The History of the Trustees’ Garden

The Gas Works Wall

The 1853 Gas Works Wall at Trustees’ Garden is often mistaken for “Old Fort Wayne.” Studies find that it is partially… very partially… true.

 Historians and archaeologists uncovered a wealth of military and industrial history on the grounds and in the buildings situated on an historic bluff overlooking the Savannah River.

The surface is rough and scratches at my fingertips as I run them along the plane of fire-hardened bricks.  A faint-but-pungent scent of coal tar wafts from the walls that have been forgotten and misinterpreted for generations. In sequence, seven earthen fortifications stood here through the years.  There is nothing left of them today – or so many historians believe.  But here is the evidence:  a small section of one fortification did survive, undetected by decades of history buffs and connoisseurs of the past.

This remnant of an earlier Savannah is old.  Well, “old” by the youngest-of-the-thirteen-colonies benchmark.  Hidden in plain sight for a century and a half, the now sandy-brown wall reflects the morning light through a narrow archway. A few yards away sleepy commuters navigate past, their vehicles climbing the road-grade beside the city’s legendary Trustees’ Garden. If a piece of land could be a movie character, Savannah’s Trustees’ Garden would be Forrest Gump.  Always in the background, excluded and ignored.

But like the character portrayed by Tom Hanks, the site holds secrets of which the bus-stop folks know little.  The Garden’s ten-acre plot of sloping ground has, as some say, “more history per square foot than any other spot in the city.”  And, I like to think, possibly in the southeast.  I love and study history.  Never have I seen one small plot of land with so many significant and overlapping historical characteristics. The Trustees’ Garden was planned in 1732 when Georgia’s founder, James Edward Oglethorpe, enlisted the help of John Pine, an English artist, and engraver.  The two of them conferred and drew a plan for rows, rank, and file for mulberry, orange, peach and other trees and then inked the lot lines for the rest of the town.

When the settlers arrived in 1733 Oglethorpe staked-out the garden and had it planted the following spring. The garden itself lasted less than two decades.  In historical records, the area is always an afterthought — a footnote.  Life and history are like that.  Who knew this chocolate-history-bonbon in a box held so many hidden treats and treasures?  You never know what you’re gonna get. The land has changed hands many times over the years.  Early on, the profits expected by the Trustees failed to blossom, so the title was passed to former Royal Governors, then to industrialists, and eventually to hotel developers.   The current owner, Charles H. Morris, initiated a shift toward the preservation of the Garden’s rich history.  The renovation and historical inspection of the site is slowly revealed forgotten stories that seem to peel away, like the layers of a Vidalia onion.

A historian in his own right, Morris took his time with the renovation.  “I want to get it done right,” he said.  “I want to make sure we think it through.” The Garden’s northernmost section, alongside the Savannah River, has long been known as a strategic military location.  Over the years, military leaders fortified the bluff to provide protection against enemy ships that might sail up the river from the Atlantic.

Earthen fortifications were built on the site when hostilities seemed imminent.  Then, as each war or threat of war ended, each successive fortification fell into ruin. Dirt is easy enough to move, so for each new conflict, the battlement-du-jour was staked and excavated in accordance with the newest defensive plan.  The soil from the dry moats was “thrown up” to the inner line to create the parapets… time after time, fortification after fortification. At least seven battlements have stood on this site, beginning with colonial times and extending through the Civil War, when the last fort anchored the Union Army’s line on what was then the terrace of the Savannah Manufactured Gas Works.

In order the seven were; Oglethorpe’s fort, built circa 1740, Fort Halifax, circa 1759, Fort Savannah, 1778, British cannon emplacements employed during the Siege of Savannah 1779, Fort Prevost, 1780, Fort Wayne, 1813, and the Union fortifications in 1865.  There is evidence that there may have been additional fortifications as well, but that is yet to be determined. An interesting legend surrounds the brick wall that currently stands watch over the river at the location of the recently discovered Revolutionary War-era structure.  Guide books refer to the wall as part of “Old Fort Wayne.”

