An interview with the new director of Flannery O’Connor’s house museum in Milledgeville, Georgia.
One of the things I’m most excited about now that I’m back in my home state of Georgia is exploring the vibrant arts and literary scene here. On a recent visit to Andalusia Farm, former home of Flannery O’Connor in Milledgeville, I had the opportunity to talk with new Executive Director Elizabeth Wylie (pictured). Originally from Oklahoma City, Wylie has spent a great deal of time in the Northeast, where she attended Boston University and NYU attaining bachelor’s and master’s degrees in both Art History and Museum Studies. She has extensive experience in museum administration, writes and speaks frequently about museums and environmental responsibility, and is co-author of The Green Museum: A Primer on Environmental Practice.
Wylie replaced Craig Amason as director at Andalusia last January and sees much potential for the property. A fan of the author’s work in high school and college, Wylie loved O’Connor’s stories but didn’t know much about her personal life before taking the job. She’s since explored how the landscape surrounding Andalusia impacted O’Connor and influenced her work — from the fig trees to the farm tools. She’s also enjoyed played host at the farm, talking to visitors, educating them about O’Connor’s work and helping young visitors become future readers.
On the day I chatted with her, we discussed Andalusia’s influence on Flannery O’Connor’s work, the property’s current fashion exhibit and upcoming Bluegrass Festival, and why Andalusia is a place you’ll want to visit again and again.
NM: What effect do you think living at Andalusia had on Ms. O’Connor after she was diagnosed with lupus in 1951? Was it a place of refuge for her, an inspiration for her writing or a place where she could simply be herself and enjoy the routine of country life?
EW: The farmhouse at Andalusia offered Flannery quiet, fewer stairs to navigate and a rhythmic daily life that centered around attending mass in the morning , writing from 9-12, and in the afternoons tending her domestic birds and corresponding with an increasing number of friends and admirers. She was also an avid and thoughtful reader so one imagines the evenings were occupied with that.
NM: What about Andalusia do you think inspired Ms. O’Connor’s writing the most?
EW: The light and its interplay with the landscape is certainly an important theme in her fiction. The comings and goings of the farm operation, including the workers, the equipment, the interactions between the workers and with Flannery’s mother Mrs. O’Connor, who — as a middle-aged widow running a sizable dairy farm in Middle Georgia at mid-century — was an unusual thing, also was a source of material for the writer.
NM: What’s the first thing most visitors want to know about Andalusia when they arrive?
EW: Folks like to know where she wrote, if the furnishings are authentic (most of what is in the house was here when the O’Connor’s lived here), whether or not she died here at the farm. She died at Baldwin County Hospital August 3, 1964. Also, they are interested in knowing if our peafowl are descended from those kept by Flannery. They are not.
NM: Ms. O’Connor tended the peafowl here at Andalusia, and peacock feathers, pictures and motifs are often featured on her books, on the postage stamp recently released in her honor and in at least one of her own paintings. Can you tell us about her interest in peacocks and why they’re such a prominent symbol associated with her and her work?
EW: She always liked birds and had some as pets when a child. In fact, you can see a film of her with her chicken at age 5 on YouTube. When she resigned herself to living at Andalusia following her lupus diagnosis, she ordered peafowl and the flock grew to about 50, left to run free. She also had yard chickens, ducks, geese, a one-eyed swan and various guineas and even a pheasant. You can read a short essay by Flannery about her peacock fascination in “The King of the Birds.”
NM: Are there still peacocks that live at Andalusia?
EW: Yes, we have one peahen named Joy/Hulga. The other peahen was savagely murdered about a couple of months back. We think a weasel or raccoon was the perpetrator who pulled back the fencing and broke into the aviary. Earlier this year we lost the peacock, Manley Pointer, from the cold exacerbated by some underlying health issues.
NM: What other aspects of working farm life can visitors to Andalusia expect to see?
EW: As a former dairy farm, the place has the vestiges of fencelines and pastures. There are historic buildings to be visited in the farm core: the main farmhouse, the worker house, which is now called the Hill House after the last tenants there, the cow barn and the old pump house, with a view of a 30-foot hand-dug well, are all open to the public. The equipment shed was recently rebuilt following a tree crashing on it last year and will soon be open as well. The milk shed, calf barn and horse barn are not yet open.
