HomeSouthern VoiceA Sirius Call

A Sirius Call

by Anton Haardt 

My introduction to Juanita Rogers and her art began with a phone call from a stranger one evening in 1980 during Dog Days, the midsummer interval when Sirius the Dog Star rises at dawn, bringing with it the sweltering heat and intense humidity that envelops my hometown of Montgomery, Alabama, at that time of year. It’s a season when the eerie drone of cicadas is almost incessant, and swarms of gnats, flies, and mosquitoes fill the air. They are seemingly impervious to the white clouds of poison the bug-sprayer truck disgorged in those days as it made its twice-weekly rounds through my neighborhood.

Despite recent weeks of scarce rainfall in and around Montgomery, the outdoor plants around my house and yard were thriving, among them the night-blooming cereus in a terracotta clay pot on my front porch. Its overpoweringly fragrant petals unfolded only at this time of the year, typically not until after midnight. My ancient mother was accustomed to setting her alarm clock for the plant’s flowering. She often invited relatives and friends into the darkness to view the spectacle. She even tried to convince the local television stations to cover the event, but they did not take her suggestion seriously.

I was born and raised in Montgomery, but for the fifteen years prior to that summer of 1980 I had lived and traveled far afield. After graduating from art school in California, I had spent months at a time in Europe, the Caribbean, and South America, living between my trips abroad in a string of North American cities including Atlanta, New Orleans, Houston, and New York. Having entered my thirties, I had grown weary of this rootless lifestyle and found myself yearning for a real home. Needing a place to regroup and paint for a while in peace, I had decided to resettle in Montgomery, near my mother.

I was uneasy and embarrassed about much of what had happened in Alabama before and during the years of my upbringing, but after spending the past several weeks in small pensions and jungle canoes, I was glad to be back in my familiar restored Victorian house with its clean water, electricity and other modern conveniences. I had also come to appreciate certain aspects of the regional culture that I hadn’t been aware of when I was younger, especially Alabama’s self-taught folk artists. I had begun to collect the work of one such artist, a physically disabled black painter named Mose Tolliver, during some of my more recent visits to Montgomery prior to my move back. In the meantime his work had begun to attract interest from a few other collectors and researchers in the then-emerging field of contemporary folk art.

That particular muggy August evening found me happily working on a painting of a mermaid while a nearby television was tuned to a network documentary about the previous spring’s failed mission to rescue fifty-two United State citizens held hostage by militant students in Iran—a failure that continued to overshadow President Jimmy Carter’s administration during what turned out to be its waning months. Mentally tuning out the description of crashing helicopters, I focused my full attention on the image of the mermaid gliding through the sea on the canvas before me. I was approaching a state of serenity when the spell was temporarily broken by the ringing telephone. I picked up the receiver.

“Is this Anton Haardt?”

“Yes,” I answered, not recognizing the caller’s voice.

“My name is “Virginia Boone,” she explained. “I read in the newspaper about how you promoted the work of Mose Tolliver, the folk artist. I’m a social worker, and I’m trying to help a woman who makes sculptures. I thought you might be able to give me some advice.”

“Maybe,” I said, feeling obligated to sound polite. “What kind of sculptures does she make?”

“Sort of clay figures,” she said. “With bones.”

Ms. Boone went on to explain that the sculptor’s husband had recently died, leaving her with no means of financial support. The woman clearly needed help but wouldn’t accept it, she told me, explaining that she even refused to apply for food stamps or other government assistance programs.

After a moment’s hesitation, she continued, “I know this may sound strange, but she says that making these mud sculptures is her job. It obviously doesn’t bring her any money, but she insists there’s a man who comes to pick them up after she makes them.” She asked me if I would be willing to come with her to meet this woman and look at her creations.

I generally hate to leave my house when I’m painting, but Ms. Boone’s brief account had piqued my curiosity, so I agreed to her request. Clearly wanting to waste no time, she suggested we visit the sculptor the following afternoon. Again, I readily agreed. We set a time for our meeting, and I told Ms. Boone how to find my house, then we said goodbye.

The newspaper article to which Ms. Boone had alluded—recently published in the daily Montgomery Advertiser—detailed my efforts on behalf of Mose Tolliver, who had been selling his small panel paintings for as little as five dollars apiece when I befriended him and began collecting his work in the late 1960s. Impressed with his enormous talent and distinctive painting style, I had persuaded him to let me introduce his work to a few art dealers and collectors willing to pay him more for his paintings. I was happy that the additional attention had resulted in a new, late-life career for Mose, as was recounted in the article. I wasn’t actively looking for more folk artists to promote, but as an artist myself, I had long been intrigued by the art of self-taught “outsiders” and curious about what inspires them.

