The Art and Life of Carroll Cloar
An in-depth look at Memphis’ most famous painter, considered by some critics as a great American master.
Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993 WHERE THE SOUTHERN CROSS THE YELLOW DOG, 1965 Casein tempera on Masonite Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN; Brooks Fine Arts Foundation Purchase 65.17
Editor’s Note: In our November 1993 issue, just a few months after Carroll Cloar’s death, we ran an in-depth article about the man and his art. Nearly two decades later, we offer a revised version of that story, for readers who knew and loved his work, and for a new generation of art collectors.
As a testament to his enduring appeal, a book about Cloar and his legacy will be published in 2012. “It needs to be done and it’s long overdue,” says Patty Bladon, who has spent months conducting research for the book’s author, Richard Gruber.
Gruber was director of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art from 1983 to 1989, and retired a few years ago from the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans. The book — from the University Press of Mississippi and as yet untitled — will be the first publication using the Cloar archives in the University of Memphis library’s special collections department. A treasure trove of old letters, family scrapbooks, lithographs, sketchbooks, and more, the archives have been an invaluable resource to Gruber and Bladon, who worked with Cloar during her 20-year tenure at the Brooks and is now director of development at the U of M’s College of Communication and Fine Arts.
Just as his art endures, the value of Cloar’s work has appreciated, depending on a painting’s size and age. Gallery owner David Lusk, who represents Cloar’s estate, says a smaller painting may sell for $20,000, a larger one for $60,000. “The earlier the period,” says Lusk, “the greater the value.”
Alice Bingham, a former Memphis gallery owner who now lives in Florida and Maine, represented Cloar for several years in the 1980s. She believes his best works were the early tempera paintings. “I still own a tempera that I wouldn’t sell for any amount of money,” she says. Regarding the upcoming book, along with exhibitions planned for 2013, marking the 100th year of Cloar’s birth, Bingham says, “He was a fascinating, complex person and artist, and he deserves attention from a new generation of art buyers and observers.”
His widow, Pat Cloar Milsted, who now lives in Athens, Georgia, agrees with Bingham’s assessment of her late husband. “I don’t want people to forget Carroll,” she says. “His appeal is universal. And while his paintings hang in major museums, many of his works are owned by art lovers in Memphis.”
Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993
MY FATHER WAS BIG AS A TREE, 1955
Casein tempera on Masonite
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN;
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Morrie A. Moss 55.24
MEMPHIS, NOVEMBER 1993 — In the sunny living room of a house on Greer, Pat Cloar sits on a long striped sofa, sipping ice water and sharing memories. She talks of the man she married in 1973 and who died this year (1993), the artist Carroll Cloar, whose vivid and haunting paintings of the South made him the most renowned artist ever to emerge from the Memphis world. Pat talks of Cloar’s humor and his stubbornness, of trips to New York and parties around their pool, of laughter and tears through 20 years of marriage. And she talks, for awhile, of ghosts.
“Sometimes we’d hear footsteps in the hall that would pause in the doorway,” she says, “and about four years ago it seems we had poltergeists. They would do things to tease Carroll, like steal a button off his pajamas. We searched everywhere for that button but it wasn’t to be found. Then one day when he was working in his studio he heard this plunk. He looked around and there was the button; it had fallen from the blue just a few feet behind him.”
Then there was the photograph that kept turning up, a snapshot taken around 1905. Both Pat and her husband collected old photographs from flea markets and junk stores, but this wasn’t a picture either one of them had bought. “It wasn’t real good in terms of composition,” says Pat, “not something Carroll would use.” But still it had found its way into their home, this shot of two men and a woman dressed in old-fashioned garb, with the words “His and Mine” penciled on the back. It would materialize on top of Cloar’s recently cleared easel, or appear propped up on the floor of a closet. Cloar would ask Pat, “Did you put this here?” And she’d say no, and he’d toss it aside. But still it appeared again and again, until Cloar finally said, “Maybe they want me to paint them.” And that’s what he did, using the photograph as a model; once the painting was complete, the photograph disappeared.
