As a writer, filmmaker and sometime photographer, I know a thing or two about words and images. I understand line and movement, rhythm, rhyme and meter. I have a pretty good handle on how to bring images to life and pair them with words to evoke a desired reaction in the viewer. I am a rank amateur compared to RSM contributor Pat Snow.
You see, I have the benefit of the moving image, of directing a viewer’s attention through camera movement and editing over the course of time. Pat somehow manages to do what I do and more in static works of art. To use the word “static” is a misnomer, though, and an insult to his work. Pat’s work is anything but lifeless. I’m no art historian, but what I see in Pat’s work is a little bit pop, a little bit folk and a heaping spoonful of the Southern storytelling tradition.
I recently caught up with Pat for the inaugural edition of our interview series, Nine Questions.
Wayne Franklin: 1. What does it mean to be an artist as a Southerner?
Pat Snow: I have been identified as a Southern artist in shows and articles. I try not to identify the work as purely Southern – that would be too limiting. I do see some themes and subject matter that keeps popping up that can be associated with being from the South.
WF: 2. What Southern traditions have you embraced in your work?
PS: The use of humor, place, narrative and stereotypes/archetypes. I use those tropes because they are familiar to me, and I can use them to communicate my ideas easily.
WF: 3. Is your work influenced by any notable Southern artists?
PS: I do look at some Southern Artists like Red Grooms – he was originally from Nashville – and the works of artists and teachers from Black Mountain College (1933–1957) in North Carolina who had a big influence on my work. The first “modern art ” show I saw was of Robert Rauschenberg (Texas native). He had a show at the Anniston Museum of Natural history in Anniston, Alabama (my home town) when I was around nine. He had all his famous pieces there including his piece Monogram, which is a stuffed ram standing on signs and screen prints and the ram has paint on its face and a tire around its body. The rest of the show was screen prints on cardboard boxes. He was using southern vernacular signage and combining it with images from the larger world. That show blew me away as a child. I don’t know if you ever been in a situation where the new or the novel idea is so strong that it makes you giddy and light headed… it happened to me on that day. That feeling of discovery and adventure has stayed with. I didn’t have to understand it, but that is what drew me to it and art in general.
WF: 4. Your work seems to be heavily rooted in some of the so-called “folk art” traditions in America. I think many people tend to think of folk artists as being poor and, typically, black. Has anyone ever seen your work only to be surprised that you’re a white guy?
PS: My work has been lumped in with outsider and Southern folk art. For the first several years that I showed my art I was often in shows with other Southern outsider artists, because I identified very strongly with the DIY aspect to their work and it blended well with my DIY/Punk ethos. I also worked with Mose T and Howard Finster and learned a lot about their studio practices that I incorporated into my own work.
Several times my work has been mistaken for a black artist, especially when I talk about race. I was in a show at the Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham Alabama. I had a piece entitled “When I was a black boy I fought the waves like Ali.” It had to do with me being a white kid and emulating my childhood hero, Muhammad Ali. I went to the awards ceremony, and I didn’t think anything of being the only white artist there. I went on to win the grand prize for the show, and I received my award from Reverend Shuttlesworth. The older black ladies in the audience were giving me some grief for being white, and Reverend Shuttlesworth gave me a look and I asked him if I could have a moment to explain the art. He said something like “you better.” I took the opportunity to explain the art and, by the end of the explanation, I had won over the skeptical members of the audience.
WF: 5. There tends to be a belief that Southerners must deal with the issue of race in their art. How have you, beyond that one piece?
PS: I think for a certain generation of Southern artists it’s still a concern. I can still remember growing up in Anniston and knowing the FBI agent that investigated the burning of the Freedom Riders bus and also knowing people that claimed to have been in the mob that burned it. I can also remember sitting at a business one night and seeing Bobby Frank Cherry having coffee, and the next day he was convicted of bombing the 16th Street Baptist Church. I saw U.S. Attorney Doug Jones at Highlands Bar and Grill having a Scotch – by himself – after he won his case prosecuting Bobby Frank Cherry. So those images have stayed with me and have given me a certain perspective on the idea of race, especially with the way the South deals with it.
In my own art, I will deal with race from time to time, and I try to use humor to point out the weirdness of the construct of race. I find people accept humor much more easily than just preaching. I have two pieces about race that seem to strike a chord with people. One is called, “The First Time I ever Touched a Black Person.” It is written from the perspective of a small child who thinks he can catch “blackness” and goes home to check his freckles to see if they are growing together. The other piece is, “I Think My Dog is A Racist.” It deals with my bird dog delivering a litter, and only one is pure bred. She dotes on the one pure bred dog and barely tolerates the other pups.
WF: 6. I’ve always been struck by the use of narrative in your art. How did that develop?
PS: I always wrote on my art, even back in kindergarten. I was always trying to tell some type of story. I think that there were two influences that really pushed text into my art. One was working with Howard Finster. He would write on everything. It was his way of preaching and reaching more people with his message. The other influence was the works of the Surrealists. They would use text with their work in a much more sophisticated way that intrigued me.
WF: 7. Do you think of yourself as a writer as well as an artist? What literary traditions have influenced the narrative aspects of your work?
PS: I really don’t think of myself as a writer. I think I am still traumatized by making several Ds in my creative writing classes in college. I think of myself as someone who tells monologues and has to write them down on something.
There are several literary traditions that I work with. Some are obvious like Southern short stories like Faulkner and that crew and the beat writers. I also like “found writing” – like notes you find and you have to imagine to whom they were written.
WF: 8. Where do you want to go with your work? How do you want to see it evolve?
PS: The way I see my work evolve is to do larger installations and branch out in to some sculptural work to go with the work on paper. I would like to make the work more open to interpretation and to be a little less first person, to have a little more mystery to the work.
WF: 9. Finally, how would you define a Real Southern Man?
PS: A Real Southern Man is a man that can identify 90% of the casseroles at a church social and will eat what ever is in that crazy jello salad , just to make the old blue hair church lady happy.