Porch sitting is encouraged. Flannery used the large front screened-in porch as an outdoor room of sorts, and there are lawn chairs scattered out back for more sitting and chatting and reading. We also have a reading room where guests can read a short story in the place it was written, which generally takes 30 minutes, and a special exhibition space where “Flannery and Fashion at Mid-Century” can be viewed through November 1.
NM: Would you say that Andalusia is as much a part of the living agrarian and natural history of Georgia as it is literary history?
EW: Well, first and foremost we are preserving Andalusia because it was the home of Flannery O’Connor. It was a place of inspiration and was the setting of so many of the author’s stories and of course figures in her letters and some essays. That it was a quite robust dairy farm operation is of interest, but it is not unique in that way. There are plenty of other vestigial farms around middle Georgia.
NM: The Bluegrass Festival scheduled at Andalusia for October 10 has become an annual event. What can you tell us about that and upcoming literary events as well?
EW: My predecessor Craig Amason started the annual Bluegrass Festival, and last year we grew it as a ‘friend-raiser’ to open the property and welcome local and regional folks who might come for the music and while here discover something about Andalusia and the writer who lived and wrote here. This year’s festival is Saturday, October 10, from 3-8 p.m. We will have food and drink vendors, and the day features guided trail walks and porch pickin’ prior to the music starting at 5 with three bands: Good Country People, Heart Pine and The Honeycutters.
Each Sunday in February we feature some kind of talk or reading or presentation. ‘February Four‘ for 2016 has not yet been programmed, so stay tuned. All of the programs from 2015 can be accessed on Andalusia WisePod.
NM: What inspired the current exhibition on midcentury modern fashion and the role that clothing plays in the work of Flannery O’Connor?
EW: One inspiration was a number of unpublished letters between Flannery and her mother, Regina. These were made available to scholars for the first time last October at Emory University, so this is the first time the content of the letters has been made available to the public. The exhibit is a collaboration between Georgia College graduate student and seamstress Sarah Lenz, photographer and Georgia College art professor Emily Gomez and myself. We synthesized the textile artifacts at Andalusia with the letters to create the exhibit.
NM: Are there plans for other upcoming exhibits?
EW: Yes. Opening in early November will be an exhibition of contemporary artists responding to stories by O’Connor. We are still working on details so stayed tuned for a release on that in the next month.
NM: Most people who visit here are aware that it’s the former home of a famous author. What else do you most want folks to know about Andalusia Farm?
EW: Some people visit who know nothing about Flannery O’Connor so we are glad to have the opportunity to introduce them to the author’s writing. We encourage repeat visitation so welcome trail-walkers and porch-sitters and families who are fond of just hanging out in a place where children can run around outdoors.
NM: One last thing. Have you ever experienced what could be called a paranormal, supernatural, metaphysical or spiritual event, or any other such psychic phenomena?
EW: I have not experienced that, but I have heard tell variously of a ghost donkey and ghost peacock and others report seeing things in photographs and having ‘feelings’ when visiting the main farmhouse and the worker house.
Click here to donate to help support the Flannery O’Connor-Andalusia Foundation in its mission of dedication to the restoration, preservation and appreciation of the final home of Flannery O’Connor, one of the 20th century’s great American writers.
Photo credits, from top: Featured photo of front lawn at Andalusia by Deep South, Elizabeth Wylie by Nevada McPherson, barn on the property and O’Connor’s bedroom by Deep South, and clothing in O’Connor’s bedroom by Nevada McPherson.
Originally from Georgia, Nevada McPherson lived in uptown New Orleans for several years and is now an an associate professor of Humanities at Georgia Military College in Milledgeville. She received a BA in English/Creative Writing and an MFA in Screenwriting from Louisiana State University. She has written over a dozen feature-length screenplays, one short screenplay and two graphic novels. She taught English at Nunez Community College for 18 years, attaining the rank of associate professor, and founded the Pelican d’Or Short Film Festival, serving as its director for 10 years. She also taught film studies and screenwriting at Tulane School of Continuing Studies. She is currently busy with her creative arts business and Etsy shop, Noisy Muse.