Pat smiles often as she relates the strange happenings in this old farmhouse just east of the Pink Palace that her husband bought and redesigned to include an art studio in 1959. But when talk turns to Cloar’s death after his four-year bout with cancer, her grey eyes fill with tears. “I can understand why he did it,” she says, referring to the day Cloar took a gun from a bedside drawer and shot himself in the chest. “He was so sick and felt so bad,” she continues. “I had just gotten him a wheelchair because I couldn’t move him around anymore, and he could barely get up. So when he lost his strength and mobility, when he could hardly get from room to room — well, that was just too much.”
Carroll Cloar put an end to his suffering on a beautiful April morning while Pat was running errands. “I had left him with Lola [Rowland],” she says, “a wonderful woman recommended by Carroll’s doctor. She was sort of a combination practical nurse and housekeeper. I was gone about 30 minutes, and when I got back I planned to have Lola help me get Carroll into the car and take him for a drive. He looked forward to that; he liked to see what was going on.”
But when she got home, Lola met Pat in the driveway, telling her to leave her groceries in the car and to come in and sit down. “I knew then something terrible had happened,” says Pat. “Carroll was in the study when I left him, but apparently he made his way into the bedroom with his walker. I knew he owned a gun, but I had never seen it. He kept it in what he called his sock drawer, by his bed. Lola said she heard the gunshot coming from the bedroom. She said he did it right after I left.”
After a few moments of composing herself and collecting her thoughts, Pat continues, “I think he thought he was sparing me. For a long time he would say, ‘Am I getting too much for you? Am I too hard to take care of?’ But he never was. He was a good patient — very brave and very dear.”
And up until the last few months, Cloar was still painting. “Those paintings were happy ones, sunshiny bright ones, and I’m really glad they were,” says his wife.
As long as Cloar was able, he maintained a routine he’d started years ago — painting from 8 a.m. until 4 p.m. And then, from 4 till 5, working around the woodsy backyard or tending the deep front lawn. When he lost his strength for yard work, Pat says he made it a point to show her how to do certain things: “Every day from 4 to 5, I’d put on my work clothes and go outside with him to ride the mower, or gather up the wood for a fire, or repair the fence, all the things he’d done. He’d get upset if I didn’t fix that fence just right, and I’d say, ‘Well, do you want to drive the nail yourself?’ But he was looking out for me.”
Just after Cloar died, Pat had a couple more ghostly encounters. “One night,” she says, “I woke up with a hand on my foot. It was hair-raising. Scary. And a week or so later I thought someone bounced the bed; it felt as if some small person just jumped up there beside me.” Did she think it was Cloar checking in on her, or just the poltergeists up to their old tricks? “Oh, I thought it was him,” she says with an uneasy laugh.
“But he’s gone now,” she continues, “and I’m adjusting to that. This is very personal but I talked to him and I told him all the things I wanted to say before he died and I told him I wanted him to know how much I loved him. For some reason I don’t think he was ever really sure. He was my only love. He really was.”
Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993
WEDDING PARTY, 1971
Acrylic on Masonite
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN;
Eugenia Buxton Whitnel Funds 73.24
Themes that transcend time and place
Carroll Cloar may no longer be painting in his studio or teaching his wife to mend fences or — unsettling as it seems — making nocturnal visits to her bedside. But the man lives on — not only through the people he touched and the memories they cherish but through a body of work that spans half a century and captures the essence of a vanishing South. More than 40 of his paintings — those dreamlike renderings of Delta life — belong to major museums, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Museum of Modern Art, and Washington’s Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden at the Smithsonian. They also hang in such lofty places as the foreign embassy in Paris and government buildings in several states. While Cloar’s works belong to collectors like John D. Rockefeller III, they also brighten the homes of less famous folks throughout the Mid-South and across the country, people who see their own past and memories, their own fears and fantasies, through the eyes of an artist who called Memphis home. His last days were marred by illness — and by rampant trading in his paintings that some people think was unethical. But from this demand for his works and their skyrocketing values — one painting sold for $50,000 shortly before he died — Cloar must surely have gained affirmation, and well-earned it is; for Cloar, perhaps like no one else, evoked early twentieth-century days in a small Southern town, yet spoke of themes that transcend time and place.
“He kept a sense of playfulness . . .”
