians,  the school nuns at St. Elizabeth encouraged the written word and pretty penmanship, and all the Mississippi storytellers always, by default, could find an audience.  

My mother could have written a manual on introducing one’s children to art and books.  She was often juggling a full-time job and motherhood, always hauling me off to dance lessons, piano lessons, or art lessons, even if that meant late at night or early in the morning before school bells rang.  My heart would flutter like a jackrabbit at the anticipation of engaging in that world of creativity, strategically packing my red backpack the night before with selected sheet music, pens, books, or paints.  For me, the extra circular activities were a barometer of well-achieved academics, as straight A’s were required in order to engage in the after-school activities.  Also, sometimes I got the feeling that my mother’s love and pride for me depended on how much I excelled at these art forms.  

My mother, a great reader of books, would orate to me every night until, by the young age of four, I could read on my own.  I, in my childish way, applauded her wizardry with the English language and her empathetic renderings of words to make the stories come alive.  Sometimes, she would pause and challenge me on a spelling word, still a challenge as I see many letters backwards and upside down.  My older sister Rachael, who could not keep her eyes open past sundown, quietly nested beside us, a closed-up bottle of fireflies often by our antique, quilted bed.

Rachael’s hair is “so dark that it’s blue,” as my mother would describe; her eyes the color of a Caribbean sea.  She has never been as intuitively interested in art or academics and has always been most concerned with maternal achievements, exactly like my mother. 

My mother would sign me up for me various art classes to not only explore creativity but to “eliminate my shyness.”   A quiet, loner of sorts, strange and people filled rooms were—and still are—challenging.  Feisty and gregarious, Rachael would care for me and guide me as her baby sister, walking me through long corridors and into these rooms, remaining present until I nodded “okay to leave.”  

My mother also loved the art of candid photography, and a camera was ever present in our homes and lives.  She was known to have two or three cameras strapped around her neck at dance recitals, graduations or casual family outings.  Her archive is a detailed series of images of the Jacob home and our progress as a family.  Her style direct and documentary, her camera varied from RCA video cameras to polaroid cameras.  They are still in my archive.  

My mother had a smile that could knock out a room and that’s what I remember most about her.  Raised in small town Alabama, she had a southern drawl of long i’s and spoke in contractions as much as possible.  Mama’s hair was dark black with a small patch of grey on the right side, a defiant Baptist, she always believed “that’s where an angel kissed her.”  She was a corridor to kindness and the template of a virtuous woman, the practice of which she lived; the verses in Proverbs 31:10-31, highlighted and underlined in her Bible.  She was the temple of Goodness and her gift was giving.  Her eyes were crystal blue like a clear sky and danced in the rhythm to her deep-hearted laugh, which was constant.     

However, kindness and graciousness did not completely trump her rigidness, formidability, and sternness.  She would “crack the whip,” as my sister Rachael recalls, if we challenged house and family rules.  Mama obsessed with cleanliness and order, could scrub the house down herself, top to bottom (even dusting the top of the ceiling fan blades), and then call the maid, Ms. Virginia to “redo.”  The only “messy part” of my room could be my art table filled with an array books which were juxtaposed to stacks of crayons, markers, paints, fabric and string.  My secret world?  A collection of scurried books underneath my bed, hidden by the white lace bedskirt and protected from my mother’s view as she had crickety knees.  At night,  I would read with a flashlight past designated bedtime, defaulting into stories like Black Beauty often juxtaposed with pictures.  I once checked out a book by Judy Bloom but then became hysterical that women were dying from bleeding vaginas.  That’s when my sister, three years older, explained the menstrual cycle and described a tampon.   

My art table was one of the first pieces of furniture I bought and I made the deal with the antique seller with my babysitting money.  One Saturday afternoon, my mother took me to the estate sale of a wealthy Delta family, the Peacocks.  I selected an antique Duncan Fyfe table and a small mahogany side chair with carved roses on its rail and a needlepoint cushion with mirrored design.  Preaching and insisting the furniture was nice and expensive, my mother had two sheets of glass cut to protect the table’s surface.  A quiet, contemplative child who never was keen on a lot of friends or busy activity.  I spent endless hours creating words at that art station by painting and writing.  All the while, a red-headed woodpecker nesting outside my window and sometimes flying inside to rest on my encyclopedia stack.  Every time I go home, he seems to greet me.  “Woodpeckers have special spirits,” my father once claimed, “and legend has it that they live to be 100, often nesting in the same tree until death.”  

