Miles Professor, Tony Bingham makes New York Times
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The Tin Man sent his regrets.
On a recent trip to Alabama, I’d hoped to visit the artist Charlie Lucas and his rural art environment at Pink Lily, near Montgomery. But the 61-year-old metal craftsman and painter was busy showing at a juried art festival. And besides, he had moved to Selma almost a decade ago and now worked in a warehouse studio.
I had heard conjecture that Joe Minter’s African Village in America might be the last “yard show” in Alabama. At least it seemed to be the last of these African-American art installations to remain inhabited and undisturbed. If that claim were true, I wondered, what had happened to the rest?
The art was never easy to find, materializing like night blooms in the woodlands and graveyards of rural black communities. Vaughn Sills, a Boston-based photographer, learned to look near historic downtowns, on the black side of the railroad tracks. And yet, she said, she had put perhaps 3,000 miles on rental cars in order to find 150 traditional African-American yards and gardens.
Many of these appear in her beautiful 2010 book, “Places for the Spirit” (an exhibition of the images opens June 28 at Cleveland Botanical Garden). The photos reveal assemblages of bottles, wheels and stacked miscellany. Later, Ms. Sills heard this described as a symbolic language that seemingly reached back centuries, to visual forms in Africa. The homes, however, almost always belonged to the elderly.
“I started in ’87,” Ms. Sills said of her project. “And by 2005, I found it harder to find them. Maybe it was just chance.”
For years, the only way to see Mr. Minter’s work was to drive to the end of Nassau Avenue, a hilltop between two old black cemeteries in Birmingham, and hope he was home.
Recently, though, he appointed a few emissaries, including Peggy Bonfield, a newly minted hypnotherapist whose family owned the city’s first plus-size ladies’ boutique. Ms. Bonfield graciously helps out-of-towners find their way to the village and fields the occasional call from potential buyers, at (205) 410-8149.
Perhaps a dozen of Mr. Minter’s iron works belong to the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, which is dedicated to the African-American Southern art of the 20th century. His art is in good company, said the foundation’s director, Phillip March Jones. More than 2,000 other sculptures and paintings and quilts currently reside in a chilly 50,000-square-foot warehouse on the industrial rump of Atlanta. Would I care to visit? Mr. Jones asked.
This repository was originally the collection of Bill Arnett, 73, the pioneering art dealer who encountered the artists on epic road trips during the 1980s and ’90s. He was waiting at the warehouse on a recent Saturday morning, along with his 45-year-old son, Matt; Mr. Jones; and the artist Lonnie Bradley Holley.
The elder Arnett held forth while walking through rows of stored art by luminaries like Thornton Dial from outside Birmingham, Joe Light from Memphis and Purvis Young from Miami. His son piped in, “Every artist in this collection at one time had an environment.”
After the civil rights movement, their once-surreptitious artwork could finally be shared. And yet, paradoxically, the era for this art was already vanishing. As Bill Arnett said: “The conditions that led to this were the conditions of isolation for blacks, separation from the educational system and the dominant culture. That doesn’t exist anymore.”
He had anticipated the change, he said, even prepared for it, snapping more than 10,000 photographs of the work in its original locations and recording dozens of oral histories. The result of this documentation is a lavishly illustrated two-volume art history called “Souls Grown Deep.” Running more than 1,100 pages and weighing almost 20 pounds, these books bear the burden of history.
The Arnetts organized one of the definitive vernacular-art museum shows, which coincided with the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. And while artists like Mr. Dial continue to turn up in prominent museums (an exhibition at the High Museum of Art in Atlanta just closed), many of the works in the warehouse have not been seen in public since then.
“The collection is not for sale,” Bill Arnett said. He aspires to give it to the right institutions, he added, but “we’re not interested in having it stored in somebody’s basement.”
So what might have happened if the pieces had never been uprooted from the artists’ yards? Matt Arnett answered without hesitating: “I don’t have to wonder. We know. None of it would exist anymore.”
In a sense, the yard-show treasure hunt ended here.
But then, on the day I was scheduled to leave town, Emily Hanna, a curator at the Birmingham Museum of Art, texted me with a discovery. Her husband, Tony Bingham, had spotted a few smaller environments near Miles College, the historically black campus where he is an artist and a professor.
One belonged to a man in Pratt City, whom Mr. Bingham called Michael the Tree-Cutter. This was Michael Washington, 57, who leads an eight-worker crew clearing timber around Birmingham.
A painted signpost over the driveway announces “The Ranch,” and Mr. Washington has stocked the yard with figurines of horses and Western regalia. Sometimes, he said, “If I’m on the road, if I see something like a horse’s head, I grab it in a minute.”
He also scavenged a collection of large red letters, perhaps from a commercial sign, and spelled out the word “Tree.” This now hangs on a corrugated metal fence in front of a woodpile, a juxtaposition that would look right at home in Dia:Beacon or some other palace of conceptual art.
But Mr. Bingham discovered a more disquieting yard show, he said, while “looking for a shortcut to the cigarette store.”
The art wasn’t inflammatory from a distance. A small, open pavilion stood above the sidewalk, and its walls featured bright, original paintings. Some of these depicted smiling black women in a pointillist style that reminded Dr. Hanna of portraits she had seen in Senegal. The women had borrowed their names from catastrophic hurricanes (Irene, Katrina, Rita, Fay) rather like avenging angels.
The large painting in the middle depicted a “hanging tree,” a lynched black corpse and a pair of buildings. One was the “White Church,” the other was the “White House.” A four-line poem read:
Wanted to be free
But was hung
From a tree.
Above the numbers on the mailbox was a monogram: UBL. Another sign, nailed to a tan fence, read “9-11-01 Osama bin Laden Day.”
Dr. Hanna said, “Oh my.”
Mr. Bingham had hoped to tour the environment with the homeowner, whom the neighbors identified as Amos Jones, a house painter. But the dwelling, with its cheerfully decorated trim, was empty. Since his last visit, Mr. Bingham noticed that a few paintings had disappeared from the pavilion. He added, “This may be the last chance to see this intact.”
An obituary in the local paper reported that Mr. Jones died on September 11, 2012 — Osama bin Laden Day.