Many historians do the same.  The confusion is justified.  The building of the wall in 1853 destroyed the older fort that was the namesake of General “Mad” Anthony Wayne.  The older earthen ramparts were shoveled into the interior of the wall to create a terrace for gasholders.  Workers unearthed old cannons that they placed along the wall, making it look like an old fort to generations of Savannahians.

Everybody in town knew that the fort had been located on that spot. After all, the cannons were there to prove it. Fort Halifax, the second on the bluff, was built in 1759.  It was a tender spot and tinder box during the days leading up to the American Revolution.  In December 1765 the “obnoxious” stamps that represented taxation by the Crown were stored at the fort.  Royal Governor James Wright placed the stamps there for protection against the local Sons of Liberty, who vowed to burn them.  Fifty-five Royal Rangers under the leadership of the Governor and Captain John Milledge stood guard.  Nearby, 200 angry Patriots awaited an opportunity to strike a blow for liberty. Wright had the stamps moved by ship to Cockspur Island at the mouth of the river, thus defusing the matter, at least for awhile.

And that’s only a partial history of the site. I’ll post more later.

– JD Byous

Looking east from the location of the ancient powder magazine.

Looking east from the location of the ancient powder magazine.

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The Cup and Anne Frank

For Anne Frank, the British 11th Armoured “Black Bull” Division arrived too late. She and her sister died a few weeks before the camp’s liberation.

AnneFrank in 1940
Anne Frank 1940

I would not know that tidbit of history were not for the cup. I had studied many battles and World War II, but somehow Germany’s Bergen Belsen concentration camp got past me.

“The cup” is how I’ve always referred to my pewter and glass drinking utensil. Actually, it’s more like a trophy tankard or a beer mug. Years ago, an estate sale company hawked the property of F.B.B. Noble.

The advertisement listed it along with two others of a similar design. I liked what I saw and ordered two, one for me and one for my buddy, Dave, who lives a continent away. I knew he’d like it. He, too, loves history.

The cost for both was $12.50, $6.25 each. The shipping fee was more than the price of the cups. Where the other one went I’ll never know. I wish I’d bought it too.

The Cup
The cup.

Inscribed on the curve of the face is “Peshawar District, Point to Point, 1937, Dismounted Team Race.”

I had no idea what a point to point race was.

After a quick check on the internet, I found that it was either some kind of computer connection or a cross-country horserace. The latter seemed more logical given the time frame.

It appears to be a steeplechase, a long-distance horse race. That I knew. Out west where I was born and raised cross-country racing was common.

My family has a lineage of horsemen. Horseshoes and hoof tracks replace the commas and parenthetic marks in the story of my family’s history. I was apparently out of school when the talent was handed out to my cousins. But I am from the culture and remember what our people do.

And Peshawar? Another Google check found that the British occupied the Peshawar District from the eighteenth century until 1947. It was a section of India back at the time recorded on the cup. It’s Pakistan today; Peshawar is in the wild, dangerous, northwest.

It’s a place near the Afghanistan border about seventy miles east of Jalalabad. Bin Laden, members of Al Qaida, and the Taliban used to hang out there when things were hot across the border. I guess the Taliban still does.

One-hundred miles down the road to the east is Abbottabad, where Seal Team 6 and Rob O’Neil caught up with Osama and punched his clock — three times in the head. Peshawar has always been a lousy place for westerners to visit. They don’t like us.

The horsemen of 1937 were members of the 2nd Battalion, Highland Light Infantry, who were riding through that dangerous territory, hell-bent for victory. They were not liked either. I can understand.

The riders’ names were Lt. Col. H.P.M. Berney Ficklin, Lt. R. Bramwell Davis, and Lt. F.B.B. Noble. Seems the British and their military officers prefer multiple and hyphenated names. When the war started the men were all promoted.

The Lieutenant Colonel’s team won again the next year but with a substitute for Bramwell Davis. Eventually, all three men became Generals. Noble was made a Brigadier, and the other two became Major Generals.

When the British invaded Sicily, Major General Berney Ficklin commanded the 5th Infantry Division. After D-day and Normandy, the American-made Sherman tanks of the British 11th crossed the Rhine River and rolled into Anne Frank’s concentration camp. It was April 15, 1945. Lt. Col. Bramwell Davis, Major Freddie Noble, and the Highland Light Infantry were a few miles away.