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My mother could be utterly demanding, rigid, and complicated—her way or the highway.  Despite ice storms, sick days, travel, et cetera, we never missed Sunday church, and I had perfect attendance at school during most of my formative years.  I was always expected to be five to seven minutes early, by her watch, which was already prompted ten minutes ahead.  Honor roll was expected, and the letters on my report card never noted anything other than A.  When angered, she could slam a phone so loud it would reverberate to Kansas.  We lived on Clark Street, about two blocks from our Catholic school, St. Elizabeth, where I was trained on the piano two-three times a week by Mrs. Tavoletti.  One cold morning, moving at a sluggish speed, I had forgotten my piano books.  Mama was so mad, she drove me home all the way down Clark Street in a rant — backwards.  

I mastered the piano, dance, and writing, erring the weight that she was difficult to please and experiencing the disappointment when I failed to please her.  Mama was a perfectionist about our appearance.  As most children rolled their hair in sponge rollers for Sunday church, my sister and I had ours “done up” every single night.  Our clothes (sock and underwear, too) were always ironed, and we rarely wore the same dress twice to fancy functions where we were to be photographed.  Those expectations have manifested and perpetuated in my adult life, thus defining me to some degree as a artist of sorts, workaholic, over-achiever, and might I add, a fashionista of well-ironed attire.  

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While my mother kept the house moving to her delight and high standards, my father mostly worked, departing before daybreak and arriving after sunset.  My father, owner of a furniture company, located only a few blocks from my house in the business district.  It was a world of sofas, couches as well a cash registers and large bound hand-written ledgers.  

Daddy is still the hardest worked I have ever known.  His work ethic was instilled in me early, and I still compare my progress to his unsurmountable success early in life.  I don’t remember a day that he didn’t reflect and engage in his company, constantly “feeding the organism,” as he would say. 

My father was sort of a miracle.  He was tall, dark, and handsome and alway walked with a confident swagger.  One of seven children of French descent, he was the only one to inherit green eyes, which shifted in colors to grey or blue, depending on the light.  His eyes, set deep and expressive, said everything about his current state—stress, joy, concern, contemplation, and more.  I am often reminded of his eyes—and their honest translation of thought and emotions—as I wear them myself.  “Genetics are a funny thing,” my mother would suggest.  At work, he was conscious of his appearance (yes, slightly vain), so my mother always saw to it that his khakis and long sleeve shirts were pressed with “triple extra starch.”  Sometimes it would seem as though his garments were standing up on their own. I “inherited” the same trait.  If I am not dressed to the nines at work, I am clearly having a nervous breakdown.

Though full of love and admiration for us, my mother could be emotional, irrational, high-strung, rigid, and complicated—the antithesis of my father.  He was wonderfully tender when it came to his two daughters.  He was gentle and kind, with a diplomatic and graceful approach to life and work.  I never remember hearing him raise his voice and he tucked us in every night.  He left us encouraging notes in our lunch sacks and later, when we were in college, mailed cards and notes to say hello and to remind us that he believed in us.  He always signed off, “Dear Ole Day.”  

I shared equal love for my parents, but I was a carbon copy of my father’s personality, political interests, brain power, intellectualism, and entrepreneurial pursuits.  My mother encouraged the arts, and my father, business and financial independence.  I have perhaps magically become a hybrid of them both.

 

BILL STEBER & ADAM SMITH:  MISSISSIPPI DELTA 

By, Rebekah Jacob:  Owner & Founder of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery & Vedado Gallery

#ArtHunt #TravelDiaries #Wanderlust #ArtOfTheDeal

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AR HUNT: INTRO

WORDS WERE MY TICKET OUT OF A CONVENTIONAL SOUTH, ART MY WAY BACK HOME

There is no formula or blueprint for becoming an art dealer or for the discipline, creativity, and business style that one pursues.  It has been a long and, at times, treacherous journey, but one filled with thrill, adventure, and the unexpected.  The art hunt has been my obsession, my all. 

Perhaps my work has been a combination of fragments driven by my love of the South and the Caribbean, imagination, social justice, politics, and the burning determination to succeed, no matter what.  The art world, for me, has been place of mythology, unpredictability, cynicism and exploration instead of exactitude.  When my mentor, Hollis Taggart, first hired my in his eponymous gallery in New York City, I naively asked the question, “What is an art dealer’s career really like.”  Darling, he said in his dissipated Southern draw while staring me straight in the eyes, “you better damn well strap in.” 

