Writer Leara Rhodes reflects on the stories that dress the walls of her Athens home
— There were no art galleries in Griffin, Georgia, where I grew up. Plus, we had no pictures on the walls of our house. We lived next to the church where my father preached and could not hang anything on the walls without permission of the Women’s Missionary Union. We never asked and so I lived in houses with no art. I had no clue what art was. I did take a humanities course in high school where I saw slides of major art from around the world; but, it would be when I was 21 that seeing original art forever changed the way I chose to live in my home.
I went to the High Museum in Atlanta. (I found out years later that it was not called the “high” meaning “elite” to me, but for the High family who donated a house on Peachtree to house the art collection—that is how little I knew.) The museum had borrowed an original Renoir, “The Boating Party;” I had only seen it in slides. Lines snaked through the museum area guided by dark burgundy velvet ropes and museum docents, who kept an eye on everyone coming through. When I got close, I saw a painting I had never seen before. The colors and detail were quite different from the slides I had seen in that dingy high school classroom. This painting, the original, had color that jumped off the canvas into my eyes and I cried.
The museum staff moved the people along. I was not finished looking at the painting so I got back in line. I did this 22 times before the day was over and I cried every time I looked at it. The painting was magnificent. I wanted to embrace all of it. I also totally got it as to why people would want to own art, good art, original art.
Original art, good art, is expensive. I cannot afford a Renoir but managed to collect cheap prints, framed them, and decorated my walls. I hauled them from house to house and lovingly hung them even before the furniture was fully in place. As my income increased, I began to purchase small pieces from artists I met who were talented but not yet nationally known. And two very special pieces were gifts, one from Tom Feelings and the other from Nora Rodríguez Vallés.
Tom’s piece, nicknamed “The Little Girl in Columbia,” came to us when he attended a party at my house. We were living on a street with a fountain in Columbia, South Carolina, and my daughter, playing outside, came running into the house. “Mom,” she was so excited. “Tom Feelings is walking down our street!” She had seen his picture as the illustrator of one of her books. He was teaching art at the University of South Carolina and working on his most successful book, The Middle Passage: White Ships/Black Cargo. We became friends and “The Little Girl in Columbia” came to live at our house.
Nora, on the other hand, is the wife of a journalist in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We met when I attended a conference and she was hanging out in the lobby waiting for her husband. We talked and that conversation has lasted two decades. Her collection hangs in the Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico, but the one titled, “Cherokee Wheat,” came home with me for my dining room.
Those art pieces living in my house multiplied. I was running out of wall space. So, I got an idea to transform two areas of my house using art. The first was for art to be the backsplash above the kitchen sink. A friend, who I knew was an artist though she thought not, created a vista above my sink. I asked Stacia Knowles to paint something colorful and “not square” while I was traveling out of the country. I returned home late at night. I turned on the kitchen light and saw the art for the first time. Stunned, I stood with purse and coat still on and cried. She had painted Haitian hummingbirds (Hispaniolan Emerald and Vervain hummingbirds) because she knew of my long years of working in Haiti, and red and gold hibiscus flowers, Haiti’s national flower. I love the fact that she chose hummingbirds because they are the only birds to fly backwards, that’s not square, and the flowers and verdant vines tumble under the cabinet, also not square.
Later, after being in Oxford, England, teaching and loving all the art and particularly the stained glass, I returned to try to find someone locally who could transform the window panels on either side of my front door into works of art. I did not want a church-like image of stained glass, so when I found Christie Moody, a fusion glass artist, she was able to create art that told a story.
Her work, “Bali Dream,” tells the story of Christie’s experiences in Bali. The work has eight panels of glass held together by white oak strips crafted by wood artist Peter Bull. On the left panel, the scenes show a fisherman out early with stars still in the sky, the Frangipani flowers taken by the women to the temple in the morning, a sea turtle, fish, and coral at the bottom all in deep ocean blues and natural greens. The other panel is dominated by a beautiful mask of a woman’s face that I see as the “mother nature of the sea.” The water is dark. Christie said it had sheen of oil, so she placed a large black tear dropping from the woman’s eye, sad to see the ocean polluted.
Tears may link some of the art to my memories within the house; however, each piece of art on my walls has a story. These stories fill my memory with images of the artists or the journey the art has made in order to reach my walls. I live surrounded by these stories, content to know that my home is where the art is.
– Leara Rhodes is an associate professor at UGA’s Grady College and the author of magazine articles, academic articles, and books including The Ethnic Press: Shaping the American Dream, Democracy and the Role of the Haitian Media, and Peace Through Media.
Photographed by Joshua Jones