Berney Ficklin was back in England warming a desk chair, a casualty of Field Marshal Montgomery’s constantly rotating cast of commanders. The Field Marshal believed all of his commanders should walk on water — just as he did.

Berney Ficklin 5th infantry div couresy Truman Library cp
Major General Berney Ficklin, center with pipe, and officers of the British 5th Infantry Division at Sicily. Photo courtesy Truman Library

The connection between Anne Frank, the cup, and the three horsemen is through the story of that concentration camp where she died. It hinged on Berney Ficklin’s role dispensing justice that followed the war.

He was assigned a job as President of the Military Tribunal for the Nazi war crimes at Bergen Belsen. The trial started in November 1945. Under his management, the tribunal found twenty-two of the Nazis guilty.

Eleven, including the camp commandant, Josef Kramer, were sentenced to death and eleven more went to prison. Ten others were acquitted. Kramer and his henchmen were hanged one after the other on the same a cold-ass winter day a few weeks later.

At Bergen Belsen, Kramer and his Nazis were responsible for the deaths of 36,000 people, Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gypsies, POWs, homosexuals, and political prisoners. When the Allied forces arrived, over 13,000 corpses lay strewn about the compound, left to rot by the officers and guards who threw their arms up in surrender.

I would not have known that important historical snippet without the cup – about its connection to the death of Anne Frank and the atrocities at Bergen Belsen.

A monument to Margot and Anne Frank at Bergen Belsen. Wikipedia

Today the silver-buff pewter tankard sits on my desk as a reminder of the Greatest Generation and their fight against the German fascist, Adolph Hitler, and his National German Socialist Worker’s Party.

The mentally-twisted cult is often naively known, on-the-street, only as “The Nazi Party.” People do not connect it to socialism nor to the destruction and death the system can and usually does, deal.

Oh, the fourth horseman noted on my buddy’s cup from 1938? That was Lt. John Fraser Brand who was later promoted to Captain.

Ironically he died September 3, 1939, the day Great Britain declared war on Germany. He was fighting Nazi Arab allies in Israel.

He is buried in the British War Cemetery in Ramla. He was twenty-nine years old.

When I drink from my cup, I always toast the Highland Light Infantry and the men who rode to win. Full or empty, it holds an amazing history.

I have one hell of a cup.

– JD Byous

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Some Days are Merle Haggard Days

It’s like this:

Some days are just Merle Haggard days.

When nothing you do and nothing you to say,

Helps you find one more card,

When there’s no card to play.

When you’re tripping and falling

and can’t make your way.

And you’re tumbling down into

A Merle Haggard day.

When life and the devil push troubles at you.

The only thing left for a good man to do,

Is listen to Haggard’s Workin’ Man Blues

Or sing out the strains of his Rainbow Stew

Or one about jail or a woman done wrong,

And cry with the Okie-boy’s sad, sad song.

Then troubles start crawling and creeping away.

When you’re having another, Merle Haggard day.


Things were hard back then.  Not Merle Haggard, hard.  But hard in a different way.  My mom said that when I was born, we had an indoor toilet. My dad said the privy was out back.  She said we lived in the “big house.”  He said we still lived in the little one.  Even though I was there, I can’t remember.  I was too small.  What I do remember, later, is the fry-pan heat of the summer, the smell of adobe dust chasing the farm machines, and the dry-cracked, rock-hard,  barefoot-toe-toasting ground that grew hotter with the arc of the sun.  We were Okies.  Most folks on the east coast, where I live today, don’t know the species.  People in the West generally do, though the generations are losing the memory of that era, and in that history, and how it shaped the nation’s timeline.


Kern County labor camp nursery, Dorothea Lang, 1936. It appears to be the same house plan that we lived in later, but newer and with paint.    Photo – Library of Congress.

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My older brother, Jerry, and me in a Dompe Brothers Ranch, farm-labor house, 1951. I think this is the fancy, “big house” that had an indoor toilet.

