Southern Discomfort

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

"Do you want to see something weird?" asks Travis Somerville, pulling a Ku Klux Klan hood off a bust of John F. Kennedy.

The bust is actually a cheap piggy bank made out of gold-colored plastic, and its rendering of Kennedy isn't very accurate; at first glance it could be a sculpture of any imperious-looking white guy. But the inscription on the base quotes Kennedy's famous inaugural appeal to "[a]sk not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Somerville turns the bust around, and here's the weird part: The coin slot is a hole in the back of Kennedy's head.

The tchotchke is just one piece of clutter in Travis Somerville's studio, a clean, large room that's bathed in afternoon light and sits at the end of a long hallway in the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard artists' complex. The room is filled with racks of rolled-up paintings, art supplies, a modest collection of rockabilly CDs, and Southern-themed books like the copy of William Faulkner's As I Lay Dying that sits on top of a Bible on a stool. Somerville is 38 years old, but his boyish face takes 10 years off his looks; dressed in blue jeans with his hair slicked back, he looks like he moonlights playing doghouse bass in a country band. His speech is easygoing and relaxed -- a Southern accent formed by a childhood spent in Tennessee and Georgia -- and he takes his time with talking, as if the process of explaining himself is a new one to him. Painting is a solitary job, occupying eight hours a day, six days a week. "I'll be here in the studio all day long, and I'll realize sometimes that I haven't said a word all day," he says.

Paolo Vescia
Paolo Vescia
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.
Somerville in his Hunters Point studio.
Paolo Vescia
Somerville in his Hunters Point studio.
Somerville and his wife, Nancy Carol King, at home.
Paolo Vescia
Somerville and his wife, Nancy Carol King, at home.

That's fine; his paintings speak for him, loudly. Large-scale and rooted in the imagery of race relations, their size and language seem deliberately designed to provoke -- or offend. They're visceral if ambiguous paintings: Malcolm X in a Klan hood, the Rev. Martin Luther King paired with the Nike "swoosh" logo, a white family in blackface, words like "Negro," "Dixie," and "cracker" screaming from the canvas. Somerville has been working with this subject matter for the past three years, and though he is not the first artist to think of using the black Southern iconography as his palette, he may be the only white one.

Three paintings-in-progress hang on the studio walls. One presents a black man in a straw hat, corncob pipe in his mouth and cork quizzically shoved into one eye socket. Next to it is a portrait of a stern-faced Muhammad Ali with the words "Johnny Reb" playfully painted underneath (after the Sept. 11 attacks, Somerville changed the words to "I am Muslim, I am an American"). The third painting is huge -- about 5 feet high by 8 feet wide -- and busy with imagery. Union soldiers are hunkered down in the lower right corner, aiming their rifles at Brer Rabbit from Disney's Song of the South, who is angry and hoisting a whiskey jug. Look around long enough and things keep announcing themselves: a small picture of Andrew Jackson pasted here, a rendering of Faulkner painted there. On top of it all, in large gothic letters, Somerville has painted the words "The War Song of Dixie." It looks like the nightmare of an American studies major the night before final exams.

"To be honest, I'm not sure exactly where this painting is going," he says.

Somerville has been a professional artist ever since he dropped out of the San Francisco Art Institute in 1984. He's done residencies, sold his paintings, received small notices in art journals and newspapers. But the attention he has received has exploded in the past three years, the most prolific and successful period of his career: The Palace of the Legion of Honor owns one of his works, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art has exhibited it, and a pair of his paintings will travel the country beginning next year as part of a Smithsonian-sponsored exhibition focused on the life of the Rev. King. So as a California artist on the rise, it's likely he'll hear more of the comments he's already received. That he's brilliant, that he's provocative -- and that a white man has no goddamn business painting Malcolm X wearing a Klan hood. Besides, what's he trying to say with that anyhow?

He's still working on the answer to that.

"I get a lot of people thinking that I'm black," Somerville says, sounding a bit bemused, and perhaps a bit proud as well. Catharine Clark, Somerville's agent, says it's the first thing people ask when they look at his paintings: Is he black? And once they find out he isn't, they ask the usual second question: Is he from the South? The general feeling being that, if he isn't one, he'd better be the other. "People have indicated that they're uncomfortable with the work," Clark says dryly.

Somerville tends to talk about his life in terms of how he fit in as a white person -- how he was a minority in a New Jersey high school that was mainly black and Latino, how he noticed blacks were often absent during his childhood, how white the San Francisco art world here is. His race-tinged perceptions are almost a reflex with him, the result of having to think about race at a very early age.