To be frank, I’ve been writing the story of my life for years, through the visual arts, recording in my handwritten journals most of what I’ve seen, brokered, exhibited, and related to in one way or another.  They say an art dealer’s style and selection of artwork to exhibit and broker is a direct derivative and translation of who she is within the visual arts canon and/or what he/she intuitively wants to search out and explore.  My autobiography has been my theme, and at times, my dilemma and obsession, as I’ve tied to tell my story, document my travels, and express my ideas about politics and social justice through my work—all while mining material from exquisite and rare inventory from my two beloved homes and celebrated cultures:  the American South and the Caribbean Isles, particularly Cuba.  

To distill, write, and collate this series of writings, I did two things I swore I would never do:  I journeyed home to Mississippi for an extensive period, and reread my journals—over ten thousand pages of entries dating to as early as age ten.  The two quests were not necessarily parallel but complementary, and it was these two monumental actions that propelled this creative project into a working, malleable formation.  Word by word, mostly in long hand, I filled legal pads, writing my story within the construct of this life theme:  words were my ticket out of a conventional South, art my way back home.  

Image:  Bill Steber;  Freshly plowed field on the Stovall Plantation, Mississippi Delta  (1993); gelatin silver; image (14 x 14"), paper (16 x 20"), signed; open edition   Note:  Muddy Waters was living on Stovall Plantation outside of Clarksdale when he recorded for the library of congress in 1941.

Image:  Bill Steber; Freshly plowed field on the Stovall Plantation, Mississippi Delta (1993); gelatin silver; image (14 x 14"), paper (16 x 20"), signed; open edition

Note:  Muddy Waters was living on Stovall Plantation outside of Clarksdale when he recorded for the library of congress in 1941.

It was significant to go home to live among Mississippi’s ghosts; to interview friends, family, and teachers about certain instances in my life; and to revisit sites like Ole Miss and my father’s grave as reference points of place, some bringing great joy and others great sorrow.  Like returning to an old love, I also needed to reconnect with the familiarity of the Flatlands—their wide open skies as canvas to dream, their wide muddy river symbolic of the decisions in our lives that are turn turning points, do delicate that they lead us into waters flowing so aggressively in one direction, we can’t turn back.  

I dredged up every journal I could find from lockboxes, storage units, and my gallery drawers.  I sometimes laughed hysterically at my many adventures around the world.  I sometimes wiggled with discomfort, confusion and sorrow as I read, line by line, of their leather-bound contents.  This was important not only as reflection and reference (memories can be so tricky and malleable) but also as a means to cope with the painful and sad times.  I wanted to be honest and raw, not to veil the pain or repress those emotions that could hinder me—or this project—in any form. 

My first love is the written word, and by default—and sometimes the necessity of blanket and poignant communication—I am a passionate journal writer.  For me, the written word is the purest form of truth-telling, particularly when documented in my own handwriting.  This project includes excerpts of journals, some photo copied and archived; most never before shown. So much of what I have wanted to say about my life and career has been in the dark—until now.  

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As my father, Leslie Charles Jacob, was dying in 1997, he devised a business treatise of sorts, outlining “how to run a business,” adding notations about inventory, cash flow, marketing strategy, and more.  In handsome, clean, and all-capitalized penmanship (reflective of an architect’s lettering style), perhaps the most applicable information would concern off-course moments and methods on how to redirect a ship’s pattern.  This treatise, more than anything in my career, has been a resource and a cornerstone for growth.  

During my studies at Ole Miss is when so much of the procurement of my art dealing craft and life began.  Certainly, I wasn’t bumping into a plethora of art dealers (if any) in a condensed Grove saturated with bourbon and false hopes of a game win.  Honor roll students with insatiably curious minds, by Mississippi standards, applied to and tackled law school.  Most defaulted to marrying her high school and/or college sweetheart and pursuing a conventional Southern life of garden parties and babies, also directed to continue such traditions.  I knew in the deepest seed of my soul that I wanted to be journalistic in life, burn a trail, set out on adventure, and change the world-art dealing became my vehicle.  

First, an avid runner, I would depart the Tri Delta house interim day classes and late night study sessions, and head to the Oxford square.  In the twilight of early evening, some writers, mostly drinkers, would condense balconies as the sun set near Proud Larry’s, a haven for local music lovers.  I would pause and gawk at the art through the large glass windows windows at at Southside Gallery.  Its crisp white walls and minimally hung space of regional and local painters and photographers were undeniably intriguing and visceral.  Once on a night run with my friend and former Tri-Delta Sarah, a strawberry blonde with big smile, and confirmed, “This is what I want to do-own and direct an art gallery.”  It all starts with a wish, they say.  