The great migrations started with the Dust Bowl in the 1920s and pulsed in three waves ending after the Second World War. Millions of sharecroppers and small farm owners in the center of the United States were forced to give up their land and move in search of an income to feed their families.  A significant percentage moved to California, Arizona, Oregon, and Washington to work in the fields and orchards. Others moved to different points on the compass, including Michigan, Indiana, the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida.

The disparaging name they earned was, “Okies,” meaning “from Oklahoma,” though they were also from many of the Dust Bowl states in the heart of the nation.  Most were people from the Scots-Irish culture and its “dirt people” who were farmers and laborers.  My aunt, Gladys Byous Parker, proudly called herself an Okie until she read a 1950s dictionary account describing them as “filthy trash from Oklahoma.” It was years before she used the word in a positive manner claiming, “I might be from Oklahoma, but I’m not filthy trash.” Her in-laws had lived in California since the days when movie houses posted signs reading, “Negros and Okies in the balcony.” The second billing for “white-trash Okies” was an overwhelming sentiment of the natives.

The book, Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck’s 1939 classic, told of their travels and travails. The reality-based narrative was a hard slap at California’s agricultural elites.  They did not like it.  Many school districts and counties in the Central Valley banned the book until it won a Pulitzer Prize and demanded re-installment. I find it interesting that Steinbeck’s fictitious Joad family farm was in the same county where Mark Covey was born.  He was my maternal grandfather.  Steinbeck didn’t write about him nor those similar to him.  He, and they, stayed on their farms, but they too had bad times during those dark days.  But not quite as bad as those who moved on.  Papaw, as we called him, was able to ride out the depression after buying his farm back in a tax sale.  It cost him $200, half of which went to a man who required the sum to prevent his raising the bid.  Steinbeck wrote of the other people, including many of my family who lost their farms and jobs and moved west from their small Eastern-Oklahoma communities around the town of Poteau.

Merle_Haggard_in_1971 Country Music Assoc photo Public Domain

Merle Haggard at the 1971 Country Music Association Awards.  Photo -CMA.


Espie “Epp” Parker was a bear of a man and he was an Okie.  The surly-looking guy displayed a gruff, strong, hard-working, tobacco-chewing persona, but held the disposition of the stuffed, huggable kind named after Teddy Roosevelt.  Dorothea Lange became a legend photographing people like him when she worked for the predecessor of the U.S. Farm Security Administration during that time.  I had seen her pictures over the decades but stopped in my mental tracks a few years back when I saw Epp’s face staring from one of them.

Drought refugees from Oklahoma SM camping by the roadside. They hope to work in the cotton fields. There are seven in family. Blythe, California 8b38481a.jpg

Espie “Epp” Parker, my uncle, in a photograph by Dorothea Lang in 1938 or ’39. I don’t know who the woman might be. I suspect she is his sister in law. Whomever she is, she is young, and she appears tired. Photo – Library of Congress.

“Uncle” Epp was married my father’s sister, Gladys, at the start of World War II.  He journeyed to California down Route 66 to work a year or so prior to Pearl Harbor, then returned to Oklahoma to make her his wife.  Lange caught up with him in ’38 or ‘39 near Blythe, California, a hot, dry, desert town on the Arizona line between the Colorado River and the edge of Hell. She snapped his likeness into a film of silver salts on the backplate of her camera and moved on. A few years before, she had taken another portrait of pea picker, Florence Thompson, who eventually lived in Modesto, the “big” city north of my hometown of Ceres. Several of my classmates knew her, but her path and mine never crossed.  I would have loved talking with her.

Florence was not happy that Lange snapped her picture. She was promised copies but never received them.  It’s explainable since she and her family moved on shortly after the photo hit the newsstands.  It did, however, help stir public attention which created financial donations to help the migrants.  Florence died in 1983 and is buried in the same cemetery, near Hughson, California, where some of my family members and their friends are interred. Her headstone reads, “Florence Leona Thompson, Migrant Mother – A legend of the Strength of American Motherhood.” She was that. They all were.

