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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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