Run Toward the Sun: Remembering Juanita Rogers
Jul 1, 2012
***Note - this is not a review. This is a description and excerpt from Anton Haardt's full color "coffee table" book sharing the life and art of Juanita Rogers***
Run Toward the Sun: Remembering Juanita Rogers
By Anton Haardt
Publication Date: July 2012
Run Toward the Sun is an affectionate, photo-illustrated memoir of my friendship with Juanita Rogers, a poor African American woman who lived in a shack in the middle of an overgrown cow pasture in rural Alabama. Known by only a few acquaintances and members of her own family, she was extremely eccentric and almost certainly suffered from some form of mental illness. My introduction to Juanita in 1980 was courtesy of a social worker who contacted me in my hometown of Montgomery to express her concern about the isolated woman’s health and squalid living conditions, and her hopes that I might be interested in some things Juanita had made.
I realized during my first visit to Juanita’s house that there was something extraordinary about her: She was shy and wary but obviously curious, and she exuded a certain fierce pride despite her circumstances. More importantly, she was clearly an artist, as evidenced by the array of rough-hewn earthen sculptures I observed on her rickety porch and in the various shadowy corners of the isolated little house. Just as the social worker had hoped, I was immediately drawn to these objects. As an artist myself and owner/operator of a gallery specializing in contemporary folk and outsider art, I recognized the raw, uncanny power of these strange-looking crudely built figures--headless bare-breasted women in spaghetti-like grass skirts, grandiosely gesturing men with animal heads crowned by deer or goat horns, disembodied heads with masklike faces, and oddly shaped vessels. Most of these rather scary-looking objects had partially visible cow-bone armatures, and a closer look revealed shards of broken glass and hairlike sprigs of Spanish moss protruding from their unglazed and unpainted surfaces. They had a creepily animated quality, like primordial spirit monsters that had broken into our world from a very messy alien dimension.
In fact, Juanita and I were from two very different worlds. She was a scarcely educated, financially impoverished member of a minority race historically oppressed by a legacy of slavery and second-class citizenship, and I was a privileged white woman brought up as the pampered only child of an affluent, socially prominent family. Nonetheless, my powerful attraction to Juanita’s art and the sustained interest I took in the particulars of her daily life helped to bridge the seemingly vast social and cultural gap separating us. After our initial meeting I began to visit her often, talking with her about her life and her sculptures, and thinking about how I might help her generate some income through her artistic efforts. My knowledge of and experience in the emerging field of contemporary folk art gave me access to art-gallery owners and museum professionals likely to find her work of special interest.
As we got to know each other better, the barely concealed suspicion with which Juanita had regarded me at first soon gave way to a tacit acknowledgment of my sincerity. Obviously pleased to have company, she came to eagerly anticipate my visits. We became friends as well as partners in the effort I initiated to find an audience and market for her art. During long afternoons we spent together I watched her work on a number of her sculptures, and she allowed me to bring some of them back to my gallery to show to clients. When I brought her drawing paper, tempera paints and other drawing and painting supplies, she began making drawings that incorporated characters somewhat similar to the figures she sculpted. I also paid to have a water piped into her house and helped her arrange to receive government-issued food stamps.
Even after we became friends, Juanita’s emotional volatility made her behavior unpredictable. She was given to profuse verbal outbursts on some occasions, alternating at other times with abrupt retreats into silence and avoidance of eye contact. Her persistent refusal to see a doctor about a long-festering physical problem was only one example of the stubborn determination with which she resisted some of my attempts to help her. And her personal history--in which I was deeply interested--was rendered eternally enigmatic by her insistence on a version of her past that in some cases bore no relationship to the facts as recounted to me by other members of her family.
As it turned out, my time to learn the truth from Juanita about her life was limited. About five years after I met her she died of complications from an ovarian tumor. She was in her early fifties. The book’s concluding section centers on my account of her funeral on a rain-drenched day in rural Alabama, and her cemetery burial in red, iron-rich mud much like the mud she used to create her sculptures. During the course of our friendship I wasn’t really conscious of the impact Juanita was having on my life; it was only in retrospect, as I wrote this book and reflected on those years, that I came to realize she probably helped me as much as--or perhaps even more than--I helped her.
