Editor's note: The following essay was reprinted in Resource Library on September 7, 2006 with the permission of the Hickory Museum of Art and the author. If you have questions or comments regarding the essay, or wish to obtain a copy of the catalogue from which it is excerpted, please contact the Hickory Museum of Art directly through either this phone number or web address:
William Thomas Blackburn: An Artist Comes Home
William Thomas Blackburn, called Billy by Hickory natives, was known in his hometown as an artist. He also studied at important art schools in the United States and abroad. He made a good living as a designer. Based on the research of guest curator Barry Huffman, it seems, however, that during his lifetime Blackburn's work was not given much attention by museums.
The Hickory Museum of Art is proud to bring Blackburn's art to an audience that has recently become national, even before the opening of this exhibition. Published in American Art Review's April 2006 issue, Huffman's article entitled William Thomas Blackburn: An Artist Comes Home has circulated around the country, reaching over 55,000 subscribers -- members of the American art public, including representatives of Museums, independent scholars, as well as private collectors.
We thank Barry Huffman, who told us about this seemingly forgotten native son, and who also agreed to accept the challenge to serve as guest curator for this important project. Thanks, also, to exhibition sponsor Clem Geitner, whose father was a boyhood friend of the artist, and to The Gardner Group for funding our exhibition opening.
While looking through newspaper records, Huffman found a 1944 interview with Blackburn who had returned for a short visit to Hickory. The artist was enthusiastic about the Hickory Museum of Art, which opened to the public the following month. Thank you Billy Blackburn for this enthusiasm and for a life spent striving to make important personal statements through your art.
William Thomas Blackburn: An Artist Comes Home
by Barry G. Huffman
The story of Billy Blackburn is the story of a man, who as a young boy, dared to dream of a life as an artist who could create images that would impact the world he knew. He was able to achieve the first-rate education, the training, the travel and the contacts that very few young men from the rural South could hope to have.
Blackburn returned home from Europe to tell stories of sitting in French cafes with men who would become recognized world wide for their talents, and, years later, of movie stars and entertainers he met in Los Angeles. He found his creative voice in the early 1940s when he followed the Regionalists, producing narrative paintings about life around him, from a care-free childhood with many friends, to the dignity of black people who lived in difficult times on the edge of his home town, to smoky saloons, to black people fighting for recognition and standing in the theatrical world of New York. The paintings that survive from this era aptly underscore his passion for art, his considerable talent and skills and his personal connection to his subjects.
It is never easy to survive as a working artist. Blackburn found creative employment designing windows and displays for one of the country's great department stores. Art movements passed him by. He retired to his home town in North Carolina to produce a body of work that, although very skillful, lacked the vibrancy of his early work. In the 30 years he lived in California, he became lost to his home community. After his death, some of his paintings surfaced, and his talent was apparent. This exhibition is the story of Billy Blackburn's life and his work.
William Thomas Blackburn, known as "Billy", was born in Catawba County, North Carolina, on October 3, 1908. He was the oldest child and only son of Dr. Thomas C. and Gertrude Farrar Blackburn. Dr. Blackburn was born in Boone, North Carolina, in 1869. After completing Watauga County schools, he attended a private academy, then entered the Baltimore Medical School, from which he was graduated in 1896. Dr. Blackburn did post graduate work at the Maryland General Hospital and at New York Polyclinic. Returning to Boone, he practiced for 7 years before joining the United States Navy as a surgeon. Stationed in St. Louis, Missouri, he met and married Gertrude Farrar, daughter of a doctor, in 1906. The couple moved to Hickory in 1907. Dr. Blackburn practiced general medicine and became active in the community, in the Kiwanis Club, the Methodist church and in several medical associations. Their daughter, Margaret, was born in 1910.
Billy grew up in a house his father had built on the current Fourth Street, North West, across the street from Oakwood School. The paved road in front of the house ended at the school during his youth. The road became gravel, leading to farms down the hill; farms that supplied the town people with fresh eggs, butter and milk. To the east side of the school was Cripple Creek, snaking its way to the nearby Catawba River. Billy's good friend, Walker Geitner, told his son, Clem, that he and Billy learned to swim in Cripple Creek, the beginning of Bill's life-long relationship with Hickory's waterways: the creek, the river and, finally, the river dammed, Lake Hickory.