Cloar was born on January 13, 1913, in Earle, Arkansas, a town of 3,000 some 30 miles from Memphis. His father — a farmer from a line of farmers — was kind but strict and distant. His mother was a devout Pentecostal who, according to Pat, “spent a lot of time praying.” Although he grew up with three brothers and a sister, he led a solitary childhood, exploring the woods and pastures and riverbanks that years later found form in his art. “I was a shy child who seldom spoke at all,” he once described himself, “but I was a keen observer.” And in fact every detail of his rural roots can be found in his paintings — somber-faced relatives, mischievous children, white clapboard houses, and fat harvest moons. Long-johns on clotheslines and men strumming banjos, diners and pool halls and field hands at dusk. And pervading these works are themes that endure through generations — childhood friendships, the wonders of nature, the loneliness of aging, the yearnings of youth.
Pat Cloar sums up the feelings of several others when she says of her late husband’s works, “One of the best things about Carroll was that he retained the ability to observe and think like a child; he kept a sense of playfulness in his work. And it was amazing how he could retain the memories of the past, recall entire conversations.”
One of these conversations resulted in The Arrival of the Germans in Crittenden County, a painting created in 1955. It harks back to World War I, when the grownups in Cloar’s life would sit around and talk about “those Germans,” says Pat. “If they win over there,” the grownups would say, “they’ll be here next.” And Cloar told his wife, “I’d worry about that. I could picture them walking across the cotton fields of Crittenden County. I could see a big long line of them with uniforms and guns. So I decided I’d get me a rock, the biggest one I could find, and put it right under the doorstep. And as soon as one of those Germans came in our yard, I was gonna hit him with that rock.” While the memory amused him, an ominous overtone is seen in the painting; it reflects the dread of a boy awaiting the onslaught of foreign soldiers.
Some of his works also reflect a sense of isolation, as in Alien Child, where the young barefoot Cloar is divided from his family by a long and jagged crevice; and in My Father Was Big as a Tree, which depicts the boy’s feeling for a man about whom he wrote, “[My father] was big and far beyond, and I was never quite able to reach him.”
Cloar’s parents both died when he was 15 and, although he was under the formal guardianship of his brother, he could then make his own decisions. Two years later he left the farm, headed for Memphis, and enrolled at Southwestern (now Rhodes College). But the faces and scenes of his boyhood stayed with him and the memories he nurtured later flowed into his art.
“You can paint.”
Years passed, however, before Cloar picked up the paintbrush in earnest. The summer after graduation, Southwestern’s college band had been hired by a cruise line to play on a ship bound for Europe, and they needed a drummer. Cloar (who had majored in English) really wanted to go, “so he told them he played the drums,” says Pat, “which of course he didn’t. But he went to Beale Street and bought some drums, got another student to give him a lesson, and practiced to the tunes on the radio.” He faked it well enough that the master of ceremonies — who happened to be Edward R. Murrow — asked for a drum roll. “Carroll had no idea how to do that,” says Pat, “but he banged around and made a lot of noise. Afterwards Murrow bought him a drink and said, ‘Kid, don’t do that again.’”
After his trip to Europe, where he toured museums and marveled at masterworks, Cloar returned to Memphis and enrolled at the old Memphis Academy of Art on Adams, run by Florence McIntyre. But when a teacher there named George Oberteuffer broke from the traditional styles being taught and started his own school, Cloar went with him, studying at an old loft on Front Street, which was the foundation of today’s Memphis College of Art. This same Oberteuffer later told Cloar, “You dispute my theory that anyone can be taught to draw!” — but that didn’t stop the aspiring artist from going to New York in 1936 and taking drawing classes at the Art Students’ League.
Four years later he began to study painting under Harry Sternberg, the first teacher who saw promise in him, and took an oil painting class under Ernest Fiene. “I did poorly,” Cloar once told a friend. “Fiene would look at my work, shake his head, sigh, and say, ‘Color, color, color.’ He had no hope for me.”
But Fiene later changed his tune. When Cloar sent home for photographs of relatives and began a series of lithographs, Fiene happened to see some in the League lunchroom. Studying the homely faces and raw landscapes that were typical of Cloar’s early work, Fiene told his student, “You can paint.”
