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Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Southern Discomfort’
Group show seeks to find the essence of Savannah-born writer’s fascination with the ‘grotesqueness of being human’
By Becca Sipper - Miss Flannery and her Feathered Friend

Southern Discomfort, Friday April 1 at Non-Fiction Gallery, exhibition and silent auction hosted by the Flannery O'Connor Childhood Home Foundation

NO ONE makes me uncomfortable like Flannery O’Connor makes me uncomfortable.

Maybe it’s her almost preternatural understanding of humanity’s most detestable predilections, or her tendency to blend morality and violence in the same beautiful phrase, or her harsh handling of religion, or her strange, obsessive personality.

Whatever it is—she’s a magnet for so many of us who can’t help but be fascinated by that constant battle between what’s attractive and what’s repulsive. They are—and I think she’d agree—mostly the same thing.

People say that O’Connor helped define “Southern Grotesque”, but that always seemed a bit myopic to me, the kind of thing she’d probably have scoffed at. No, Flannery O’Connor wanted to make sure we got a good, long look at the grotesqueness of being human.

“When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs you do, you can relax a little and use more normal ways of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock—to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost blind you draw large and startling pictures,” she famously said.

On Friday, April 1, O’Connor’s metaphor comes to life with Southern Discomfort, an exhibition and silent auction hosted by the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation at Non-Fiction Gallery.

For the third time running, approximately 25 local artists were invited to create art inspired by O’Connor’s life, works or unique personality to be auctioned off in service of preserving her childhood home on Lafayette Square.

This year’s roster of artists includes Panhandle Slim, Richard Leo Johnson, Katrina Schmidt-Rinke, Marcus Kenney, Becca Sipper, Betsy Cain, Christine Sajecki, Axelle Kieffer, Lind Hollingsworth and more. Many of the works are original artworks created specifically for this show.

“Some [artists] are taking ideas from the stories themselves, sometimes from specific stories,” Dr. Michael Schroeder, vice president of the Flannery O’Connor Childhood Home Foundation’s board, explained to me over the phone.

“Some of [the works] have to do with life in the South because that’s where most of [O’Connor’s] work is set—the sorts of conflicts people would face, partly religious in aspect because she was very, very Catholic even though some of her stories are full of violence and characters of challenged moral values.”

It’s a curious thing, that attraction and repulsion, that longing for catharsis, epiphany, “grace” as she called it, that draws people to O’Connor’s work.

“She’s this wonderful social satirist, you know,” Schroeder told me with an excited trill in his voice. “She makes fun of people in the most painful ways sometimes. I think there’s a fascinating combination of humor and sometimes violence that gives you something to think about.”

O’Connor’s stories are certainly fertile ground for artistic inspiration; her colorful—often deeply flawed—characters, her rich descriptions of the natural world, her skillful critique of sin and redemption, all seem like they’d be strong starting points for Southern Discomfort’s selected artists.

I tried to make some predictions before I shot off the requisite string of emails but I really shouldn’t have bothered.

My ideas were all boring compared to the reality of what’s slated to be on display. (If you’re playing along at home, tick another Flannery specialty off the list: subverting expectations.)

Marcus Kenney’s “Circle in the Fire (2016)” was inspired by O’Connor’s story of the same name. “I’ve always been drawn to imagery of fires,” Kenney said. “When I was 13, my house burned to the ground. Ironically, when my mother was a child her house burned as well.”

Kenney’s gouache painting evokes a raw submission to nature (or fate) often present in O’Connor’s storytelling. There’s a sophisticated primitivism to his mark-making, his visual language, that draws comparison to the colloquial language O’Connor’s characters use even during highly existential moments of epiphany.

Katrina Schmidt-Rinke’s piece is perhaps the most ethereal, non-representational of the bunch; her watercolor painting titled “Revelation” was inspired by the short story of the same name.

Schmidt-Rinke points to one of O’Connor’s more blistering moments of description as her inspiration: “In the deepening light everything was taking on a mysterious hue. The pasture was growing a peculiar glassy green and the streak of highway had turned lavender ... The color of everything, field and crimson sky, burned for a moment with a transparent intensity.”

Christine Sajecki’s encaustic on wood piece (titled “Vanity of Vanities”) has its roots in “Parker’s Back”, a story which Sajecki believes “is perfect at balancing humor and pain.”

“The imagery,” Sajecki told me, “focuses on a heavily tattooed young man, something we associate with a more contemporary character. Flannery’s writing has such timelessness, I wanted to do a piece that could reflect both our time and hers.”

Some drew from more personal experiences, like Axelle Kieffer, whose collage “The Church of Truth Without Christ (Redemption)” is a reference to O’Connor’s first novel, Wise Blood.

Years ago, Kieffer found herself fascinated with the writer. She made a sort-of pilgrimage from O’Connor’s childhood home in Savannah to Andalusia farm in Milledgeville, where the writer spent most of her adult life.

“I found myself making a lot of pieces that I was undoing over and over as I discovered more and more about her,” Kieffer said. “She’s a very complex person and so is her written world ... [She] presents and defines her characters by a part of their body. By cutting small pieces out of found images, collage allows me to fragment my piece as Flannery O’Connor fragments bodies ... To me, [her characters] are in a constant search to claim their identities... They crave absolute redemption.”

Betsy Cain, Becca Sipper, Katherine Sandoz and Juliana Peloso all decided to create portraits of the writer in their own unique styles.

Peloso was immediately taken by O’Connor’s love of birds. “I created my piece based on her love of peacocks and her statement that they were the ‘King of the Birds’ ... I kept it in subtle monotones, so it reads more like a photo of a memory,” she told me.

After reading O’Connor’s article “Living with a Peacock,” Becca Sipper couldn’t get this strange phrase out of her mind: “My quest, whatever it was actually for, ended with peacocks. Instinct, not knowledge, led me to them.” Sipper created two cameo-style ceramic platters: one a portrait of O’Connor and the other a portrait of a peacock, destined forever to be together.

By Katherine Sandoz
By Katherine Sandoz

Sandoz, who was also fascinated with O’Connor’s relationship with birds (she owned nearly 100 peacocks by the time she died at the age of 39), went so far as to draw the writer’s image in the shape of a peacock.

Sandoz, who has painted O’Connor eight separate times, chose to depict her wearing a dress inspired by a Gucci Spring 2016 ready-to-wear garment. “Her shoulders are bare,” she said, eliciting more salacious intrigue than I ever thought possible during an e-mail exchange about Flannery O’Connor.

“She keeps more secrets than we’ve ever guessed.”

This is true. Despite all our adoration, we’ll never unravel this puzzling, wonderfully talented riddle of a human more than we have today. The best we can do is preserve her work and her memory. Lucky for us, that’s exactly what this silent auction strives to do.