Although she didn’t live to see it happen, I was eventually able to secure a place for Juanita’s work in the field of late-20th-century folk and outsider art. I arranged for examples of her work to be accepted into prestigious collections including that of la Musee L’Arcane in Paris and the Outsider Archives in London. and I’ve loaned pieces to major exhibitions including the New Orleans Museum of Art’s “Passionate Visions of the American South” (1993). In 1989 one of Juanita’s drawings was reproduced on the back cover of the rock band R.E.M.’s album “Lifes Rich Pageant.” An abbreviated recounting of Juanita’s story is contained in my essay about her and her work published with accompanying photographs in Souls Grown Deep: African American Vernacular Art of the South, Vol. 1, a 540-page study widely recognized as a definitive resource book on contemporary black folk and outsider art, edited by Paul Arnett and William Arnett (Atlanta: Tinwood Books/New York:Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, New York Public Library, 2000). Her work has also been discussed in print by art critics, curators, and art historians in a number of art periodicals, group-exhibit catalogs, and specialty books on outsider art.
THAT’S HOW SHE LIVED
Her bathroom was the cow pasture. The house had no pipes. Her only source of water was rainwater, which she collected in a big bucket placed on the ground below her roof. For heat, there was an open metal oil drum in which she burned wood and paper scraps. One bare light bulb hung from a fixture in the center of the ceiling. A small back room in her house had a little bed and another drum for making a fire.
Even after having visited the homes of many black people, some of them very poor, nothing compared to such squalor. At the back of the house was another room she referred to as the kitchen. It looked unused: a few pots and pans were scattered on the floor. An old, bent floor lamp with one light bulb stood in a corner. A defunct refrigerator was rusting in the center of the room. Juanita had decorated this appliance by painting a large, frightening monster on the door. The large eyes and a huge snaggletoothed mouth made it look like a creature out of a horror movie. Yet the monster refrigerator was only some kind of weird icon to decorate Juanita’s kitchen. There was no sink or counter space in that kitchen. There was a large freezer that took up almost the space of the room, but she had nothing to freeze inside it.
Juanita lived with her mutt Wolf, her tomcat Brenda, and a pair of obese pigs she raised in a small pen near her house. Her neighbors Levi and Queenie Huffman and their son, Johnny, came over occasionally and sat on the porch to pass the time of day. Several children who lived nearby also visited her on occasion, and they made small clay sculptures with her. The kids were curious about Juanita and seemed to enjoy hanging around.
The only other person I ever saw at her house was a man with a big scar on the front of his head. Juanita explained to me that he had been hit in the head with an axe. The scar and an indentation in his forehead gave him a foreboding look. He wore overalls and a hat with a picture of two pigs screwing under the embroidered motto “Makin’ Bacon.” He never said a word; I got the impression that he might have been mentally disabled by his mishap with the axe.
He did not seem intimidated by Juanita’s scary mud sculptures or suspicious of her eccentric ways. Maybe they were lovers. Although Juanita told me that he occasionally stayed in the back room, he left when he knew I was coming. I guess the ‘Axe Man’ was the source of whatever food kept her alive.
One day, after visiting Juanita regularly for a couple of weeks, she beckoned me into her kitchen and proudly announced, “Miss Anton, look at this!” She opened the freezer door to reveal a pig, skinned pink and frozen solid, feet and all. “I butchered him myself,” she boasted.
One look into the freezer made me feel I was viewing some distorted freak specimen at a circus side show. There, encased in ice, was this pink, shriveled swine, his skin a bluish-white with rose-colored folds, his eyes frozen shut by the ice on his eyelashes. The pig was jammed in a corner of the sides of the freezer, frozen stiff in a fetal position.
“Hmm, Juanita, you’ve got quite a meal for yourself.”
She smiled proudly, “I fattened him up first, ‘til that piggly wig was good and plump.”
She kept him in there for weeks, but would unplug the freezer at intervals so that he thawed, and then she refroze him again for a while; especially when she knew she would be having company. I wondered if the pig was serving as inspiration for the wild mud monsters she made.
At that time I still didn’t know Juanita very well. Mrs. Boone and I were both worried that she might actually try to eat the pig. Mrs. Boone decided to call the county health department and have them take it away as a health hazard. The health department finally came out and ordered Juanita to dispose of the pig. Juanita didn’t like that because she was so proud of her pig, but they took her pig anyway.
After that, Juanita killed her other pig and preserved him in salt brine. His dried, flattened head had a long string wrapped around the neck. His ears were intact, and the hair was still on his eyelashes. She had cured him in the salt brine, then dried him out, his entire body pressed flat, as if a truck had run over him. Maybe she was saving him for winter when she might cut off a piece and cook it in a pot and use it for soup or something. Some old country folk still ate this way. I don’t know whether she intended to eat him, but she was sure proud of him. She had him hanging up from the rafters of her front porch. In one of the photographs I took, she is posing with the dried corpse, beaming proudly as if she were holding a bouquet of lilies.