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Florence Thompson, the Migrant Mother, by Dorothea Lang, 1936. Photo – Library of Congress

Merle Haggard was one of the few Okies that made well. Others were musicians, Buck Owens, the Maddox Brothers and their sister, Rose, along with a smattering of civic leaders and politicians, Gary Condit being one. Business people who made it good include Cal Worthington, who made his dog “Spot” famous in the Valleys of the Sacramento and San Joaquin.  My father, too, did well after he switched from driving Caterpillar tractors into construction at the start of the 1950s post-war economic boom. Before he retired… back to Oklahoma… he told me of the discrimination he’d seen.  Like the others, he shrugged it off.  He, as did they, looked forward without forgetting the past so the moniker, “Okie,” became a badge of honor the way “Redneck” is worn with pride in the South. They endured.  We endured. That’s what counts.

Byous and Parker families SM Thanksgiving c1956.jpg

The Byous and Parker families before Thanksgiving dinner, c 1955.  Left to right, my father, Clyde Byous, his sister, Gladys Parker, her son, Ron Parker, Epp Parker, with a partial head, my brother, Jerry, my mom, Martha, Ed Parker, and me mugging the camera.

But now and then there are days.  Days when things are hard, though not as hard as back then.  Hell, we actually have it pretty damned good.  But still, there are days when things go wrong.  That’s where Merle Haggard comes to soothe the soul.  So we scroll through the internet pages, or the radio dials, or the stack of aged vinyl platters, and remember those who endured so we too can endure.

Once in awhile the world, and life, give you Merle Haggard days.

We can deal with it.  We always have.  We always will.

– JD Byous


© JD Byous, January 2020, All rights reserved






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Yellowhammer Lake

Yellowhammer Lake.  That’s where I go for solitude. Listening to the silence between the waves of the breeze, rolling and subsiding in the currents of wind that brushes over and through the pines.

I lay across the granite and let the sun warm my face.

It hugs and blankets me, the cool of the rock collecting the excess.  I slip into perfect tranquility.

My spot is near the inlet on a narrow upper strand of glacial-polished felsic paving where the slope rolls into the water, down, down to the clear, down to cerulean, down to the cobalt-blue then on to the black, unseen depths below.

A trout floats in the clear, just above the blue.  He does not care that I am here.

Above, an eagle soars in the cotton-white-patched sky.  He is watching for his dinner.

Chipmunks and squirrels scurry past, chirping their displeasure at my presence.  Soon they will have their space, but now it is mine.

I go there when I need to rest, to stop all around me, to clear my mind – spring, summer, fall, winter. The sun is never too hot; the snow is never too deep.

I find peace there.  It is my resting spot, my respite.  When all around me is chaos, I go there, say a prayer, and praise my God that he has given me that place of consolation.

I go there often – though I haven’t seen the lake since 1972.  It’s here in my mind.  So, I go.

It’s mine.

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Videos are easy?

Making videos are easy, I was told.  They’re not.  They’re work… I mean, lots of work.

Working with Trustees’ Garden in Savannah, I’ve had the pleasure and job of finding the history of the ten-acre site that was the first British-Crown sanctioned experimental garden in North America.  The history of the site has been astounding when one finds the things that took place there and the people associated with the spot on the eastern side of the Historic District.

There is so much history I’ve started declaring it to be, arguably, the most historic piece ground in the southeastern United States.  I qualify by saying, “If it isn’t, then it is definitely a most historic ground.”

The video…

First, the script must be written, condensed, and (semi) memorized.  Then film the narrative.  Then finding illustrations for which permissions can be gained.  Then the editing.  It’s a bunch of work… and I loved every minute.

It is fitting that a short video introduce the site.  But saying that is like trimming 286 years of intense activity into a seven-minute YouTube post.

I didn’t.

I can’t.

So here’s what I was able to cram into that length of “air time.”  Take a look and give me your opinion.

– JB

© J Byous Company, All rights reserved 2019



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If you can’t get in the Booth, a kids’ table is fine with me

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Tara McCormick with Red Butte with Mountain Men by Maynand Dixon, Oil, 1935.

I love western art.  I love all types of art museums, but I especially love western art in western art museums. So naturally, I absolutely love the Booth Western Art Museum. So much so I became a member a while back. I’m from the West. I was transplanted to Georgia about twenty-five years ago having grown up in the rural western culture, horses, cattle, and riding to places where no one else was hanging out.