Turning back to the mermaid on the thirty-by-forty-inch canvas before me, I began swirling and smoothing the still-wet blues and greens, and before I knew it the image was finished. I’ve always believed that when I’m in harmony with a painting I can reach a state where a kind of magic unfolds.

 

The following afternoon Virginia Boone arrived at my house. Gray-haired and conservatively dressed in an Oxford shirt, khaki skirt, and loafers, she looked to be about fifty-five. Inviting her into my studio for a quick look around, I showed her some of my own work and several of Mose’s paintings, which were now becoming accepted in mainstream gallery and museum circles up East. Her murmurs of appreciation pleased me, but we didn’t linger over the art at my house. Within a few minutes we got into her station wagon and set off on our excursion.

In keeping with her appearance, the interior of Ms. Boone’s car was neat and orderly, unlike the cluttered inside of my Volkswagen van. As she steered her way southward, heading out of Montgomery, she said, “I’m glad you could come with me. I didn’t know who else to call.”

“Where exactly are we going?” I asked as we passed some familiar landmarks.

“It’s out past Snowdoun a little bit.” As she turned down Norman Bridge Road and onto U.S. 331 she clarified, “Out near Ramer, actually.”

After a moment’s hesitation, she commented that she didn’t know any more about Mose Tolliver than what little she had read. Then she added, “He’s a primitive, right?”

“There’s lots of names for what Mose does. The term really is ‘folk artist’ or ‘outsider artist.’ He wasn’t trained to make art in school. ‘Self-taught artist’ is another way of putting it.”

“That’s what Juanita is, I guess. She’s an outsider for sure, but I don’t know if you would think she’s an artist or not. She’s a very unusual woman. After her common-law husband died, she was alone out in their rural shack. One day I made a routine call to see if she’d sign up for welfare. She says she works for a man named Mr. Stonefish. But there’s no sign of money coming in. And no sign of this Mr. Stonefish either. She needs food and financial aid. She can’t care for herself and I’m really at a loss to know what to do. Maybe you’ll have some ideas.”

Ms. Boone began telling me a little more about the sculptures. I was still unclear what role I could play in all this.

“Juanita digs up clay from around her yard and makes these animal statues. Maybe you’d call them that…”

We drove into a quiet rural area near Snowdoun, passing fields, clapboard houses, and bullet-riddled Coca-Cola signs. Spanish moss hung from the oak trees that were mixed with pines alongside the road. Every mile or so a small white church with a clean-swept yard stood among the fields slowly parching from the summer sun and scarce rain. Cattle and horses grazed in the shade of large oaks, and grapefruit-sized mock-oranges littered the pastures. Home-made fish ponds lay near abandoned barns and rusted-tin-roofed shanties.

 

Soon we turned off the main road by a church and a cemetery overgrown with moss-covered bramble vines. “How did you ever find her place?” I asked, marveling.

“Oh, I’m used to traveling these country roads. It’s my job.”

Ms. Boone pointed out a fresh marker among a group of drab gray tombstones entangled in wild rose bush. “Her husband’s buried over there; he died about two months ago.”

Brambles scraped the bottom of the car as Ms. Boone steered onto a narrow dirt path through a field. She stopped to open a rusted metal gate, then she drove us into what once had been a cow pasture but now was knee-high with weeds.

“Here’s the turnoff. We have to walk the rest of the way.” Ms. Boone pulled up the barbed wire for me to pass under.

“Careful not to rip your blouse.”

“Does this woman have a car?” I asked.

“No. She’s just out here in the pasture. You’ll see.

 

I crouched to pass under the barbed wire, thinking silently that other, smarter people were no doubt nestled in the air-conditioned comfort of their living rooms at this very moment, maybe sipping ice-cold lemonade. This mental picture quickly faded as I emerged on the other side of the barbed wire and took in the view of Juanita Rogers’ house—the only structure in the middle of the remote, overgrown field where I stood alongside Ms. Boone.

A weather-beaten shack with a rusted-red tin roof and unpainted clapboard siding, it was unshaded except for a lone pine tree on one side. Evidently cobbled together from scraps and patched with whatever was on hand, it looked more like a kids’ clubhouse than someone’s home. The yard was choked with weeds but otherwise bare except for a dented zinc washtub, a pair of muddy black boots, and two plastic buckets filled with dirt.

Approaching the house, we heard a lone bobwhite’s distinctive whistle piercing the background drone of cicadas in the heavy afternoon heat. As we got closer, my eyes took in the porch, largely filled with smashed aluminum cans and old soda bottles. Alongside the pile of cans was an old muslin pillow case and a gunny sack, which I would soon learn were filled with broken glass and wads of Spanish moss. Scraps of leather from an old saddle hung from a nail on the side of the house, a splintered board propped up the front steps, and a horseshoe decorated the front door. Slowly my eyes came to rest on a group of monstrous-looking figures densely arranged along one section of the porch. With their gargoylish expressions, variety of vaguely recognizable shapes, and reddish brown earthen colors, they stood out against the weathered gray boards. They ranged from one to three feet high, and only one or two looked finished, while the rest appeared to be works in progress.