One afternoon we were sitting inside her little house when it started to rain. The raindrops made melodic plangs on her tin roof. In that dimly lit room, amidst the disarray of dozens of crumbling clay sculptures, I asked Juanita to describe what she did on an average day, from the time she first woke up until she went to bed at night.
She looked off into the room as if she were trying to remember, and then said: “Well, first, when I wake up at about five in the morning, I thank God for another day. Then I go over and put the coffee on the fire, right there on the pot-head. Then I get the duster and I begin to dust a little.” She went on to describe a version of an “average day” that bore no relation to what I had witnessed of her life. There was no duster. Dirt was everywhere. It was as if she were relating a day in the life of a housewife on one of those 1950’s situation comedies. Maybe that was the life Juanita imagined she lived, or the one she wanted me to think that she lived. Or maybe she was just entertaining herself with a story. She said it all with a very straight face, telling me about her day of cooking and housecleaning as she stood in a room so cluttered with dirt that you would need a shovel to clean it out.
“Then I prepare my list of chores for the day and what I’m going to serve for my meals.” She had no stove, no dining room table and I’d seen only a few plates, forks or spoons. Once, she’d served me some turnip greens and cornbread, both cooked in a cast-iron pot over an open fire.
I asked her what she liked to eat. She said, “Maybe today I’ll have fried chicken.” (Of course there was no means of refrigeration even if she had chicken, since the refrigerator didn’t work, and the freezer was only used to impress the occasional visitor.) “First I cut up my chicken. I put me some coffee on at the fire and sit down and drink it. Then I might do some more housework or something. I sometime watch TV or listen to the radio. Then I start to working on the mud a while.”
She asked me on several occasions if it would it be possible to have a washing machine installed in her house. The problem was that she had no running water. I tried to explain that the water had to come first and without it, a washing machine wouldn’t function. She didn’t want to think about that. She just wanted a washing machine, period. At last she changed the subject, without really giving up.
She had made a unique mud piece that she described as an electric coffee pot. “This is used for the businessmen when they have a convention,” she explained. “When the businessmen don’t have time to stand in one line, this way they can have two lines and move on through quicker to get their coffee.”
“It is totally electric,” Juanita insisted.The ‘coffee pot’ was actually a surreal, crumbling, mud sculpture, built around a central cow pelvis and embedded with teeth, Spanish moss and mule hair sticking out in all directions. The hollow interior of the cow pelvis created a vessel. She had equipped it with two spouts to expedite rapid service. The coffee supposedly would pour from each spout so that the businessmen could move through the line, she explained.
Juanita also showed me some of the handmade clothes she had done for children. Sets of hats, jackets and gloves re-sewn from old discarded sweaters had been reworked into these padded creations. About three or four sets of hats, jackets and gloves lay neatly folded in the corner of her room. They were stacked up alongside numerous other piles of dusty things.
Even though she was living in hot, humid Alabama, she had made these clothes with thickly padded layers sewn together as if they were for people living in Siberia. The proportions were way off: the openings for the gloves, for instance, were the right size for a baby while the fingers were adult size. The shoes would have fit a baby’s feet but the soles were padded with so much cotton that a baby would have tumbled over at its first step. There was no doubt that the results of her creative ideas were ingenious, but they were so skewed that using them would have been impossible.
“Juanita, these are great!” I said. To me id did not seem to matter its ???. As an artist I could sincerely appreciate her obsessive ???? its strange beauty.
“No ma’am, this ain’t nothing, is it?”
“Just look at the way you’ve reworked the big arm sleeves for a child and then added on the gold trim,” I went on encouragingly.
“I just took those old sweaters the rats were eating on. I didn’t know much how to sew. But I thought it was nice to keep the chillins warm in the cool weather, Miz Anton.”
“Miz Anton” is what Juanita insisted on calling me despite my early protestations. For black women of her generation, raised in poverty before the Civil Rights movement came to liberate us all, calling young white women “Miss” was a habit few of them could shake. I decided that if Juanita finally felt me trustworthy that perhaps she would drop the “Miss.”
The distinction between reality and fantasy meant nothing to Juanita. She created and recreated her day-in-the-life as she saw fit, but I yearned to know the real truth. She had plenty of answers; I just didn’t know which ones were real.
