Arkansawyers Blog Series: Part Four

Historic Arkansas Museum - Thursday, August 13, 2020

Where We’re From

Based on dialect, anthropologists and linguists divided Arkansas into two broad regions. In the hilly Ozark highlands, most folks spoke a version of what is called Midlands dialect, and the lowlands of the Delta were populated by settlers who spoke a Southern dialect. Migration patterns and geography influenced the colloquial language, culture, and customs of our Arkansas ancestors. So much so that if your grandmother (or perhaps your great-grandmother, depending on the reader’s age) grew up in southern Missouri or the Arkansas Ozarks, she probably “wrenched” the dishes, “biled” her beans, and wore “britches,” but your south Arkansas grandma might’ve needed your help changing a light “bub” and she would’ve called peanuts “goobers” or “goober peas.” Of course, people with long family histories in any county or “holler” could argue that all the peculiarities of Arkansas speech don’t fit neatly into two categories, and they’d be right. But the unfortunate truth is that all of these unique speech patterns, like vernacular architecture and idiosyncratic regional customs, will soon disappear entirely. Television, the Internet, global trade, and increased geographic mobility are all wonderfully convenient, but progress always comes with a price. That’s one of the reasons HAM collects Arkansas-made objects -- they remind us where we’re from.

Even a Blind Sow Gets an Acorn Onct in a While, by Josephine Hutson Graham [1915-1999] Oil on masonite, Arkansas, c. 1965, 47 x 56.5 in., Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council Grant Purchase, Accession No: 99.35.2

When I read the title of this painting, which is hand-written across the bottom of the image, I hear it spoken in my grandmother’s southern Missouri “Ozark English” dialect: “Even a blind sow gets an akern once’t in a while.” The phrase is a regional variation of a very old aphorism, first made popular in America in 1781. Its message is simultaneously encouraging and belittling, a back-handed compliment akin to other Southern-isms like “Bless your heart.” Graham, who signed her “Suggin” images as “Josus,” a nickname bestowed by her own grandmother, understood the value of rural Arkansas culture, the complexity of people who have long been dismissed by outsiders as backward and unrefined. Like Louis Freund, Paul Faris, Charlie Mae Simon, Vance Randolph, Carroll Cloar, and many others, Josephine Graham realized that the vernacular language and customs of Arkansas’s early settlers fade with every passing generation.

Despite the painting’s pleasing, muted palette, the soothing near-symmetry of the composition, careful attention to pig anatomy and breed markings, and closely observed details like burls on the central oak tree, many viewers assume it was created by a self-taught artist. While this image, like many of Graham’s “Suggin” scenes, bears a passing resemblance to “primitive” paintings by American folk artists like Grandma Moses, Josephine Graham employed the style intentionally, like a set designer in a theatrical production, to make her characters more believable and accessible.

According to Josephine Graham, a Suggin (pronounced SOO-gin) is “a somewhat uncouth and unsophisticated person living in a rural area or small town along the White River.” Best known for “modern primitive” paintings of Depression-era scenes, Josephine Hutson Graham received a formal education most Arkansans only dream of. After earning a degree in English at U of A Fayetteville, raising a son, the death of her first husband, and an unhappy second marriage, Graham studied under famous German Expressionist painter Max Beckmann at the University of Colorado, then moved to New York City where she earned an MFA from Columbia University while taking courses at Parsons and the Art Students League. Her early paintings reflected the influence of powerful artists popular in the New York scene, but by 1970, Graham had immersed herself in the work of documenting the history and culture of Suggins, descendants of the pioneers who settled near Jacksonport and Newport, Arkansas, where she was born. As a folklorist, Josephine Graham gathered information on the language, culture, and cuisine of her White River ancestors. She wrote and published the (now very collectible) Suggin Cookbook, founded the Suggin Folklife Society, and created over 100 “Suggin” paintings depicting life in rural Arkansas around the turn of the 20th century.

Pendant, Elsie “Elsa” Bates Freund [1912-2001] Silver wire and fused glass on clay body, Eureka Springs (Carroll County), c. 1950, 4.875 × 2.5 in., Collection of Historic Arkansas Museum, HAM Foundation Purchase, Accession no: 2018.11.2

It's true that Elsie wasn’t born in Arkansas, but in some parts of northwest Arkansas and southern Missouri, the state line doesn’t matter much, anyway; landscape, culture, and customs bleed seamlessly into one another, connected like subterranean streams under the karst topography common to the region. Elsie Mari Bates spent much of her childhood exploring what is now the Drury-Mincy Conservation Area in southern Missouri, a sprawling game preserve used to restore the area’s wild deer and turkey populations, where her father worked as gamekeeper.

In 1939, after a three year courtship, Elsie Bates married fellow Missouri artist Louis Freund (pronounced “friend”) in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, a town that served as the couple’s home base for the rest of their lives. During their many professional residencies, Elsie typically taught studio craft and decorative arts like weaving and textile design, while Louis taught painting and drawing, fine art forms traditionally associated with male artists. However, when Louis was drafted into military service during World War II, Elsie taught his classes, as well.

Elsie proved technically adept as a printmaker, watercolorist, textile designer, weaver, studio jeweler, and educator, but it was fearless creativity and innovation in every medium that set Elsie apart from her peers. In one of the many newspaper articles dedicated to Elsie during her lifetime, she recounted a story of digging native clay from a cave near the small community of Beaver. Devoted to locally-sourced materials and the landscape of the Ozark Mountains, Elsie fired bits of this red clay in an enameling kiln, fusing the clay with shards of colored glass to form sparkling pebble-like stones. She suspended these handmade stones (stamped “Elsa” on the reverse side) in airy swirls of copper or silver to create pendants, brooches, rings, earrings, bracelets, and cufflinks, upending the long-held belief that fine jewelry could only be made from gemstones and precious metals.

This stacked pendant features four of Elsie Freund’s unique stones set in a totemic vertical structure that loosely resembles a human figure. An arc of hammered silver wraps around the last three stones like an eyebrow floating above an eye, each arc bending gently downward to form a crescent shape encircling the bottom stone. The composition is modern and elegant, referencing both the minimal abstraction popular in fine art at the time, as well as designs used in Native American artforms.

The collective impact of the work of Elsie and Louis Freund as artists, activists, and educators is truly incalculable. Considered separately, each person’s steadfast pursuit of creativity and lifelong learning is inspirational. Both Louis and Elsie contributed their individual talents, energy, and influence to the growth of Arkansas’s artist communities, but together they formed a dynamic synergy whose effect was greater than the sum of its parts.