In 1940 the lithographs landed Cloar a McDowell Traveling Fellowship and he headed westward, where he had exhibitions in Denver and Salt Lake City; then back home to Earle; and in 1941 to Mexico, where he painted and also wrote, mining his memory for details of school days, of church gatherings, of stories told by his mother about the panthers that once roamed Arkansas. He wound up with a 300-page memoir that was never published; but the experience offered new themes for his lithographs and, later, his acrylics.
During World War II, Cloar joined the Army Air Corps and served as a radio operator in the South Pacific, where for fun, and a little extra cash, he painted pin-up girls on the nose of bombers. At the war’s end, he returned to Mexico on a Guggenheim Fellowship and in the ensuing years, his career began to take off.
He was featured twice — in 1948 and 1952 — in Life magazine, once in a spread spotlighting his lithographs, and next in a story about promising painting proteges. In 1953, he returned to Memphis, where he had a one-man show, which featured several local scenes, at a store on Union Avenue known as the Book Shelf. It was during this period that he painted Autumn Conversion, featuring a man moved to repentance by a band of street preachers, which now belongs to the Museum of Modern Art.
Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993
R.F.D. #1, 1956
Casein tempera on Masonite
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN;
Bequest of Alice McKee Armstrong 93.5.1
“Sharply observant eye for faces . . .”
Next came a two-man show at The Alan Gallery in New York, which sparked the interest of art critics, followed by an extended stay in Europe that proved pivotal to his career. While sitting in the sidewalk cafes of Spain and Italy, his mind teemed with memories of his Arkansas childhood, and he knew that to give these memories form and substance, he needed to get back to his roots. So in 1954, he moved to Memphis, where he would live and work for the rest of his life. Here, says Pat, he found the best of two worlds: “Memphis had a symphony and museums and people who appreciated art — and it was just 30 miles from Earle.”
The move resulted in a flood of paintings unveiled in 1955 at The Alan Gallery that showed in striking clarity and brilliant colors the Southern roots to which he’d returned. At this, his first one-man show in New York, Cloar was hailed by critics for his “sharply observant eye for faces,” and his knack for rendering “concrete expression to the ghosts of old memories.” And at least four paintings from this period — including The Lightning that Struck Rufo Barcliff and Sun Sinking into Tyronza River — now belong to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Joseph H. Hirshhorn Museum at the Smithsonian.
Months just prior to the show, the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art had also hosted an exhibition of Cloar’s works. Jameson Jones, former dean of Southwestern and later president of the Memphis College of Art, says, “I think that exhibit was one of the most significant things that ever happened to Carroll and to this area. It really opened some eyes. People realized we had somebody at work here who was not only an accomplished painter but whose motifs were all taken from this region.”
Among the paintings was Garden of Love, a vibrant piece studded with sunflowers and dandelions and a half-dozen brown-eyed girls wearing light summer dresses and inscrutable gazes. Cloar once wrote about the piece, “As far back as I can remember, I was always secretly in love with some little girl. She always had brown eyes.” And when in 1959 he had his house on Greer redesigned, he included in the plan a tall mosaic mural alongside the front door. In different form and medium, the mural shows the same sunny hues and thoughtful faces as those he painted in Garden of Love.
After the 1955 exhibit, Cloar’s career was firmly on track, as museums and private collectors — such as Joseph Hirshhorn, Robert Sarnoff, and John D. Rockefeller III — began to purchase his works. Alice Bingham, formerly of Memphis and now with Schmidt-Bingham in New York, says that in the mid-to-late 1950s Cloar’s works took on great depth and power. “Works like The Night They Heard the Heavenly Music, Moonstruck Girls, and Alien Child were full of tension and mystery,” she says, “and it was the kind of mystery that was universal. Carroll could take themes of loneliness and fear and death and transform them into something not only tolerable but even inspiring.”
And when in the late 1960s he switched from casein tempera to acrylic paint, he experienced a “tremendous effect in the quality of the paintings,” says Bingham. “His works became luminescent.”
Meanwhile he continued to refine his style so that, as the late art critic Guy Northrop once wrote, “His work became instantly identifiable in any place and in any context.” And despite the various avant-garde schools that came and went from year to year, Northrop added, “Of his own direction, Cloar had no doubt. He could change without seeming to change. He could absorb the modern tricks without breaking stride.”