Slowly, after many visits to Juanita’s house, she began warming up to me. I usually brought her food, cigarettes and other supplies, and as we sat and visited for hours, I tried encourage her to talk more about Stonefish. I gathered that he lived near by, but I never encountered him. Juanita’s neighbors said they knew nothing about Mr. Stonefish. In fact, they were doubtful he had ever really come to Juanita’s house.
During one of my visits, we were on her porch, and she was working on another mud sculpture while we talked. Juanita’s next door neighbor must have seen my orange Volkswagen van in front of the house and, probably out of curiosity, came over. Queenie, in her late sixties, was dressed in a brown plaid summer dress and white bedroom slippers with a pale blue scarf wrapped around her head.
“Hot enough for y’all?,” she asked in a friendly tone. She sat down in the rusted porch chair and started to fan herself. She folded her legs primly under her chair, letting her eyes wander over the mud sculptures on the porch. “Oh, Juanita, these are so pretty!”
Juanita was working on a deer-horned piece. Glancing over at me, Queenie peered over the tops of her gold wire-rimmed glasses. “I was just telling Juanita yesterday, I wouldn’t know where to start to make something like this. Look at that one, he got toes on him, like a little dog or something. And that one’s got real teefies, don’t he? “ Giggling nervously, she asked: “Now what you call this one, Juanita?”
Juanita raised her eyes from her work, as if she knew her neighbor was pretending interest for my sake ??? didn’t think much of her sculptures. “That’s the funny brick, Queenie,” she replied matter-of-factly, continuing to brush mud onto her fanged, two-horned ram man.
To pass time, I asked Queenie if she had ever met Stonefish. She looked a little befuddled. “Well, he’s never been out here, not while I was around.”
Juanita looked over at Queenie with dismay. “He’ll come out to get this all when he gets ready.”
“Maybe he done disappeared, Juanita.”
“Queenie, he ain’t done disappeared,” snapped Juanita.
Queenie turned to me. “I know she done been trying to call him, Miz Anton.” She sympathetically patted Juanita on the back and said: “I sho’ would try to get in touch with him if you could, cause you really need something now, Juanita.”
A bob-white called in the distance, adding a plaintive note to the conversation about the elusive Stonefish. Juanita’s tomcat, Brenda, jumped up in Juanita’s lap. Queenie indicating Brenda, asked “Juanita, ain’t her mate that black cat?
Juanita, clearly irritated by her neighbor’s questions, curtly corrected her. “Brenda’s not a girl cat. She’s a tomcat, Queenie.”
Brenda purred as Queenie patted his brindle-colored fur.
Juanita began discussing the sculpture she was working on. “This one is made from mule bones. It’s grass, weed, and shells. It’s a monster--a monster man.”
Queenie edged closer and touched the deer-horned sculpture’s nose. “Hello, Monster! You sure look like a monster.” Queenie swatted a buzzing fly as she turned to watch Juanita work. “Oh, that looks so nice, Juanita.”
Juanita frowned as she smeared red mud on the tip of her “monster-man,” ignoring Queenie while concentrating her convoluted explanation of her art’s connection to Stonefish. “See, they calls it the funny brick. I call it mud. That’s not my brick. That’s the piece I made. I didn’t create this ... not like...like...they discover electricity. I made the piece for Stonefish. Stonefish, they call him. I don’t know. Maybe it’s the name of a place, or maybe it be him. I don’t know.” For a moment she seemed as puzzled as I was. Then she said, “Stonefish could turn these things into most anything he wanted. If a cat was on one side, he could make the same shape the other.”
Juanita adjusted the red bandanna on her head and threw a gaze at Queenie and me. “I don’t see how he done that.” Neither of us knew how to respond.
Juanita continued: “See, I used to get me a little box, a pasteboard box, and I’d put two or three mud pieces in it. I’d put ‘em out there in the mail box for the pickup. I was sending them in the mail, two or three smaller ones. They was smaller than what I’m making now.”
Juanita abruptly dropped the subject of Stonefish. As she layered mud on the new monster, Queenie and I sat quietly, making occasional small talk when Juanita spoke, but otherwise maintaining a respectful focus on what Juanita was doing.
Somehow Juanita’s world challenged me to rethink many assumptions I had made about her. Whenever I imagined I’d come to understand a little about her, she’d throw in another twist. One day, driving to her house, I pulled over to gather some blue periwinkles and an arm-full of brilliant yellow Goldenrods. But when I gave the wildflower bouquet to Juanita, she looked at the blossoms as if they were unwanted step children and said, “Miz Anton, them ain’t flowers. Them ain’t nothin’ but weeds.”
Blushing, I realized there was more to learn.