Sunday, October 28, 2007


Mom, Pop, and big sister, Sharon arrived in Alabama a few days ago. They're staying 9 miles down the road in Livingston. York has only one motel and it's rather run down but the trek between York and Livingston is common and easy. They'll be here till Nov. 2 and I'm excited to do a little exploring with them.

Demopolis is about 30 miles southeast of York. I lead workshops at Demopolis High a couple of days a week. The Drama teacher at Demo High, a great young lady named Jody White, suggested Mom, Pop, Sharon, and I explore Demopolis and the surrounding area. I thought it a good idea as I always enjoy the pleasant, scenic drive down and would love to see and know more. Jody directed us to several spots and they were all great. Knowing a few local folks is an exclusive ticket to the real, I tell ya.
(More about Jody and the school next week).

Mr. Bird has a huge plot of land off Route 43. He creates sculptures from metal junk, branches, and giant hay bales and places them along the highway in a quarter mile display. But you can walk on the grounds for a closer look. Mr. Bird is the guy who donated the big rooster to the Coleman Center. Here's Mom and Pop under the tin man. The legs are welded oil barrels and the feet are inverted bathtubs.

Yard Art is a big thing in the deep south. It's popular all over America actually but here, you don't have to travel far to encounter it. It's everywhere - every town and neighborhood has a yard artist or two. Black and white folks do it in equal measure. Mr. Bird is a Yard artist with a slightly larger than average yard but his technique is consistent with the regional mode - mostly discarded things assembled into familiar forms representing nature and the man made - whimsical, extreme, benignly grotesque.

Sharon snaps "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil".

This licking thing is just evil.


Bluff Hall is one of the so-called Plantation Houses in and around Demopolis.

Forced Laborers aka slaves not only built the house but damn near everything inside including rugs, beds, fine furniture, nouveau cabinets, fireplaces, fancy window frames...

...and this clever item Mom's checking out called a Hat Tub. It's for bathing babies and small children without splashing water everywhere.

Many Slave Master Scumbags owned highly skilled artisans and craftsmen. They'd lend them out to other rich Pieces of Human Excrement and reap huge profits...

...rewarding the laborers with cramped, smoky, cold, rundown shacks such as this.

It's enough to make you wanna go buck wild and burn down the South in a whole new Sherman's March. But you realize these horrors aren't confined to the South. It's just that it's mostly in the South where the evidence is clear and memories are long.
And, screw it - Call me sentimental, naive, and silly - But I can't deny that being down here has been the closest damn thing to heaven I'll probably ever experience. Life and soul, dignity and real grace have sprung up from the blood.
It's an honor just to wander here for a spell.

Jody also guided us to Ella Jackson, the local basket maker. She lives down a hidden road. One I always pass but never notice. Ella lives in an enclave of small houses with her children and extended family and a large pride of cats. Where you'd expect to be greeted by huge barking dogs you get cats. They come running up and surround your car in that quiet curious cat way. Jody said just drive on in and knock on one of the doors and that's what we did. Saw the baskets in the window of a little shed and knocked on that. A man's voice kindly boomed from another house across the way directing me to a third house, a little blue house. A small girl opened the door of the little blue house and Ella, rising from an afternoon slumber, soon emerged. I felt like an intruder but the warmth of this cool cool lady soon assuaged my discomfort.
Sharon bought two little baskets and we all just talked and talked. You can become old friends real fast down here.

We asked about the cats. Why cats and not dogs like everybody else? Turns out the surrounding woods and marshes are prone to rattlesnake infestation. She said there's Rattlers as big as my thigh. Ella gathers all her raw oak for her baskets from those woods and her children's children play there. Only the cats can keep the big snakes at bay. Snakes get out of dodge at the slightest whiff of a cat and I can imagine how a skilled cat could easily take down a snake. A snake'll easily kill a clumsy dog though. Makes you appreciate cats more.

The conversation came to quilts. Quilts are a major craft export of this region. Mom mentioned that she'd like to find one for my dad. Ella happened to have a few so she pulled them out. Mom bought one. Then Ella brought out a Quilt made by one of her slave ancestors. Just to show us. She thinks it's rare because it was made with sugar cane sacks and not the regular fabric folks used. I will tell the Folk Art Museum in Birmingham about it. Maybe they can send an expert to check it out.

