OCTOBER 19, 2000 -- ART
Clarksville photo exhibit marks new surge of interest in self-taught artist
A Dream Unguarded
Photos by Carol Turrentine of sculpture by E.T. Wickham
Through Dec. 31
The Customs House Museum
200 S. 2nd St., Clarksville
For more information, call (931) 648-5780
By Donna Dorian Wall
In January 1999, a tornado cut a 250-yard swath through Clarksville's historic downtown, damaging a number of buildings, among them the Clarksville-Montgomery County Museum. Miraculously, only one painting found itself in harm's way, but the main building, an 1898 Gothic Romanesque architectural treasure, and the museum's recently completed 32,000-square-foot expansion suffered upwards of $900,000 in damage. After months of repair and revitalization, the institution reopened as The Customs House (the new name a reference to the building's early use as a clearinghouse for tobacco). Now, more than one year later, there is further cause for celebration with the opening of a long-dreamed-of exhibition devoted to Montgomery County's finest artist, Enoch Tanner Wickham.
"A Dream Unguarded," featuring photographic reflections of Wickham's sculptures by Carol Turrentine, is but the first installment in a yearlong series of events dedicated to the work of this extraordinary self-taught artist. It's been a long time coming. From 1952, when the artist was 69 years old, until his death in 1971, he stopped working the family farm he tended most of his life and turned his energies to making art. "I don't know why I did it," Wickham has been quoted as saying. "I just had to." During the course of this nearly 20-year creative period, his more than 40 sculptural projects included the creation of the largest sundial known to exist. (The artist researched the matter in the Guinness Book of World Records and then constructed the giant sundial alongside a log cabin he built in the woods.) He went on to design a cast of characters as inventive as those Red Grooms fashioned for the "Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel." Among the riotous group are religious and historical figures, from Andrew Jackson to the Virgin Mary; family members, including his brother, a Vanderbilt-educated doctor; and an array of trusted family and farm animals. Wickham set each new figure side by side as if to form a caravan, which over time came to compose an odd sculpture garden along his lonely country road.
While self-taught artist William Edmondson was carving his figures from stone in Nashville's Edgehill neighborhood, Wickham, a sixth-grade dropout, was constructing his from scrap metal and concrete on a little more than one-acre site just outside the town of Palmyra. Using tin cans, coat hangers, stovepipes, bed rails, old auto parts, and whatever else he could find to create an armature, he went on to mold enormous, sometimes 800-pound figures out of a self-styled mix of masonry concrete. After meticulously painting them, he then added a wild assortment of riches: Blue light bulbs became the eyes of a bull; real eyeglasses rested on the nose of Estes Kefauver; a saber was placed in the hands of Gen. Jackson. Then Wickham would adorn each sculpture with messages. On one, in which Paul Bunyan sits atop a rearing bull, he etched the base with these words: "ET WICKHAM HEADED FOR THE WILD AND WOLEY WEST REMEMBER ME BOYS WHILE I AM GONE."
Now nestled among the trees just off the road, Wickham's self-protrait as Paul Bunyan is in great disrepair. The head is long gone, and an arm once holding a twisting lasso is now broken down to scrap metal. Although Wickham intended to leave his sculpture garden to the safe-keeping of his church and his family, no funds were left to maintain and preserve it. Since his death, almost every piece has been vandalized. Most are beheaded and littered with graffiti; some have lost an arm or a leg or both. One is so dismembered that all that remains is a pair of shoes.
The current state of these sculptures marks a stark contrast to their former glory. In Wickham's day, when he was ready to unveil a new grouping, he'd call in the Army Corps band from nearby Fort Campbell and put on quite a show. Once even Gen. William Westmoreland showed up for the party, and Wickham earned such a reputation that he was commissioned to design a sculpture for the Army base, which remains there to this day.