In 1926 Billy, Walker and their home town friends were graduated from Hickory High School. The school yearbook, the Hickory Log, for his senior year recorded him as active in the "Hi-Y" Club and in the Dramatic Club.
He was voted the "Most Attractive Boy". In a section called "Senior Statistics", Bill Blackburn was said to be:
After high school, Billy entered the most prestigious art school on the east coast, the Pennsylvania Academy of Arts, located in Philadelphia. He spent three years there as a student.
Founded in 1805, the PAFA is the oldest academy and museum in the United States. It hosted annual juried exhibitions from 1805 through 1969, opening its doors to present to the public of Philadelphia the finest art and sculpture created in the country. The Academy held a position of excellence, educating some of the finest artists in America. Truly, the list of artists who either were educated there or who were exhibited in the galleries includes the best of the best. Bill Blackburn journeyed from his home in the rural South to enter the heady atmosphere of fine art, melding into the flow of emerging artists and great masters.
The year following his studies in Philadelphia, he attended the Grand Central School of Art in New York City. Billy paid for his classes there by painting side show posters at Coney Island.
Blackburn returned to Hickory to try to support himself as an artist. He completed a few portraits. The early works are academic, reflecting his education. A small number of these paintings survive today; one or two possibly from his student days, when he ventured into the Pennsylvania countryside to paint country farm scenes, one he titled "Manayunk," the name of a near-by town.
The economic hardships of the Depression denied Blackburn a steady source of income. The next few years found him journeying to Paris to enroll at the Academie Julian like so many American artists before and after him. Then he was on to Florence's National Academy to fulfill an eight month scholarship awarded by the Italian dictator Mussolini.
Always returning to Hickory, the town was his home base, and the adventures of a native artist frequently made the pages of the local newspaper. When Frank Buck's jungle moving picture "Bring 'Em Back Alive", released in 1932, arrived in Hickory, Billy caused much comment when he painted "a wild jungle scene, showing one of the highlights of the picture -- a fight between a large Bengal tiger and a python snake in the wilds of Africa. The scene is amazingly realistic and drew a good size crowd around it this morning, when it was transferred from Blackburn's art studio to the theatre."
Blackburn maintained a studio above a store downtown, sometimes inviting the public to see his latest work. One such event after he returned from Europe was hosted by his sister Margaret, who shared punch pouring duties with Mrs. A.B. Mosbach, Mrs. Henry Meador and Miss Dorothy Yeager. Portraits of his sister, Erskine Dysart and Cecil Stewart were listed as part of the exhibit. His close friends included John Yeager, Jr., Jimmy Aderholdt, Alan Bisaner, Walker Geitner and James Hart.
In the 1930-31 Hickory City Directory Blackburn was listed as a student. In 1935 he was describe as an artist, as he was in 1937-38 and 1941-42. He placed an advertisement in the 1935 City Directory for the French Cottage, "Hickory's Own Night Club" for dining and dancing and private parties. It was said that he convinced his father to take payment of some debts in lumber so Bill could build the Cottage, designed with a European flavor. Local accounts suggest that during this period of alcohol prohibition, Billy, owner and manager of the French Cottage, provided local brew and a fan dancer, and he actually claimed to have designed the dancer's costumes himself. Business was probably good, but indignant clergy complained until the police closed his doors. His sister and brother-in-law, with help from E.M. (Bus) Fennell, later turned the building into a popular furniture store.
Blackburn left the area for several long periods, including returning to Philadelphia to live at least twice. Letters home and news articles indicate that he traveled to San Diego and Chicago to work on fair murals, to Dallas to work on the Texas Centennial Fair in 1936, possibly for the WPA. While in Texas, he painted in the ranch sections of the state, and in the Indian sections of Oklahoma. He was living in Philadelphia in 1937 when his father died and again in 1941 and 42 when he entered paintings in an exhibition in Chapel Hill, NC, and in the 136th annual exhibition at the PAFA. He had two paintings in a Carnegie exhibition in Pittsburgh, and he painted a school mural in Philadelphia. In 1939 he spent most of a year painting in Acapulco, Mexico.
