Southern Discomfort

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

Elvis is out of the question. He's too obvious, too overdone. But Southern icons like Huey Long and Lester Maddox are also problematic; people might know their names, but their faces are unfamiliar. And despite what he paints, he's still struggling from work to work about what the message is.

Somerville, like most artists who exhibit their work, has written a statement explaining what his paintings mean. An excerpt: "My work deals with my experience of being raised a white liberal-minded male in the South. I have been using historical icons and events to comment on the history of America and the South as it relates to issues of race and my understanding of myself. ... As a whole my work raises the question: What does it mean for a white man from the South now living in California to explore race issues from the privileged and outside perspective of being a white person? Who has the right to render or write about black history? ... I'm attempting to divulge the complex portrait of the Southerner through examining the icons and figures that, while at times conflicting, represent the scope of what I find ultimately defining."

The subject of white guilt comes up. Somerville thinks for a moment. "White Southerners have a lot of guilt that I think a lot of people don't really have," he says. "You want to say, "I'm not a racist -- I'm OK.' You want to justify, explain that you're not the good ol' boy you grew up next to. And I think it's obvious when they see you, but there's this thing inside that you want to prove."

But, he argues, he had to move to San Francisco to make his point; like a lot of artists, he says, talking about the South requires moving away from it. "I love the South," he says. "I love it. And I could never live there. It's not how I was raised, even though I was raised there. It's difficult to go back." Somerville and his wife have visited Atlanta on occasion, and while Clarkesville is only an hour's drive north, he never seems able to make the trip. "We just get caught up in doing other stuff. Maybe I'm just blocking myself from going."

Last month, there was a going-away party for The Only Begotten Son, to celebrate Somerville's accomplishments before the work was shipped off to the Smithsonian for next year's touring exhibit. The event took place at the home of Dan Dodt and Linda Blacketer, a mansion in the Bayview District called the Sylvester House, which was built in the 1860s. Dodt and Blacketer own three of Somerville's paintings, and the gathering included gallery owners, artists, and collectors informally hanging out and taking in the vaulted ceilings of the beautiful Victorian home. Dan Dodt had been an avid fan of Somerville's work for years, even before he began working with Southern themes. "One thing I think Travis is not doing is assuaging any sort of white guilt," he says. "Most of his subjects are tragedies in some way. They speak to a need to remember and recall the old and current racial strife."

At some point during the party, somebody got up to make a point. Somerville doesn't remember precisely what was said, or who said it, but it went something like this:

It's funny, isn't it. Here we are, a bunch of white folks hanging out in a white-owned mansion in the heart of San Francisco's black neighborhood talking about a white artist who paints blacks.

"We were talking about segregation," Somerville recalls. "How the work is still segregated because it isn't reaching the lower-income black community -- and if that's the focus or not, and how it's still in this upper echelon of intellectual people."

And does it matter that his work is mainly viewed and owned by affluent white art collectors? "It doesn't bother me," he says. "If you get right down to it, that's what pays the bills."

Dan Dodt's twin nephews came to visit the Sylvester House about three years ago. They were 10 years old at the time, and Dodt thought it might be a good time to talk with them about The Only Begotten Son. Not that anybody could avoid it -- 8 feet tall by 8 feet wide, it's hard to miss. The man in the image was obvious: Even a kid knows who Martin Luther King is. That big red splotch next to him? Blood; they killed Dr. King. The rose pasted in the corner? Burial.

Dodt pointed to the Nike swoosh at the top of the painting. What's that all about?

"Oh, that's the Nike symbol," one of his nephews said. "That means he was somebody famous."

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