And despite the folksy subject matter of his paintings, Cloar’s style was contemporary, says Patty Bladon, assistant director of Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. “In its spareness, in the way he treated color and created patterns, his style was very much of this time,” she says.
Pat Cloar agrees with Northrop that her husband was confident and not surprised by his success. “He once told me, ‘I may not live long enough to see it happen, but my work is probably going to be as famous as anybody’s will be or ever has been.’ He didn’t say it with braggadocio,” she adds, “he just knew it was fine.”
“This man has to be intriguing.”
Pat met Carroll Cloar in January 1973 at Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, where she had come, from her home in Forrest City, to attend a faculty art show. “I had seen some of Carroll’s works and read some of his stories in the old Delta Review,” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘This man has to be intriguing.’” The introduction was made through a mutual friend, retired Memphis State art professor Frank Govan — and a whirlwind romance began.
“I knew within a matter of weeks that I wanted to marry Carroll and spend the rest of my life with him,” says Pat. “We were married that April by Judge Bailey Brown, right here in this living room.” Though Cloar was 20 years her senior, she says the age difference never mattered, “except toward the end when he got so frail,” she recalls. “But even up until the day he died he could make me laugh. He had the best mind and the sharpest wit of anybody I’d ever met. And that was a very real turn-on for me.” (The marriage was the second for Pat, but the third for Cloar, who had one brief union in the early 1940s and another a decade later.)
Pat beams as she recalls the good times with her husband, especially trips to New York: “He’d plan it all and I’d just have a wonderful time.” They’d stay at the Algonquin Hotel, go to parties and plays, visit art museums, and eat at fine restaurants. Sometimes Cloar would shop for clothes. “He liked them wild,” says Pat, “and he really loved ties. He’d buy $100 ties, maybe two or three at a time. But he always wound up wearing the old ones.”
She also recalls happy times at home around the pool and tells of a birthday party surprise that Cloar planned for a friend named Janie White. “There was this story going ’round that Andy Warhol was in town,” says Pat. “So Carroll put together this exhibition of Campbell soup cans in a pile of dirt. And he had [local actor] Bennett Wood dress up in a white suit and white wig, just like Warhol, and sit in the corner of the yard, not speaking to anybody. “Janie was having a good time opening her gifts,” says Pat, “one of which was a book about Warhol. She said, ‘Oh, Mr. Warhol, won’t you autograph my book?’” And the man in the white wig came forward and solemnly signed, Bennett Wood. “Carroll was behind all that,” says Pat, “and he had the best time watching it all.”
But, as in most marriages, there were difficult moments and angry scenes over matters both large and small. “We’d go to bed mad sometimes over the TV remote control,” Pat says. And one time, when she was 10 minutes late meeting him after a shopping trip, “he was so mad,” laughs Pat, “that he jumped up and down.”
They also had bitter fights over where they’d spend Christmas. “We’d go before or after [the holiday] to see my family,” says Pat, “but we always spent Christmas Day in Earle. Carroll would never yield on that issue. Never.”
While Pat learned to live with — and even laugh at — Cloar’s stubbornness, one facet of his personality still gives her pain. Despite his avowal to friends of how much she meant to him, he never spoke of love to her, and when trying to recall sweet times in their marriage — tender moments to hold close on a lonely night — Pat says, after considerable thought, “There weren’t any. There really weren’t. It’s a real revelation to me to realize this, but that’s the honest truth. I was the giver and he was the taker and he never showed a truly tender side.”
But for all his hot rages and cold silences and the armor of indifference he could wrap around himself, Pat loved Carroll Cloar and accepted the fact that “with art as his mistress, he gave me all he could.”
Shortly before his death, however, Pat came across a note Cloar had written that helped assuage, if not eliminate, her doubts about his love. “It was in a notebook,” she says. “He never actually gave the note to me and I never mentioned finding it.” Cloar had written:
Dear Miss Patty, I have known for a long time that my days were numbered. Now that the agony has exceeded the ecstasy, I think that it is time for me to go.
Thanks for all you have done for me.
I love you.
Carroll Cloar, American, 1913-1993
SUNDAY AT THE MARSHES, 1961
Casein tempera on Masonite
Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, Memphis, TN;
Bequest of Alice McKee Armstrong 93.5.2
“We had no idea what was going to happen . . ."