They have three guilds, the Booth Writer’s Guild, the Booth Photography Guild, and the Booth Artist Guild. I recently joined the latter two having found they are good places for me to see, learn, and update my painting and photo skills used in the last century for newspapers. The Booth is in Cartersville, Georgia. Yeh, Georgia, as in “The State of.”  It’s a few miles from The New York of the South — Atlanta.  I’m told it is one of the biggest western art museums in the USA.  Who’d a thunk?  In little ol’ Cartersville.

When you go you can often see traveling exhibits with works by the artist that I love. Hanging on the walls are paintings by Maynard Dixon, Frank Tenney Johnson, Frederic Remington, and Charles Russell from a century ago. They are among the great of the great. They captured moments in the Old West, or the perceived, Old West and have endured through time — them and a bunch more.


Carrie Ballantyne and Donna Howell-Sickles.jpg

Carrie Ballantyne, top left, and Donna Howell Sickles, right, at the Booth a few years ago when I had darker hair.

Works at the Booth include the very-much-living female greats like Donna Howell Sickles, with her joyful, mythological, and optimistic paintings of western-female-cowgirl figures. Some of the subjects appear to defy gravity in mixed media while attracting animals in a Supergirl-cum-Snow-White-on-the-range kind of way.  I’ve seen Carrie Ballantyne’s work there as well.  Her painting and drawings include silky, lifelike, can’t-be-believed realist portraits of America’s cattle-culture people — the cowboys, and cowgirls that live in Ballantyne’s right-now, today, twenty-first-century, Wyoming world.

So, when a competition opened for a juried show at the Art Guild’s Fall/Holiday show I decided to enter. It’s at the Downtown Gallery, one of the Booth’s offshoots a couple of blocks from the main building. Two of my works were entered. One was chosen and I was happy. You see, having a painting associated with the Booth is an honor. Not as great an honor as being in a permanent exhibit in one of the main galleries, but still an honor. It’s akin to being able to sneak into the barbeque and being allowed to sit at the kid’s table. I was happy to get in.

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My granddaughters, Morgan and Tara with me.  My painting is next to Tara on the right.  The third place, Red Rocks, by Elizabeth Carr can be seen on the right of the photo.

The thing is, there are some great artists in the Downtown show who, in my opinion, have the quality to join the greats in the grown-up seats. I’m sure some will one day. Might I be among them? Nope. Not likely. My approach to art is pure amateur. I do it because I love it and when I want or feel the need to slap paint.

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Cecile Morgan’s Voices in the Wind has a painterly style with a Bierstadt-like glow.  It was my favorite in the show.

Some of these folks, like Cecile W. Morgan, are bringing out gallery-quality work regularly. She and her husband are both excellent artists. Cecile creates cameos of longhorn cattle, cowboys, cowgirls, and portraits in her dreamlike style. She placed second with a portrait of two cowgirls entitled, Cowgirl Memories, between Nikki Davidson’s Saint George Blues at first place, and a triptych, Red Rocks, by Elizabeth Carr who placed third. The People’s Choice Award went to Gary Worthan and his nautical painting, Waiting on the Word.  In all fifty-three artists were featured in the seventy-two works show.

So, can I say I came inches away from third place… since Red Rocks was next to my painting? Well, at least I was there and had a great time meeting folks.  Afterward, we walked to a restaurant to grab a bite. We sat in a booth.  Can I say I was in an art show and I was in the booth?  My grandkids told me, “No, Papa!” So, I grabbed one more photo of Tara… to prove I was in… THE BOOTH!

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The last photo of the night, Tara at the table in black and white. So, hey, can I say I got into the booth… for supper.  Maybe next time.

If you get to Cartersville check out the Booth Western Art Museum. You can find it at 501 Museum Drive, Cartersville, GA or give them a call for more information, 770-387-1300.  It will be worth your trip.  Also, check out Booth’s Downtown Gallery.  It’s a few blocks away at 13 North Wall Street. You can give them a call at 770-387-4330.  Ask for Melissa.  She’s a nice lady with a big welcoming smile.