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.

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?"

So about three years ago, he started tinkering with the idea of painting something more biographical. He'd begin by exploring the year he was born: 1963, the year John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Painting and sketching Kennedy's head over and over, he kept searching for something to do with it, trying to make it mean something. And then one day -- he's not certain why -- he thought to paint the letters CSA underneath. CSA: Confederate States of America. It didn't make sense, exactly -- Kennedy wasn't a Southerner, though he supported the civil rights movement, but what did the CSA have to do with Kennedy, except to say that perhaps there was a legacy there, some message of Mason-Dixon divisions that ...

The mind boggled. You could, if you wanted, call it art.

"I thought, "Well, I'm just gonna do it and see what evolves from that,'" says Somerville.

He kept painting; Clarkesville kept visiting Travis Somerville's Hunters Point studio. Abraham Lincoln arrived wearing a Klan hood. Malcolm X too. Gen. Sherman marched in. So did Gen. Robert E. Lee. Robert F. Kennedy, Jesse Jackson, and Jimmy Swaggart came to speak. Animals bounced in: blue jays and foxes and rabbits and bears from Song of the South, the 1946 Disney film that Somerville loved as a child, but which the studio now effectively disowns.

And he's still trying to figure out what he's doing. Boy in the Hood, a 2000 painting that features Malcolm X in sunglasses and a white Klan hood, was a particularly difficult one for him to work out. "I was thinking of extremes," he says, "how they're both very extreme symbols. And whether you agree with it or not, there's two sides to every story. The Klan has its view, and I totally disagree with it, but it's a freedom-of-speech thing too. People disagree with Malcolm X, but there's a freedom-of-speech thing there too." But he explains that figuring out the message of a painting is something that comes during the process of painting -- or even long after, or never.

That's not to say he was ignorant of the effect the imagery would have. "It took me awhile to do that [painting]. I hadn't shown it to anybody, and [gallery owner Catharine] Clark brought some people by. They came in, saw it, and bought it. I thought, "Wow.' It made me think that my fears were not valid."

Robert Smith, a 38-year-old San Francisco art collector, purchased Boy in the Hoodlast year. He'd bought another Malcolm X-themed work, A Lost Vision, in late 1999 -- that one featured the incendiary civil rights activist with his eyes blacked out, a Dixie flag pasted to his forehead. "They're both really strong works," he says. "They assault you immediately. I think the whole issue of cultural memory is called into question [in the paintings] -- what was valid during the civil rights movement. Those figureheads take on different meaning today when we look back on that time." Smith says he tends to look for works that have a visceral impact on him when he sees them, so he feels that Somerville's work is some of the best in his collection. "I think he's right on the cutting edge of what's happening in the Bay Area," he says.

This January, an art exhibition called "In the Spirit of Martin" will begin traveling the country, starting in Detroit. Sponsored by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service, the exhibit includes about 150 works by both well-known artists like Gordon Parks, Robert Rauschenberg, and Andy Warhol -- and obscure artists like Travis Somerville, whose appearance in the exhibit was pretty much an accident.

About three years ago, Gary Chassman, an independent art exhibit producer, came to San Francisco from his native Vermont to visit his children. He'd just started tinkering with the idea of a Martin Luther King- themed exhibit, which the Smithsonian had given its blessing to, when he walked into Catharine Clark's downtown gallery and saw The Only Begotten Son. The painting is a massive portrait -- about 8 by 9 feet -- of the Rev. King below a large Nike swoosh, painted on architectural drawings.

Chassman was struck by the painting and immediately wanted it for the exhibit. Finding Travis Somerville wasn't quite so crucial. "I wasn't so interested in who [Somerville] was as much as I was interested in the painting itself," he recalls. "When I walked into the gallery and saw this work, I was thrilled to find it. It was the kind of work I was looking for. It was clearly inspired by the life and legacy and the ideals to which Dr. King consecrated his life. I thought it was a vivid demonstration that King's dominion has continued to grow."

Clint Willour, curator of the Galveston (Texas) Arts Center, was confused when he was first introduced to Somerville's work last year. He'd been asked to write a short commentary for an exhibit, but found himself bothered by the content. "There's a large group of [black] artists -- Carol Walker, Michael Ray Charles, David McGee -- who address being the "other,' and they take a great deal of flak for it because they question stereotypes," he says. "But when you're the other and you parody yourself you're less apt to get criticism. But [in Somerville's case] one would wonder why he's doing it. What gives him license to assume he can work with those images?"