While Cloar himself was mercurial, his career and reputation never suffered drastic swings. He received critical acclaim that few living artists enjoy and, far from starving or even struggling, he lived quite well on the sale of his paintings.
In 1991, two years before his death, two local galleries presented Cloar exhibitions that demonstrated the status he’d achieved. Memphis State University Gallery held a retrospective of his work that allowed the artist to categorize his pieces and see some pattern to their progression.
Meanwhile, at Kurts Bingham Gallery in East Memphis, Alice Bingham and Lisa Kurts were lining up an exhibit that turned out, they say, to be the single most successful show they’d had in either Memphis or New York. “We had no idea what was going to happen,” recalls Kurts, “no idea of the momentum, the aggressiveness of the community toward Cloar’s paintings.” The exhibition opened on a Sunday afternoon and by three o’clock that morning, people were lined up outside. “When we finally opened, this place was like the stock market,” says Kurts. “People were screaming what they wanted and threatening to sue if they didn’t get it. It was extraordinary, something you seldom see in the art world unless you’re dealing with Monets or others who are considered modern masters.”
And despite the frenzy, the usually retiring Cloar enjoyed himself, seeing old friends and old paintings. Says Bingham, “He got real affirmation from that exhibit.”
Part of the affirmation came from the fact that people were willing to pay more for his works than ever before — starting at $6,000 and going as high as $30,000. “He had been selling them for $3,000 to $5,000,” says Bingham, but we felt that was too low for someone who was in every major museum in the country.”
Bingham represented Cloar, through Schmidt-Bingham Gallery in New York, for about five years on a handshake basis. “We’d sell his paintings for a commission, but he continued to sell them too,” she says. “Galleries don’t usually allow that, but he’d done it all his life, letting people come to his home and see his works.”
A year before he died, his openness to the public resulted in an episode that would add insult to illness during the artist’s last days. And while Cloar himself seemed more disheartened than outraged by the experience, it still makes Pat Cloar seethe.
One Sunday afternoon, a man came to the house to buy a painting and brought his wife and young son with him. “I won’t say who they were,” she adds, “but he was a doctor and it would be very surprising to the whole city to know what kind of person would do this.” The family stayed a while, gushing over the paintings, and at one point the little boy gestured to one and said, “Oh, Daddy, I love this one. But I don’t want it if it means Mother can’t have one.” The couple conferred privately in a corner, recalls Pat, and then came back and said they wanted not one but three paintings.
“Carroll’s mouth dropped,” Pat says. “He seldom sold more than one at a time because he had a waiting list and he wanted as many people as possible to enjoy his works.” She recalls how they congratulated themselves on placing the paintings in a home where they’d be loved, when she learned through an art dealer that the doctor — who paid $8,500 apiece for the paintings — had left the house and immediately sold them to a buyer who shelled out twice the price for each of them.
“It embarrassed Carroll,” says Pat, “and it hurt his feelings. He felt he’d been duped. But it made me furious.” She says she called the doctor, saying, “You never wanted those painting for your family in the first place,” and his response was, “No ma’am, I didn’t.”
Members of the local art community were appalled at the Cloars’ experience, calling the buyer’s misrepresentation unethical, immoral, and “ferociously ill-timed.” Says Lisa Kurts, “It’s one thing if you’ve had a painting awhile and you feel the need to convert it to cash. But for someone to come in, knowing there’s a waiting list a mile long, saying, ‘I want this, this, and this for my home,’ and then go sell it for twice the price, that’s a real violation of trust. There are people out there who would kill for their first Cloar painting.”
But Kurts and others say it’s neither uncommon nor illegal to speculate in works by a famous artist who’s nearing death, even if such speculation doesn’t benefit the artist. While some foreign countries have laws requiring that the artist receive commissions on any works sold, these laws are hard to enforce. “Making a law like that stick would be impossible,” says Kurts, who points out that other professionals don’t benefit from resale of their works. “Architects design houses,” she says, “but they don’t get commissions every time those houses sell.”
Many artists and dealers agree that it’s best for artists to sell through a gallery, either on consignment, whereby the gallery owner gets a small percentage of the sale, or through an agent on a contractual basis. While an agent can’t prevent the unethical behavior of individuals who buy paintings, “we can develop an artist’s career, perpetuate his reputation, and increase the value of his work.”
