Once It Comes Time
Michael Adno admired no artist’s work more than Alabama’s William Christenberry. And after Christenberry died in late 2016 at 80, Adno retraced his footsteps through west-central Alabama. Today, read through a two-year journey with Christenberry’s family and friends, recounting how he made a record of his native Hale County and what that ultimately meant outside the South.
By Michael Adno for The Bitter Southerner(Available online here)
“Certain places seem to exist mainly because someone has written about them. Kilimanjaro belongs to Ernest Hemingway. Oxford, Mississippi, belongs to William Faulkner, and one hot July week in Oxford I was moved to spend an afternoon walking the graveyard looking for his stone, a kind of courtesy call on the owner of the property. A place belongs forever to whoever claims it hardest, remembers it most obsessively, wrenches it from itself, shapes it, renders it, loves it so radically that he remakes it in his image…”
— Joan Didion, “In the Islands,” from The White Album: Essays, 1979
A summer squall tore the sky open one afternoon in Stewart, Alabama, when William Christenberry visited a cemetery near where his family had owned a farm since 1916.
As the dark clouds marched south — the rain giving way to bands of sun — he noticed the crepe-paper wreaths on the graves dripping lavenders, pinks, and a deep red. He remembered the sentinel oak tree watching over the place, the stand of pines at its edges, and the mounds that rose and fell, marking the lives of the people who lived there before him. But the pigments falling off those paper wreaths onto the red earth of west-central Alabama stuck with him. He made some photographs, then returned home and painted that graveyard. Fifty years later, he wrote, “That graveyard in Stewart was the first one I was interested in.”
In 2001, after Christenberry galvanized his place among the South’s most prominent artists (and one of the most adored in America), he told Andy Grundberg, “Whenever someone asks why I always photograph in Alabama, I have to answer that, yes, I know there are other places, but Alabama is where my heart is.”
Like Hemingway’s imprint on the green hills of Africa or Faulkner’s on Mississippi, Hale County belonged to William Christenberry — just as Memphis belongs to William Eggleston, Eatonville to Zora Neale Hurston, or Sacramento to Joan Didion.
The thread of memory applied to all his work in sculpture, painting, and photography. But more clearly, he made visible the connective tissue between what places once were and what they were becoming. Walker Percy described Christenberry’s work as “a poetic evocation of a haunted countryside.” Walker Evans called Christenberry’s early photographs “perfect little poems.”
But apart from memory or time or place, pride and a deep sense of family coursed through his work. As Christenberry wrote, “When I travel, it troubles me to see how some people still look down upon the American South. There’s a stereotype that Southerners are stupid or uneducated, but that’s not the case. There are great artists who came from there, particularly writers and musicians. Jazz and the blues came from the South. Robert Rauschenberg was born in the South. Jasper Johns is from South Carolina.”
Christenberry’s career, which spanned five decades, with more than 100 solo shows, a 1984 Guggenheim fellowship, countless awards, and monographs, is testament to his point. Indeed, great artists come from here — Christenberry among them.
On November 28, 2016, William Christenberry died after a decade-long battle with Alzheimer’s. He was 80 years old when he passed away in Washington, D.C., the town he’d called home for almost five decades. A year after his death, I set out to retrace the footsteps of an artist I admired to no end. I went to Hale County, Alabama, to Washington, and to Memphis, seeking his family, his friends, and the places that affected him most. This was in no small part a pilgrimage — my attempt to pay homage to Christenberry and his memory.
Of course, I had no idea what the hell I’d find, or what I wouldn’t.