In the mid-1940's Blackburn moved to California to work at United Artists Studios' art department, building and painting backgrounds for movies, including animated features. In October, 1945, he joined the art department of Bullock's Wilshire department store, quickly advancing to chief designer for windows and displays. Photographs of many of his window designs show almost surreal constructions of mannequins floating in the air and among seaweed. His art background is evident in the whimsical, dramatic and eye-catching displays of the latest fine fashions. Bullock's Wilshire was well known as the emporium of movie stars and moguls. Blackburn left Bullock's in 1956 to pursue a desert land development project. In 1958 he was offered the opportunity to return to Bullock's to head the art and design department at a new store opening in Santa Ana. He remained there until he retired in October, 1971. After a brief sojourn in San Juan Capistrano, where he painted a few mission pictures, he made his last move, returning to Hickory.
Billy Blackburn remained close to his family and friends in North Carolina. His nephew, Tom, remembers his driving across the country nearly every summer in a convertible to stay a couple of weeks with his sister Margaret Walton and her family. Her home was situated on Lake Hickory on the Alexander County side of what was the Catawba River. He always arrived with fresh stories about movie stars he knew through his job and his friendships.
In October, 1976, Blackburn purchased a condominium at Westminster Park on NC Highway 127 where he lived until the last two years of his life. Developing Alzheimer's disease, he moved into Margaret's home on Lake Hickory in 1991 until he required nursing home care just before his death on August 23, 1993. Ironically, that was the same year that Bullock's Wilshire closed its doors.
Recognition of Bill Blackburn's paintings, the start of the search for his work and the story of his life hinged on one local artist, Joe LaFone, who found a still-life painting in an antique shop in a near-by town. At an estate sale after his death, Billy's family sold some paintings. Joe made the rounds of shops and talked to antique dealers until he located the owners of most of the paintings. Joe knew of Blackburn and his fine education. After contacting Billy's nephew Tom Walton, Tom found 200 Lake Hickory paintings and a few others stacked one upon another in an unheated shed.
William Blackburn received the finest art education to be had in the late 1920s and 1930s. The Pennsylvania Academy of Art in Philadelphia, Grand Central School of Art in New York City, the Acadamie Julian in Paris and the National Academy in Florence introduced him to excellent instruction and to the artistic developments of the times. Surely, in Philadelphia he sought out classes taught by fellow North Carolinian Francis Speight, who taught drawing and painting at PAFA from 1925-1961. Known for his paintings of the town of Manayunk, Speight may have inspired Blackburn's painting of a rural scene from that area, as well as a watercolor of a farm.
After he returned from Europe, Blackburn continued working in an academic style when he sought to support himself painting portraits in Hickory. Two portraits of Noble Shumate remain in the Shumate family. One is a very direct depiction of a boy with minimal background.
The second is far livelier with the boy of about 12 years sitting with his dog beside him. Mrs. Margaret Shumate believes the latter portrait of her husband was completed in 1934-35. An academic painting of a seated nude remains in the Walker Geitner family, and recently the Elks Club of Hickory has brought to light a voluptuous nude eating grapes, with elks fighting in the background.
Bill Blackburn's greatest recognition as an artist came in the early 1940s. Moved by the work of Thomas Hart Benton, who exhibited at the PAFA in 1930, 1931, 1934 and nearly every year through 1945, Blackburn found a style, a palette, a source and social direction that fit him perfectly.
Coming of age as an artist in the 1930s must have been both heady and difficult. European artists had led the way into abstraction. The controversial Armory Exhibit of 1913 had introduced abstraction to the American public and to great ridicule. The seed of abstract expression slowly germinated and became accepted by artists, if not the public.
In the crosscurrents of American art were artists who believed in a true American art that interpreted the daily lives of the people who made the country strong, from field workers to housewives to defenders of justice. These artists, led by Thomas Hart Benton, John Steuart Curry and Grant Wood had been influenced by the Group of Eight, or the Ashcan Group, who painted urban scenes and the often difficult lives of the city poor. The validity of these subjects and the quality of the paintings slowly achieved recognition. The stage was set for the Regionalists to take their art across the country, to define the essence of real American diversity in culture and art. The country, as well, was ready for the positive messages of the Regionalists as the Depression years receded.