"Sometimes I think over the idea of somebody saying, "What right do you have to comment on black history?'" Somerville says. "To which I'd say, "I'm not commenting on black history. I'm commenting on history. I'm commenting on my experience and my understanding of what has happened within these issues.'"

Paintings featuring words like "slave," "Negro," "cracker," and "Dixie," are bound to get an artist noticed, and while Somerville says nobody has walked up to him and told him his work is racist, he is bracing for it; complaints have come down to him secondhand, and some of his most provocative paintings haven't even been exhibited to the public. But museums are starting to bite, his paintings are going to be seen outside the generally empathetic art world, and he needs to be prepared, especially since he can't explain what's going on in some of his work. "Some of the earlier paintings used to be pretty haphazard, but now I can't really do it that way. Things really do need to relate more," he says. "Now I read up on things a lot more and I do a lot more research."

Of course, what Somerville is doing is art, which by definition is open to interpretation -- and the interpretations vary a great deal. "He's looking at identity through the lens of his own ... racism," says Clark. "You don't see many white males dealing with issues of identity, the way in which many of us believe we're not racist -- but we're making choices that are somehow by default racist." Clark is careful to say that she doesn't believe Somerville is a racist, though she's heard that accusation. At an art fair in Chicago last year, one attendee took serious issue with two of Somerville's works: one of a black Civil War soldier framed with the words "Slavery Days," another of a black plantation maid, Song of the Southbluebirds on her shoulders, with the exclamation "I'm living on 5th Avenue!" It's bad enough to mess around with black soldiers, the attendee said, but this maid -- this stereotype, this mammy -- was even worse.

According to Somerville, actress Whoopi Goldberg bought the maid painting. A spokesperson for Goldberg confirmed that she has purchased Somerville's work, but Goldberg was unavailable for comment.

Sandria Hu got more outraged comments when she exhibited Somerville's work last year. Hu, an art professor at the University of Houston -- Clear Lake, invited Somerville to come and speak about his paintings. "The reaction was mixed to say the least," Hu recalls. "But that's why I brought it down. People were taken aback by it, and they came up to me to say they were offended. It surprised me, because many of them were my students, who I thought were pretty liberal-minded."

Catharine Clark has found that the problem of people assuming Somerville is black becomes an issue when she meets collectors of African-American art. "I haven't ever wanted to mislead people," she says. "If I felt it's important to tell them, I do. But if they don't ask me, that's their own sort of internal stuff. There's an assumption that a portrait of a black man can only be done by a black man, which is almost more interesting. I stay out of it. I'm interested in having people uncover it for themselves."

Robert Flynn Johnson, a curator at the Palace of the Legion of Honor, didn't much care one way or another about Somerville's ethnicity when he came across one of the artist's paintings three years ago. He just liked what he saw. The painting that caught his eye was a massive portrait of Malcolm X, with the word "DIXIE" painted in large letters underneath. Last year, he finally arranged for the Legion of Honor to purchase the piece.

The painting -- Untitled (Dixie)-- is now part of the museum's collection of works on paper (it's not on display currently, however). For Johnson, it's a wise investment in an artist he sees growing in talent and reputation in the coming years.

He has yet to hear any complaints about the painting, but even if there were some he wouldn't necessarily mind -- this is, after all, art, and art is often designed to provoke. "Art's subjective," he says. "But when I know something is good, I've got an asbestos butt about people criticizing it."

Robin Clark doesn't think any of this should be taken too seriously, though. A San Francisco artist and longtime friend of Somerville's, Clark argues that Somerville doesn't have a message sorted out -- and more important, doesn't need one. "The Southern stuff is just an excuse to allow him to paint," Clark says. "A lot of people miss the point, because they get hung up on what it is.

"Travis and I really laugh at what he's doing and how he gets away with it. It's a sort of joke. You can't help but create an interesting painting with those interactions. There's not a lot of thought that goes into it. Just a lot of work."

Travis Somerville and his wife, Nancy Carol King, keep their kitsch in the kitchen. They live in a well-appointed flat in Nob Hill (the building owner is a friend who cuts them a deal on the rent), and the kitchen is stuffed with rows of vintage lunch boxes; a velvet Elvis painting hangs in one corner, above a green Formica table. That's where Travis is trying to explain how he decides what to paint -- and what not to.

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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