The talk soon moved into something more scary - how a certain plantation discarded unwanted and feeble slaves...

And how was your week?


Sunday, October 21, 2007


The Homecoming parade in York is a huge event. Kinda like the Macy's parade in New York or, more accurately, St. Patrick's day and the Caribbean Parade without the public drunkeness and shootings. The whole town comes out. There's barbeque and fish frys everywhere. Everybody is jovial and relaxed. But things are always jovial and relaxed in York.

A guy at the hardware store suggested I put the car in the parade. I called the high school and they were excited to include me, especially when I said I'd be representing the Coleman Center. The CC doesn't usually participate. So I get over to the line-up. Had an hour to spare. Walked around and took a bunch of shots of people getting ready and settling in for the ride.

There's not just one Homecoming Queen but a slew of them. Queens were everywhere. There's a Queen for each grade, 7th thru 12th, Queens from neighboring counties, Queens from community clubs, church group Queens, and family shelter Queens.

Every Queen gets two "Attendants" so there's tons of dressed-up little girls. Add the entourages of mothers, grandmothers , sisters and cousins tending to them all and you have quite a scene. Took about ten people to get this Queen and her "Attendants" into the back of this truck. The dress was extra puffy.

There's lots of other groups and performers as well. A little kiddy dance troupe and sorority sisters riding fancy ATV's

A truckload of supercute preschoolers showing off some Halloween attire.

The family of a local guy killed in Iraq. I think the kid with the flag (see above) is his nephew.

They placed me behind Miss Sophomore. Despite all the serious preparation and the dressing up and the royal display, no one takes this Queen stuff that seriously. We're going along and schoolmates are cracking on the Queens from the sidewalk. The Queens are yelling back. There's melodramatic gestures and outright mockery. Everybody has a good laugh.

Candy starts flying out from every float and car. Young people enthusiastically scramble and grab for it and some old people too. You can see a couple of teenagers above picking it up. Problem was, I didn't know about this tradition. Despite the vintage car, I got the evil eye from a good number of people because I wasn't throwing candy. I started throwing imaginary invisible candy and shouting,"MAGIC CANDY!". No one found that too funny. One lady shouted back,"Hey! We ain't havin' that fantasy candy!"

Again, just about everybody comes out for the parade. I was shocked to see these Asian folks. First time i saw Asians in York. They seemed quite thrilled but I wonder what the hell they're doing here? Then there's Anna Wintour. What the hell is Anna Wintour doing in York?

The dancers really got down. Much more bumping and grinding than the drum majorettes of my youth though. Both girls and boys really shake their behinds. A little weird, but I'm just a crusty old-timer.


Went to Tuscaloosa for the Annual Kentuck Arts Festival. Met Jackie and Sylvea there. Tuscaloosa's about halfway between Birmingham and York. The festival is a big huge super-hyped regional affair. Artists and crafts people come from far and wide to hawk their goods and to celebrate this whole Southern folksy thing. I found it to be just an overblown crafts fair and kinda corny with expensive not-so-good food and NO barbeque. How can you have a cultural affair in Alabama without barbeque? But it was a fine beautiful day and we enjoyed just walking around.

Between the cheesy lamps, homemade bird houses and clown puppet booths were a smattering of really great artists. Mostly elderly. Mostly black.

Mose Tolliver's daughter, Annie, comes every year. She's a painter as well. Her work is just about as popular as her dad's. She chose to sorta carry on a tradition, painting in a very similar style as her father and even using many of the same themes as Mose T.

I was most psyched to hear Fife and Drum music. I love this music. I have a few rare recordings of it. It's an old old tradition straight from West Africa. Little changed over the centuries, It is now practiced only in a very small part of Mississippi where these people are from. The girl singing is 14 years old. Her Great Grandfather passed it down to her. I sat and talked to the grandmother. When I looked at her face I was shocked to see my father's family. I mean, it was striking. Totally unexpected. I've been looking at plenty of folks here in Alabama and nothing's hit me as so familiar. She looked like Uncle Sonny and cousin Stephanie. I heard that our roots are somewhere in Mississippi. My father's coming down here next week with my mother and sister. I think we should take a drive to Mississippi.