Next week we’ll talk about the Booth Western Art Museum and its show on Andy Warhol… yeh… that Andy Warhol.  Interesting, no?

– JD Byous



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An American’s American Artist


Thomas Hart Benton, Achelous, and Hercules, Smithsonian

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Thomas Hart Benton, artist.

Thomas Hart Benton was the John Steinbeck of the painting world.  “Okie baroque” is how many critics described his artwork. Other’s loved it.  The images have a sense of being there — the in your imagination, being there — with all the senses.  The scents of horses, livestock, oil fields radiate from the paintings with a whiff of turpentine and linseed oil.

Filmmaker Ken Burns noted Benton’s persona as being a hard-drinking, harmonica-playing hillbilly. He was far from it.  Born in 1889, Benton was from a privileged political family from “The Show-Me State.” His namesake, Missouri’s first senator, Thomas Hart “Old Bullion” Benton, his great-great-uncle.  Tom was the son of his nephew, Colonel Maecenas Benton, a four-term congressman. His first cousin, Jesse Benton Fremont, Old Bullion’s daughter, was an author that was married to “The Pathfinder,” General John C. Fremont, who invaded California in 1846 and claimed the territory for the United States.


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Sen. Thomas Hart Benton, “Old Bullion.”

Like many great men, Benton was a walking paradox, “an anti-intellectual intellectual,” as writer Justin Wolff described him. He could be crude as well a delightful, depending upon the situation. A man’s man and American’s American, he saw the flyover states in the country as neglected by the look-down-the-nose culture of the coastal elites.

For his calculated slights to other styles and ideology, he became a whipping boy for the avant-garde art movement of his time the way Donald Trump would become the political whipping boy of progressive thinkers over three-quarters of a century later. Both men rejected leftist views and gained the label, “fascist and xenophobe” by their opposition.

Young “Tom” had a contrary bent, making him much like Fremont in that he did not live by conventional standards. His paintings and murals both delighted and infuriated people with its subject matter. Fremont, who was born in Savannah, Georgia, led an expedition through California while it was Mexican territory and created an international event. Benton stirred up a tiff after appearing on the cover of Life Magazine one year and was exiled from New York the next for his disdain for the world of modern art. Ironically, his Regionalism-style paintings were often first worked out in cubist-modernistic scale drawings to create the flow of the images that would adorn the lobbies of rural post offices, the halls of statehouses, and the mansion walls of the wealthy.

benton kkk.jpgDepicting Missouri’s history in a commissioned mural, he showed the good and the bad of what had happened by including characters from his own family, slavery, and literature. His father, brother, ordinary folks, and slave auctions are depicted as well as Mark Twain’s literary classic, Huckleberry Finn. In a mural for the State of Indiana to highlight their World’s Fair, Century of Progress display, he did the same and ruffled feathers by depicting a hooded gathering of the KKK. In 2017, clueless Indiana State students demanded the removal of the section which illustrated Benton’s disdain for the racist group. According to historians, during the Great Depression, twenty to forty percent of the state’s white-male population was composed of dues-paying KKK members.

Jackson Pollock No._5,_1948.jpg

Pollock, No. 5, 1948

Jackson Pollock’s renowned abstract paintings can be linked directly to The Mechanics of Form: Organization in Painting, a textbook written by his mentor, Tom Benton.  Stanton Macdonald-Wright, two years younger than Benton, was a co-founder of the Synchronism movement of modern art in the early twentieth century and considered him a good friend. Benton had tried the modernist style but after a decade and a half rejected it. “I wallowed in every cockeyed ism that came along… and it took me ten years to get all that modernist dirt out of my system.”

He married Italian immigrant, Rita Piacenza when he was thirty-three years old. The two met when he was teaching an art class in New York. While he was painting in his studio in 1975 he died. He and Rita had been married for fifty-three years. Rita died eleven weeks later. During their long marriage, they had two children, Thomas Piacenza who was born in 1926 and a daughter named for his great aunt, Jessie, in 1929.

– JD Byous

Images from Wikipedia Creative Commons.

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