Southern Discomfort

Travis Somerville's paintings have been called provocative, brilliant - and racist

Travis Somerville moved to Clarkesville, Ga., with his family in 1968, when he was 5 years old. Today, a plaque in front of the town's courthouse explains that the Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto came to the region in 1540, searching for gold on land settled by Cherokee Indians. De Soto failed in his quest, but gold mining would begin there in earnest in the 1820s. In came the prospectors and out went the Cherokee, as their lands were annexed and they were forced west on President Andrew Jackson's Trail of Tears. The prospectors scampered off to Northern California in 1849, looking for better veins, and plantations sprang up in Habersham County. Slaves could attend services at Grace-Calvary Episcopal Church, so long as they stayed in the upstairs gallery. The end of the Civil War halted slavery, but not racism; in 1892 three black men were accused of killing a white man and summarily lynched in Clarkesville.

By 1968, Grace-Calvary's slave gallery had become the choir loft and black parishioners were gone entirely. Which is apparently the way the residents of Clarkesville liked it. That year, the Rev. Benjamin Somerville, Travis' father, was assigned to Grace-Calvary; he was 28 years old, fresh out of seminary school, and his first flock was in the heart of Southern redneck country. "My predecessor had only made one remark about Martin Luther King," the Rev. Somerville recalls, "and it was derogatory."

In that tumultuous year of 1968 -- the year King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated -- Somerville was preaching to a white and predominantly racist congregation. Folks invited him to Klan meetings. Others just pulled their kids out of the local schools when Somerville led a desegregation effort. Maryann Somerville, his wife and a teacher, could overhear the things people said in the aisle of the grocery store -- as if they wanted her to overhear them: Damn long-haired hippie preacher from Tennessee coming into town and telling them what to think. They didn't like her much either, not after she put a race discussion in her lesson plan. Taught evolution, too, and good thing they fired her for that.

Three of Somerville's paintings: Boy in the Hood, A Lost 
Vision, and Peanut Farmer.
Paolo Vescia
Three of Somerville's paintings: Boy in the Hood, A Lost Vision, and Peanut Farmer.
Collector Dan Dodt, with Somerville's The Only Begotten Son.
Paolo Vescia
Collector Dan Dodt, with Somerville's The Only Begotten Son.

Sometimes, quietly, after services, when nobody else was around, a parishioner would take Somerville aside and tell him they appreciated what he had to say.

Travis, for his part, was busy turning the family's VW van into an art project, gluing rocks and stones to its side. "When I look back on it, it was very idyllic for me growing up there," Travis recalls. "It was very ... almost Frank Capra-esque. It was a small town where everybody knew each other. But as the years went by, I started knowing more and more about what my parents were going through."

One day Georgia Gov. Lester Maddox came to town to dedicate a park. Maddox was well-known for wielding an ax to run off blacks who tried to enter his Atlanta restaurant; when King was shot and flags went to half-staff, he ordered them right back up. The Rev. Somerville wasn't aware that Maddox was attending the event; running late and arriving at the park, he saw Maddox in midspeech. "I felt sick to my stomach," he recalls. "It's an experience I will never forget -- the way I was feeling, my anger at the whole situation. I wasn't willing to stand on that stage."

Travis didn't know exactly what was going on, but he did sense it. "I just remember there being a lot of hostility and a lot of tension in the house," Travis recalls. "It wasn't that they tried to hide it from us, but I don't know if I ever really got the gravity of it."

Eventually, the Rev. Somerville decided it would be best if the family moved away from the rural South. As Somerville smirkingly recalls, nobody held a going-away party when he said he was leaving for Maryland.

The Somerville family had lasted two years in Clarkesville.

Travis Somerville has formal art training -- from the Maryland Institute College of Art and later the San Francisco Art Institute, which he dropped out of in 1984 -- though his interest in art stretches back to his youth; clichéd as it sounds, he insists he always wanted to be an artist. After Travis dropped out of the Art Institute ("I took all the studio classes but none of the other stuff," he says), his paintings became obsessed with language and iconography, juxtaposed in ways that were odd -- and occasionally banal. The Year of My Loss, which he made in 1995, features a cockroach flat on its back, captioned with the number 1973, the year when his spleen, swollen as a result of a rare blood disease, was removed. On the top he painted the word "aegrotus," Latin for "diseased person." A 1996 piece titled Tree of Knowledge is a simple, bludgeoning mixed-media: an old, large, leather-bound dictionary with a hand ax planted firmly into it.

Something shifted soon after, though -- a switch flipped. "In art school we joked that if you can't explain what your art is, you just say, "Oh, it's all about identity,'" he says. "At the time, everything was about identity. But one day I was sitting in [my studio] and thinking about it. What is my identity? I had never really thought about that. I'm a straight white guy in San Francisco, what do I have to offer, you know? So that stuff started coming up again. What did it mean to me growing up with all these experiences?"

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