Unfortunately my camera batteries were dying so I could only record bits and pieces. I'll try to get some footage from Sylvea and post it later.


Sunday, October 14, 2007

Real Estate

York has changed hands many times through the centuries...

...Now YOU can own a piece. Kitty corner to the Coleman Center stand the four buildings in the below picture.

The blue building, the white building and two large sheds on the side plus 2 acres of land were once part of a car dealership. All of this is now for sale. Try to guess the asking price. I'll give you multiple choices. See answer below.
Property down here is ridiculously cheap. There's potential around every corner. Coleman actually wants to purchase these buildings eventually. maybe put in a black box theater and a restaurant and more. Reminds me so much of AS220 in Providence and the art empire Bert Crenca built from nothing. I should call him and Richard and all those dudes to get down here and give these Coleman folks some serious support.

The children of York are polite and shy and they still fear adults.

I wonder if they know how good they have it, cutting through quiet woods, fields, and pastures every morning on their way to school? Probably not. They're most likely just bored and want to leave this place.

The antique shop down the street is closing down. They had a public auction Saturday morning. As they set it up at the crack of dawn, the auctioneer guys were practicing their rapid cadences right outside my window. This is the sound I woke up to. It was surreal.


I love the vultures that feed on the abundant roadkill. They look like dinosaurs and fly oh so beautifully. They own the sky and everything that walks the earth because everything's a future meal. I was shocked to see this dead one lying huge in the middle of Route 11 to Birmingham. I had to stop and give it a decent place to rot rather than let it get splattered and smashed to meaty bits by trucks.
There was an eviscerated raccoon lying nearby, just a few yards away. The CSI people would say the Vulture was swooping down to grab a bite of 'coon when he got whacked by a swerving vehicle.

I pulled the mighty raptor to the side of the road (it felt as big and fleshy and heavy as a Thanksgiving turkey) then helped myself to a feather.


Birmingham is a sprawling city. I was kind of touched (and surprised) to see the diversity of people - along with black and white there are Chinese, Indians, South Americans and Arab women in scarves. There's also a substantial Jewish population and a row of synagogues along Highland Ave. Down here in York it's only black, white, and Christian.

A big part of this trip was to see the Pompeii exhibit at the Birmingham Art Museum. My new friend, Jackie Clay, who works there, got me a free ticket. The exhibit, surprisingly, will not be touring to New York or any other accessible place in the US. Seems kind of a once-in-a-lifetime thing unless I ever actually get to Pompeii itself. It was pretty fascinating stuff, especially the body casts of the people who perished. But the jewelry, medical instruments, and calcified sacks of money they tried to escape with also struck me. You just kinda feel the urgency. The whole catastrophy becomes more immediate and suddenly it ain't 2,000 years ago and 911 or the Titanic begins to pale in comparison and you just start feeling real bad for all those people. It was a terrible, terrifying event.

Speaking of terror, here I stand across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church where American terrorists blew up those four young girls back in the 60's. The Civil Rights Institute is here as well as a memorial park.

The trouble I go through to get a good shot to prove i was there...But I've only proven that my hairline appears to be receding.

The sculptures in the Memorial Park are a little embarrassing. The cartoony dogs flying out of the wall and the weird veiny wrinkles on the cop and boy just bum me out. And why are they standing in moose droppings?

Jackie and Sylvea are two Brainy Birminghamians I met a few weeks ago in York. They showed me the best time. I especially loved drinking at the American Legion Hall. Jackie is a budding Art Historian. She's also on a Roller Derby team called the Tragic City Rollers. She flies around the rink on eight wheels slamming other girls to the floor. But she's not a lesbian. Sylvea is a lesbian. She is getting her doctorate in something I can not pronounce. Sylvea is one of the coolest individuals I've ever met. I say that in all sincerity. If the plane's going down you wanna be sitting next to Sylvea.

I play the cultural anthropologist. Sylvea shows me how to eat Barbeque.