The Observer recently heard a story about the artist Carroll Cloar of Earle, Ark., whose strange and distinctly Southern paintings have inspired comparisons to Henri Rousseau and Faulkner. Cloar’s works are on display at the Arkansas Arts Center through June 1. Cloar died back in 1993, but not before creating a body of work that never fails to move The Observer’s hillbilly heart in all kind of directions. The paintings are brilliant, scenes of animals and agriculture and vernacular architecture, with usually only two or three colors predominating. They typically focus on people, who often face the viewer directly and expressionlessly as in old-fashioned portrait photography.
The story we heard about Cloar was about one of these people: a recurring figure in his works who was also a real living person, a childhood friend of the artist’s named Charlie Mae Brown. She appears in “Charlie Mae Looking for Little Eddie,” peeking carefully around a bush, on the other side of which is a goat. And again in “Charlie Mae Practicing for the Baptism,” looking slightly older and seeming cold, wrapped in a shawl and standing in a river alone. “Mama and Charlie Mae in the Garden” depicts exactly what its title says, as does “Charlie Mae as a Baby,” in which Charlie sits in the dirt next to a cat arching its back.
Cloar discusses their friendship in an interview quoted in the exhibit’s catalogue, which is titled “The Crossroads of Memory”: “When I was at an age and a condition when I welcomed any kind of playmate, boy or girl, black or white, I had a delightful companion named Charlie Mae Brown. Charlie Mae lived with her uncle and grandmother, Dish-eye and Mattie Perry, at the back of a pasture Charlie Mae called a forest. Dish-eye had a crawfish hand, just a thumb and a little finger on one hand, but he could pick a box and sing and had a voice that carried, at sundown to the banks of the Tyronza River.”
After some immature falling out between the two kids, a rupture that apparently involved a dispute over the ownership of a puppy, Cloar lost touch with Charlie Mae and never met her again. He looked for her — a letter exists from 1967 that confirms this. After a television appearance years later, he was contacted by a Mrs. Idel Morris in Memphis, Charlie Mae’s granddaughter. As Cloar had gone on to a successful art career, Morris told him, Charlie Mae had become a housemaid, cleaning and keeping house finally for a woman who was possibly named Marguerite Piazza. This woman reportedly owned at least two of Cloar’s paintings, one of which was titled “Charlie Mae and Georgeanna.”
In that painting, Charlie Mae reclines in a bed of flowers next to her cat, possibly the same cat as before. She has a curious smile and the painting is filled with blindingly red poppies, like a satellite image of a large city. The real Charlie Mae must have seen the painting every day while cleaning her employer’s home. Donald Harington later wrote about the coincidence in his monograph on Cloar: “Had she for years dusted that painting without knowing that the girl depicted in it was herself? Or had she known?”
There is another painting of Cloar’s that made an impression on The Observer, one that might seem unrelated on the surface but which we suspect, seen from another angle, could have everything to do with Charlie Mae. It’s called “Joe Goodbody’s Ordeal,” and Cloar claims it is also “based on a true story.” It was inspired by a sharecropper who lived near the artist’s family. “One night he went crazy,” Cloar said in a 1984 interview, “dashing wildly across the fields. He was caught and persuaded to enter the mental institution at Little Rock.”
This painting isn’t available on the Internet. We’ve just tried looking for it in Google Images. If you look around enough, you can find an early black and white sketch, a blueprint for the final product that doesn’t come close to approximating its effect. In the real thing, a man runs toward the viewer clutching his head in agony, all in muted yellows and purples. In front of him is a cloud of what might be birds or insects, but which are so slight and faded as to seem like figments of his imagination. In the same interview, Cloar says, “Joe Goodbody’s ordeal could be anybody’s ordeal.”
Indeed, sir. Indeed. There but for the grace of God goes any erstwhile Observer.