Martin J. Dain, Oxford Square, gelatin silver, 20 x 16", signed 

Martin J. Dain, Oxford Square, gelatin silver, 20 x 16", signed 

Second, an English major, I was deep into the studies of Southern writers—such as Richard Ford, Josephine Humphreys, William Faulkner, among others.  Most poignantly, I discovered Mississippi’s treasure Eudora Welty, whose text juxtaposed with her pictures were art treasures of an authentic and sincere Mississippi in the 1930s.  Also, I discovered “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” with Walker Evans’s extraordinary photographs preceding the text of James agee.  Agee, along with the photographer Walker Evans, had been sent to the South to investigate the situation of tenant cotton farmers—the sort of subject that was common for Fortune during the Depression. 

Eudora Welty, Strollers (1935), gelatin silver, 17 x 10", signed 

Eudora Welty, Strollers (1935), gelatin silver, 17 x 10", signed 

Third, Larry Brown was a powerful voice in my final year at Ole Miss, teaching me in creative writing class. Larry is one of the South’s most celebrated writers, having published award-winning books like Dirty Work, Father and Son, Joe, and Big Bad Love, along with countless short stories. Had I not know Larry, my life would have been much different, and I don’t know if I would have had the courage to embrace my love affair with this book.  

During that time, my father was dying and Larry’s class was an escape of sorts through reading assignments, writing short stories, and being among so many creatives who always saw the world in shades of grey between black and white text.  But I was also learning the tools to construct and devise a long piece of writing, a skill set that would help me cope with my reality, then and later on. 

Larry’s class was a critical and conforming experience.  He always believed—and practiced in his own master of the craft—that you should write what you know, put trouble on the front page, and write like you talk.  The first day of class, he walked in in a leather coat, white T-shirt, jeans, and boots—typical attire for a writer but not necessarily in an academic environment.  He smelled of sweet bourbon and cigarettes (class started around 4:00 p.m.), wen to the chalkboard, book a piece of yellow chalk to his like, and wrote “S-T-O-R-Y.”  Then he turned to the class and said, “If you don’t have the guts to show your guts, get out.”  In the first few writing assignments, he noted my inability to do so.  

Larry, with a mere high school degree, wasn’t and of an academic setting, so most of our classes were held at the Cit Grocery  bar on the Oxford Square.  Larry spent a lot of time at bars, as that’s where he “got most of his material.”  “People act more natural to themselves in a bar,” he suggested.  My classmates and I (many who have gone on to become acclaimed writers) talked about books, shared our stories, and in many ways, learned to understand that our lives are in their truest essence, stories.  

Image:  Larry Brown by Hubert Worley Jr. of the  Oxford American

Image:  Larry Brown by Hubert Worley Jr. of the Oxford American

In 2016, I took the most counterintuitive action for a progressive, forward thinking entrepreneur like myself and I stopped.  I left art dealing for some time and I sabbaticaled from the day to day grind of the trade.  The biggest challenge was dissing technology, but I turned off all three phones, i-pads, and computers and dismissed emails and social media feeds.  If I wasn’t galloping through the Caribbean, I was in intense therapy at least once a week, looking back at my life and work, trying to discern the balance and imbalances of both.  I mainly took this time to write until my wrists and fingers felt like they would break.  As this sabattacle came to a close, I missed my work, clients and all-things-gallery life, both good and bad. I stepped back into the Art World with a new found energy, heightened connoisseurship, and roaring passion I had not felt since my early twenties.  

I do not want to be self-righteous and offer advice, so how about a mere suggestion.  Live your life so you have something to tell.  A story, any story.  My story can be traced through the “art hunt.”  And I’ve charted my course through my career.  I have visited thousands of artist’s studios all over the world, hopped on and off European trains to explore, flown on Russian planes in Cuba, and driven thousands of miles across American soil to mine material.  Perhaps my work has been a combination of fragments, completely drawing my imagination, unpredictability, and cynicism.  In this book I will write the truth as best as I can remember it, one travel excursion and one art deal at a time. 

 

EUDORA WELTY & WALKER EVANS :  1920-1930

By, Rebekah Jacob:  Owner & Founder of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery & Vedado Gallery

#ArtHunt #TravelDiaries #Wanderlust #ArtOfTheDeal