The American Scene Movement in art of the 1930s and 1940s was dominated by the Regionalists, who tended to portray the strengths of the country, and the Social Realists, who tended to portray problem social issues. Sometimes the two over-lapped subjects. The Social Realists viewed the country's problems as fixable, and considered calling attention to problems part of their duty as citizen-artists.
Bill Blackburn produced his finest work in the 5 to 7 years before he went to work for Bullock's in California. He painted in a style that was obviously related to Thomas Benton and the Regionalists; also, in some cases, it expressed the naiveté of the Frenchman Henri Rousseau. He produced narrative pictures related to an idealized rural childhood. He painted pictures of black Americans drawn from people he knew from Hickory combined with musical and theatrical black people from his travels. Also, he painted the pain, fatigue and despair Blacks were suffering in the South and elsewhere.
In a 1944 interview with the local Hickory newspaper on the announcement of the organization of the Hickory Museum of Art, Blackburn was excited about the opportunities the Museum would offer the community, especially the children. At home recovering from a case of flu, he went into some detail explaining how he had become interested in painting Negroes three years before, and the success he was having with his work. The article continued:
He has had paintings exhibited principally in Philadelphia, where he makes his home, in Washington at the Corcoran Gallery, and at the New York World's Fair. He always sends his things back to North Carolina, however, and has had many on display at the Mint Museum in Charlotte.
Billy Blackburn does not make his living from his bright, action-filled canvasses; for the past year-and-a-half he has been doing window displays for Philadelphia stores, and he says the work there is much the same as painting. 'You approach it the same way,' he said. 'It's a matter of color and composition and design.'
Blackburn stated that the portraits in his paintings were not modeled on individuals, but rather were compiled of features from several people. The exception was the painting of singer Bobby Short. However, the black men in several paintings seems to bear a resemblance to the actor Paul Robeson, appearing as he looked in the early 1930s in the movie "Emperor Jones". In Billy's personal affects was a playbill from a performance by Josephine Baker in Paris in 1930. Does the painting of the cotton picker reflect her image in part? From his high school interest in the drama club to his comments about "Carmen Jones", he maintained a high interest in the entertainment world.
Inherent dignity is present in Blackburn's figures at a time when Negroes were frequently portrayed as caricatures in popular culture. Blackburn is making a social statement about human value, and preparing the way, as many other white artists did, for integration coming in the 1960s.
Two of the paintings portray the great pain and despair of Blacks in the 1940s. The stunning picture of the man passed out on a harlequin blanket conveys the desperation of the times: it needs no title to explain it.The blanket and mask refer to a sixteenth century Italian play that features a character who is a poor servant, a buffoon without education, speaking a dialect no one understands. Harlequin is not a villain; he just tries to survive. He finds solace only from the wine he drinks. The rolling hills in the background echo the landscape of Hickory in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
The elderly woman working in the cotton field has a title written on the back. "Dixie Guillotine" must surely refer to the extreme harshness of her life. Hard labor, even for a woman of her age, was often the single means of survival. Picking cotton, with its stress to the back, pain to the hands from the sharp cotton bolls, and the intense summer heat was especially difficult. There is no respite for her.
Thomas Hart Benton's image of Aaron, a portrait of a dignified black man, was a painting of outstanding merit at the 1943 Pennsylvania Academy exhibition, winning a coveted award. It is likely that Blackburn saw it since he was in Philadelphia around that time. Benton painted Blacks in the early 1920s, painting them as they lived in that era. The paintings were welcomed at first, but as time went by, he was increasingly criticized for some images that leaned to caricature. Benton soundly denied racial bias, but the country was becoming engaged in an increasingly complex and painful dialog about race. By 1973, Benton understood that his paintings were controversial and, in some cases, social pariahs. William Blackburn apparently stopped painting black people in the mid-1940s when he started work in California. His paintings were closeted away for 50 years. Even after his death, these paintings raised questions not easily answered.
The setting for the painting of a club scene is unknown: the military uniforms appear diverse, and the crowded room and darken atmosphere add tension.The blond entertainer suspends time for the people in the club and for the viewers of the painting. The Dancers lift spirits to the sound of old-time music; three boys feast on a cool melon, unbothered by guilt. The paintings pull the viewer closer, or push him away, creating sources of energy from recognition of places or emotions.
