Southern Seen – Searching for that missing piece
By: Larry McGehee
An old friend, reminiscing about our work days in the late 1960s at the University of Alabama, asked if I still enjoy jigsaw puzzles. I usually had one going in my study in our campus home, and when I was on night-time duty during some campus riots in May 1970, I even had one underway in our Administration Building conference room. Later, I got hooked on jigsaw puzzles of Americana primitive-art by Charles Wysocki, and I shellacked a completed dozen of so of them, intending to frame them, but never did. Another varnished half dozen were Christmas scenes: white pieces of snow banks or angel wings are a challenge.
Among things remembered most from holidays out at our McGehee grandparents’ farm are a big stack of Grandmother’s picture puzzle boxes, with the pieces of one of them scattered on the card table near the fireplace in their bedroom that also served as living room. Except for framed photographs of family— and of FDR and General MacArthur — the jigsaw puzzles were the closest things to traditional art in the whole house.
I once wrote an imaginary description of my puzzle-loving grandmother’s death: “She was working a jigsaw puzzle and her nightgown brushed off a piece. When she bent over to get it, she just kept going, curling up under the table while reaching for a piece of pale blue sky. Just before the funeral, Granddaddy put the puzzle piece in her hand and kissed her arthritic fingers.”
An Andrew Jackson, of course, could have a resident painter at his Hermitage, but most art work in 19th-century and agrarian America was for the wealthy. Except for some old plantation manors, most farms had little in the way of “real” art works. Europe, of course, was said to overflow with art works.
For a while, the big printing presses, mostly located in northern cities, sold prints of great art works across the South, but mail contact and travel between South and North between 1830 and 1865 was very restricted. After the War, of course, no one in the South except carpetbaggers had money to buy even prints.
Everyone gives the printing press credit for making reading available to everyone. Someone needs to praise the camera for doing the same thing for art. If one couldn’t afford an oil portrait of one’s ancestors, one at least could have formal photographs from members of ?Mathew Brady’s profession.
When we think about it, though, those old “art?less” farmhouses actually had lots of art around and about. In addition to photographic portraits and jigsaw puzzles, there were coffee-table art books brimming with pictures. They were called Sears catalogues.
There were patchwork quilts on beds, some of the best colors and designs ever seen??and functional as well. (Would you sleep under a Picasso canvas?).
Some houses even had National Geographic, a compendium of global color that seemed simultaneously religious and pornographic.
Every home had a family Bible, with pages of religious art of all the memorable scenes, from lions’ dens and fiery furnaces to wedding feasts and transfigurations.
And there were calendars, with pictures of hazy western mountains and blazing New England forests or line drawings of the zodiac, from seed companies and patent medicine vendors.
But always there were the jigsaw puzzles — of snowcapped Alps and roaring Niagaras and tempest?tossed sailing ships, of Dutch windmills and Flanders poppies and northern pines. Long before the advent of “paint-by-the-number” kits and “painting-is-fun” adult night classes, there were picture puzzles, a way of painting by putting pieces in their proper places — a way of life.
Farmhouses were miles away from movie houses and years away from television; one had to make one’s own picture entertainments. Jigsaw puzzles were like video disks playing in slow motion — very slow motion.
But the slowness didn’t matter. Time moved slower back in those days??one looked at the hour hand of the clock, not at the second hand. (“Second hand” to that age meant sharing clothes with the next sibling or cousin in line.)
There was, off-setting the busy drudgery of work, time enough for puzzling. Somewhere in the lost cookbooks of the past is a recipe for that kind of living, for that lost art, for that time-mindlessness of “putting the pieces in their proper places” in the hope that we might “go and do likewise.”
Maybe, just maybe, we might make all the loose pieces of our lives fit together and at last be whole.
Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com Published in the Messenger 10.22.07