Before I could move in closer to investigate, the maker of these strange creations peeked tentatively out from behind the door as she slowly opened it, then she ventured out onto the porch, her bare feet carefully avoiding the muddy debris scattered everywhere. Standing only about five feet tall, she was thin-limbed and sinewy, with high cheekbones that contributed to her unusual beauty. She wore a red bandana tied low over her forehead so that it concealed much of her hair, tightly braided in small cornrows, and a faded yellow cotton moo moo that set off her dark skin, which was like velvet in the sunlight. I figured her to be about twenty years older than I was, maybe around fifty. Because she was otherwise so thin, I wondered about the slight bulge I noticed in her midriff.

“Good afternoon, Miz Boone,” she said, as she darted her eyes nervously with frequent glances in my direction. Nodding ever so slightly, she said, “Hello.”

I smiled and returned her greeting, telling her my first name before Virginia Boone had a chance to make the introductions. Juanita averted her eyes again, peering upward into the porch rafters, where a few dirt daubers were buzzing around their mud nest. She grinned and said, “They’s been a’workin’ all day ‘round here. And using all my mud!”

I laughed gently, eager for her to accept me as a friendly, easygoing presence.

“Anton has come with me to visit and look at some of your sculptures,” Ms. Boone explained.

As Juanita stood aside to allow us through the doorway, I couldn’t help feeling that we were invading her privacy. The bright sunlight hardly penetrated the front room, whose windows were blackened from years of fireplace soot. It smelled strongly of burned logs and old ashes. Juanita didn’t make eye contact or offer any pleasantries as she showed us into what appeared to be her work room. The space felt like a mysterious cave, so dark that I had to strain my eyes to make out details of the sculptures and the few pieces of rickety furniture. Sculptures were stacked in open suitcases, crowded onto a battered TV tray and displayed among a pile of dirt on a rusty metal table. Another pile of dirt had been dumped on the floor. My travels had brought me into close acquaintance with Third-World poverty, and I had recently returned from an Ecuadoran village where the main street was a dirt path and the hospital a single closet-sized room, but even so, I was overwhelmed by the primitive disarray of Juanita’s home.

Two sculptures stood out from the others in the room by virtue of their strong features, their aggressive postures, and the aura of magical power they seemed to emanate. Both appeared to be human-animal hybrids whose heads were distinguished by prominent pairs of horns.

“I had in mind a man sitting on a stump for that one,” Juanita muttered, indicating one of these two horned figures. The other one looked demonic with its aggressively bared, real animal teeth and bulging clay eyeballs that appeared to glare at me malevolently. A bleached-white cow femur protruded from the head of another sculpture. A ray of sunlight streamed through one of the few relatively clean windowpanes to illuminate the compact figure of a clay animal with comically expressive eyes and a large duck bill. When I asked Juanita about it, she said, “A duck is a duck. It goes quack.”

I giggled nervously, then asked Juanita how she had come to start making these sculptures. She glanced toward a wall and muttered unintelligibly. I was beginning to understand why a social worker was buffaloed by her. She was definitely an enigma.

Juanita continued to lead us around the premises, hovering over her sculptures as she showed them off, like a mother doting on her young children. There were twenty or thirty more of them in what might have been called her living room, including several crammed into a satchel that also overlaid with dirt atop a scarred, formica-topped table. Leaning against several small, long-eared dog sculptures and a life-size red clay cat was a naked, pale-skinned plastic baby doll with its eyes rolled back into their sockets. Individually and collectively these pieces were strange indeed—crude, scary and haunting—and all the more compelling because they were clearly made by someone in the grip of an intense compulsion.

“These are wonderful pieces,” I said in awkward admiration.

“Yes’m?” Juanita responded as if she were asking a question. She nervously fanned herself with a rag, clearly on her guard.

She seemed curious about why I might be interested in her sculptures and in her. She stole furtive glances at me, then promptly gazed off in another direction, obviously not wanting to appear too interested.

Two old iron beds covered with tattered quilts occupied most of the floor space in her bedroom, which was as dusty and dirt-strewn as every other room in the house. I sat on the edge of a bed, and Ms. Boone took one of the two beat-up ladder-back chairs in the room. Juanita chose to remain standing. Glancing around the room, I noticed a collection of animal bones and teeth in a shoebox on the floor, pushed partly under one of the beds. To keep the conversation going, I asked about them.

“That’s just bones and teeth from out in the pasture,” Juanita answered. “I use it for the mud. I use it for the eyes if I want to. I chip the bones and teeth up sometime too.”