Little is known about Blackburn's painting during the years he worked for Bullock's in California. It is impossible to think that he did not paint, but his work during this long period of his life is a mystery. Perhaps his job at Bullocks satisfied his need to create. Billy kept nearly 250 black and white photographs of his window displays. He used props and patterns to set a small stage for mannequins in often exaggerated poses. If he had given up painting during this period of his life, he replaced it with surrealism and conceptual art in the department store's windows. His thirty years of employment at Bullock's validates the energy and artistic merit of his work there.
At least three landscape paintings of a huge bank of red clay, probably a favored near-by swimming hole, survived in the family, as well as a couple of mission paintings, probably painted in the mid-1970s when he was in San Juan Capistrano. The style of these paintings is realism, landscapes without people. The vibrant, pulsating paintings of rural Southern people, black and white, were finished.
In returning to his home town in retirement, Billy Blackburn seems to have been pulled by his childhood memories and friends. The town must have seemed quiet after the excitement of Hollywood, famous people and stylish settings. Indeed, he seems to have been pulled home to the river, to Cripple Creek where he learned to swim, to the Little River dam where he and Walker Geitner went swimming with their friends, and to the home of his sister on the lake created when the river was dammed in 1927. In the last years of his life, he painted more than 200 pictures, most of Lake Hickory, most on canvas board.
The lake paintings exclude the development that had occurred during his absence. The paintings portray quietness and aloneness, as if his world had come to focus only on the lake views before him and his paints. Only one is peopled with a black couple fishing from a boat. He told his nephew Tom that he no longer had the skills to paint people.
These quiet paintings resonate from within by virtue of his skills with paint and his mastery of brush strokes. In his paintings of the 1930s and 40s, his brush stokes were regressive and nearly flat, so that the image emerged smoothly from the canvas. In the lake paintings, he frequently used the brush dramatically in short strokes to create a dynamic atmosphere. Thunderheads roll in from the west; sun rays cut in from the east; the water reacts to the weather above. Blackburn expertly captured the weather and the sky. As a viewer moves his position to study the painting, the sky changes in front of his eyes. Clouds seem to darken and move closer to the lake, as if rain has just started to fall. The painting appears to change as light moves across it. Most of the lake paintings are sunny. However, the single pine on a stormy day, may eloquently speak of human emotion: personal thoughts he sought to subdue with these last paintings.
Blackburn continued to paint and to enter local art shows. He surely must have been disheartened by the lack of interest his paintings elicited. Even in a small town in the 1980s, the public was more accepting of at least some abstraction.
Billy Blackburn was one of many artists who were working in a time of great change. Realism, the art that nurtured and nourished them in their youth, was on the wane as the art world moved steadily toward abstract expressionism. What to do? Thomas Hart Benton held staunchly to the style he mastered. Others left realism behind to produce art that had no hold on their hearts.
Coming home, Blackburn turned to his beloved river to quietly paint away his past with all its bright-hued vitality. Surely, it was a well-lived life. He left dozens of paintings to say that even great skill can not hold off change. Thankfully, he left enough to tell his story of art and artists and of coming home to the place he loved.
This exhibition is a survey of the life's work of the artist William Blackburn. The overwhelming strength of his best paintings is his reflection of the South. Other painters depicted Southern scenes, but none captured the essence of the South, from intense pain to pure pleasure, from the heat on the body to the cool of its creeks, from souls locked in its landscapes to Southerners, black or white, who escaped, but could not lose their homeland. William Blackburn is the Regionalist of the South.
Selected paintings from the exhibition:
(above: William Thomas Blackburn, Dixie Guillotine, oil on canvas, ca. 1940s)
(above: William Thomas Blackburn, Foothills Family, oil on canvas, ca. 1940s)
(above: William Thomas Blackburn, Man with Seaweed, oil on canvas, 1943)
(above: William Thomas Blackburn, Dancers, oil on canvas, ca. 1940s)
(above: William Thomas Blackburn, Boy with a Hoe, oil on canvas, ca. 1940s)
About the author:
Barry Huffman is Guest Curator for the exhibition William Thomas Blackburn: An Artist Comes Home, held at the Hickory Museum of Art May 6 through August 27, 2006.
Resource Library editor's note:
Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Claudia Teague, Community Relations Manager at the Hickory Museum of Art, for her introduction of the author to this publication and her help concerning permissions for reprinting the above text.
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