And that’s what Bingham Kurts accomplished during the 1991 Cloar exhibition. “We put a lot of money into it,” says Kurts, “and we could have lost a bundle. But we feel that when an artist reaches the end of his life, we ought to price his works as high as the market will bear. We tapped out the market, and now everything Carroll did is in demand.”
But despite the soaring value of Cloar’s paintings, Kurts and others advise against buying anyone’s art strictly as a liquid investment. “Art is an average investment and there’s always a risk, and anyone who says otherwise is crazy. Art is something people should buy because they love it.”
“They are the last of the old America that isn’t long for this Earth.”
Carroll Cloar wanted people to love his paintings, but more than that he simply loved to paint. And he went about it with a vision and a routine from which he seldom wavered. He was confident of his work, and of his place in history. “His work is timeless and universal,” says Bingham. “I firmly believe he will go down as one of our great Southern artists, one of our great American artists.” And Lowery Sims, an associate curator at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, adds, “As a regionalist folk art painter, Cloar ranks with Andrew Wyeth and Grant Wood.”
Like many great artists, Cloar was a private man — so private that even his loved ones, as Pat herself learned, couldn’t penetrate the barriers he’d erect. “I never felt close to him,” says Bingham. “I’d ring the doorbell and he’d greet me with outstretched arms and he could totally absorb me with his charm. But he always had his guard up, a wall to protect his vulnerability.”
Yet while friends recall him as a social paradox — jovial at one gathering, silent at another; skilled at storytelling but awkward at small talk; throughly engaging yet essentially a loner — they also recall him as a kind person who welcomed strangers into his studio with no hint of snobbery, who once responded to a fund-raising request for the Memphis College of Art by pulling out his checkbook and saying, “How much?”
He also appreciated others’ talents. Patty Bladon of the Brooks Museum remembers seeing Cloar at a reception for another well-known and successful Memphis artist, Burton Callicott. “Carroll wasn’t well,” says Bladon, “but he was there in the crush of people to say to his colleague and friend, ‘I salute you.’”
Bladon’s favorite memory of Cloar is seeing him at Brooks, which hosted many Cloar exhibitions over the years and which has devoted a room to his paintings. “He’d come to the museum a lot in his later years,” says Bladon, “and he’d stand and study his early works. Watching him do that was like seeing an elder statesman reacquaint himself with other family members. It’s a memory I’ll hold close to my heart.”
But most of all, perhaps, Cloar will be cherished for preserving memories of a way of life that becomes more remote with each passing day. As far back as 1955, he mourned the changes in his native Earle — the asphalt replacing gravel roads, the machines replacing animals — and for an exhibition catalog he wrote these poignant words:
“If you will go northward in Arkansas, you will see people who might have stepped out of my mother’s album; early American faces, timeless dress and timeless customs. But they are changing too. They are the last of the Old America that isn’t long for this Earth.”
After Cloar’s death, friends helped Pat organize a memorial service, which some 300 people attended. Tears flowed freely, but laughter rang out too, and later came a trip to Earle, where the artist’s ashes were scattered over a pasture he once loved — all that remains of his old homeplace.
Today his widow sits surrounded by prints of his works, including Faculty and Honor Students, Lewis School; the original on loan from Pat to Vice President Al Gore. Chosen as the 1993 Arts in the Park festival poster and an inaugural poster, this piece shows a teacher and a group of boys seated beneath an American flag that’s held aloft, and backwards, by two smiling girls. “Carroll was delighted when that painting was chosen as a poster. And he’s in it,” she says, pointing to a small boy wearing an oversized hat.
All other originals Pat owns are in storage: “For safety reasons,” she says. “But they won’t be there forever. I want them to be seen.” The same goes for his memoirs, stories spanning decades, documents that the National Archives has shown interest in acquiring. “But I don’t want them in some dusty basement,” says Pat. “I want them where they can be studied and appreciated. After all, they belong here, to us, to all of us who loved Carroll Cloar, to everyone who loved his work.”
Background information for this article came in part from the book Hostile Butterflies and Other Paintings published by Memphis State University Press, with an introduction by Guy Northrop. Several quotes from Cloar were derived from this source.