In all of America, there are no more than a handful of sculpture sites like the one Wickham created in Middle Tennessee, so while funding is often a major roadblock to mounting a major exhibition, that has hardly been a problem here. As long ago as 1973, the Army Corps, Lois Riggins-Ezzell of the Tennessee State Museum, and Ned Crouch, now director of the Customs House, received funding from the NEA to mount a show of the artist's work. But complications arose regarding the ownership of the statues and the property on which they stood. After months of discussions, the monies were returned to the NEA. Meanwhile, locals--mostly teenagers out for fun and a little gun practice--continued to hack away at the pieces.
From time to time over the next 20 or so years, Crouch would get "Wickham" calls--someone wanted to write a thesis, or a television station wanted to film a news spot. He saw to it that four Wickham pieces were restored and viewed at the Knoxville World's Fair, and he later secured permission from the Wickham family for Austin Peay State University to acquire six sculptures. Every time he'd get a call, Crouch would dutifully take out all his papers on the artist, but he didn't have much hope for a comprehensive exhibition, not even when Carol Turrentine phoned him about two years ago.
A Clarksville native and now a New York photographer, Turrentine had dated a member of the Wickham family in high school, but it wasn't until years later on a visit back home that she made her first acquaintance with a Wickham sculpture. She got hooked, and eventually she started photographing the sculptures in all four seasons. Finally, she was ready for Crouch to take a look.
Now so can we. In one image, Turrentine's camera points at a sculpture of two men shaking hands. Of those two men, one is a Wickham relative, an outspoken opponent of secession during the Civil War era; the other is Confederate soldier Sam Davis. Today, both are headless, and through the photographer's lens, the sculpture becomes an allegory of the grave and long cost of that war--albeit one quite different from Wickham's original intent. In another, she focuses on the statue Wickham dedicated to his son. Instead of an homage to the boy, killed in action during World War II, Turrentine sees a vandalized lost head, the remaining stick-like armature looking like a rifle pointed heavenward. In yet another, Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad and the central figure in Wickham's sundial, appears covered in an entanglement of vines. This long-revered figure of Islam has not been lost to the woods, but only waits, poised, for those in need to find her.
It's easy to see that Turrentine's photographs are by no means documentary, and the exhibition is not intended as a substitute for an actual visit to the Wickham site. Rather, the images reflect her response to what she calls Wickham's "majestic statuary." As such, they stir in others the desire to seek out the work for themselves. In this way, Turrentine has has discovered what lies at the heart of Wickham's achievement: His concrete garden stands like a shrine, luring all who see it to participate in it--even if by debasing it.
And as it turns out, Turrentine's timing was perfect when she contacted Ned Crouch. By this time, the issue of property ownership had been settled, and the Wickham family proved eager and willing to work with the museum's committee, coming forth with an outpouring of documentation and memorabilia--family albums, news clips, even Wickham's Social Security card. Their generosity and willingness to share will make it possible for The Customs House to mount a comprehensive exhibition devoted to Wickham in fall 2001.
These days, Crouch, leaning a bit on Alexander Calder, likes to refer to the as yet untitled show as a "Wickham Circus." Thirteen professionals within the visual arts disciplines will come together to share their longtime responses to the artist's work. Included in the show will be the Wickham statues that now reside at Austin Peay; a documentary film interspersed with family interviews, old footage, and archival photographs; a display of photographs by the Nashville-based photographer Clark Thomas documenting the Wickham site since the 1970s; a planned scale model of the site by fifth-grade students; and the first catalogue devoted solely to the Wickham experience, with an essay by curator Susan Knowles.
The exhibition will also be accompanied by what promises to be a lively symposium at Austin Peay, at which noted scholar Michael Hall, art critic Daniel Prince, Susan Knowles, and others will debate some of the ongoing issues surrounding Wickham and his work. At issue is whether the sculptures should be moved from their site, and whether the ravaged art should be reconstructed. Whatever the answers may be, let the conversation begin. Finally, one of Tennessee's finest artists is getting his due.
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