“Ms. Boone said you told her that making these pieces is your job, and someone comes to your house for them,” I commented, hoping for some clarification.

“Yes’m,” Juanita responded. “I works for Mister Stonefish. He comes here when he wants to.” She turned her head to gaze out the door, as if she was uncomfortable with my line of inquiry. Then she changed the subject. “Miz Boone has helped me a whole lot. She brung me some peas. I sho’ appreciates what she done.”

 

We remained in Juanita’s bedroom making small talk for several minutes, until Ms. Boone noted that it would soon be getting dark, indicating it was time for us to leave. As we headed for the porch, I asked Juanita if I might take one of her smaller sculptures home with me so that I could look at it more carefully.”

“I couldn’t let you do that! You might take this mud piece to prove I’m crazy or something.” She waited to see how I would react. I understood her concern, no doubt stemming from uncertainty as to my intentions.

I smiled at her to indicate as much, and said, “Thanks for letting me visit, Juanita. I feel lucky to have seen your sculptures. I hope to come see you again, okay?”

“Yes ma’am.”

“I’ll talk to you again soon, Juanita,” said Ms. Boone as Juanita accompanied us a few yards beyond the porch. I waved goodbye as we walked away.

“’Bye now,” Juanita called out. “Y’all be careful going home!”

As we approached Ms. Boone’s station wagon I knew that I wanted to get to know Juanita Rogers better, and to try to understand why she made her strange sculptures. On the ride back to Montgomery, I mulled over the afternoon’s experience and found myself increasingly impressed with Ms. Boone’s sensitivity. Many other social workers would surely have dismissed Juanita as crazy and taken steps to have her committed, but Ms. Boone had the compassion to approach her as a human being, not just a number in the bureaucratic files. Furthermore, she had the insight to see Juanita as an artist, even though almost anyone else would have considered her mud sculptures nothing more than ugly piles of dirt.

Ms. Boone seemed pleased when I expressed further interest in Juanita’s work. “I just had a feeling there might be something to this all,” she said. “I hope something will work out. May I call you after you’ve had time to give this some more thought?”

“Of course,” I assured her. “I’ll try my best to find some way to help.” But at the moment, still in a state of near shock over what I had just seen, I had no idea what that might be. Back at my house, I thanked Ms. Boone twice as I got out of her car.

I spent much of that evening in my studio thinking and wondering about Juanita and her sculptures. She seemed so disconnected from everyday life, and her art seemed impossibly fragile and impermanent.

The next day I talked to Ms. Boone on the phone, and we agreed to cooperate in attempting to eventually persuade Juanita to accept social assistance. If Juanita was making her sculptures for a man called Mr. Stonefish, then he was evidently failing to pay her for them, because she was several months behind on her rent, according to Ms. Boone, and had no money for food. I told Ms. Boone I was willing to pay Juanita’s minimal rent and cover several bills on which she had fallen behind in the months since her husband’s death. In exchange for my help we hoped Juanita would agree to enroll in the federal food stamps program. In the months that followed, Ms. Boone continued to periodically drive out to Snowdoun to check on Juanita. Meanwhile, I began to visit Juanita on my own.

I often doubted my job with her and its intrusion on my own life. My home had become a mud hospital and my constant errands for Juanita took time away from my own art making. For several years until her death, our friendship grew. I photographed and videoed her and her haunting mud sculptures. Her personal mythology of magic stones, nuns, graveyard dirt, and her illusory mentor, Stonefish, often defied logic. I chose not to dismiss her as crazy but instead to explore the mystery of her creative drive. Then in a strange twist one day she point blank asked me if I was Stonefish. I realized that somehow she hoped that I could be her magic man, Mr. Stonefish. Knowing that she trusted me finally gave me the courage to continue. Through our struggles, the two of us transcended our barriers and together united to preserve and further Juanita’s mission.

Photo by Anton Haardt, 1982. 

 

Anton Haardt is an artist, photographer and writer born into a Southern family in Montgomery, Alabama. Her aunt, Sara Haardt, a writer of Southern fiction during the 1920s, was married to H.L. Mencken. After leaving the South to study at the San Francisco Art Institute and receiving a BFA in 1971, Haardt became strongly drawn to folk art and opened Anton Haardt Gallery in New Orleans. “A Sirius Call” is the first chapter of a forthcoming book titled Run Toward the Sun: Remembering Juanita Rogers. Haardt first discovered and promoted Rogers’s work in 1981. Rogers’ work gradually became included in many collections, such as the Outsider Archives in London and L’Aracne Museum in Paris. She was the first American woman to be included in the Art Brut Museum of Lausanne, Switzerland. Nearly 30 years after her death, Haardt asks the question, “Who was Juanita Rogers?”

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