An Appreciation for Artist William Christenberry

William Christenberry's Alabama Wall I

SAAM mourns the loss of artist and friend, William Christenberry, who died this past Monday at 80. As a young man, Christenberry often traveled the back roads of the South with his father. He studied painting as a graduate student at the University of Alabama until he discovered James Agee‘s book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Christenberry was moved when he realized that the tenant farmers in Walker Evans' photographs were people he remembered from growing up near Hale County, Alabama. Although Christenberry created many different kinds of art, ranging from photographs to drawings to sculptures, his experiences growing up in the South served as the subjects for most of his artwork.

Christenberry's exhibition, Passing Time: The Art of William Christenberry was one of SAAM's inaugural shows in 2006, when we opened after our main building's renovation. His sculpture, River House, is presently on view in our Luce Foundation Center. The following video, made in his studio, was produced at that time and offers you an inside look at the artist and the impetus for his work. He will be missed.

Date
  • WILLIAM CHRISTENBERRY: All of my life I wanted to be an artist. I loved to draw as a child. One thing I think is important is that my parents never discouraged me, even coming from a rather conservative part of the country. They never said, "Son, you got to do something where you can get a real job and make money." They never did that.

    I've had a fascination with signage, especially the rusted, bullet-ridden ones for a long, long time. I appropriated my first sign off of a country store, and that was the beginning of this love affair with the found object. Just having them, as on this wall here, in my presence is inspirational. For me, it was how time and the elements made each one oftentimes a poem, a visual poem.

    When I was a boy, my father and I would fish a good deal. There's a wonderful river that runs through that part of Alabama, and we would come back at lunch time because on the riverbank was this house on stilts, where you could buy Vienna sausage—we called them Vienna sausage—and crackers. That would be your lunch.

    The house built up on stilts at the river edge often was covered with these signs. I remember somebody had painted a sign of a catfish, a catfish sort of jumping out of a river or pond. On my house, the “River House” that I built, is a picture of a catfish that I drew.

    Many of the structures that I've built are based on something that actually existed, but this was a figment of memory. Because so many of the things that I used to see in the landscape are gone.

    I think the reason I try to build these structures is active possession. If I can't possess the real thing, I'm going to make something that comes pretty close to that. There's considerable satisfaction, on my part, when one of those pieces works. That is, aesthetically makes sense. Whether it be a very literal treatment of a country church, or in the case of “River House,” an evocative feeling of a childhood memory.

    An interview with the artist William Christenberry. As a young man, William Christenberry often traveled the back roads of the South with his father. He studied painting as a graduate student at the University of Alabama until he discovered James Agees book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Christenberry was moved when he realized that the tenant farmers in Walker Evanss photographs were people he remembered from growing up near Hale County, Alabama. Although Christenberry creates many different kinds of art, ranging from photographs to drawings to sculptures, his experiences growing up in the South serve as the subjects for most of his artwork. 

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