Photography, Stories and My Process
It all starts with my walks around town, iPhone camera in hand. I have snapped hundreds of photographs of houses and other structures in Ozark. Back in the studio, I forage through them for inspiration. Here are a few of the photographs that have been especially inspiring and the stories behind them. I also include a sampling of art works illustrating how my process springboards off of the photographs into imagery that moves beyond depiction -- folding in memory, invention and the emotional response I have to these places.
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This is the first building that stopped me in my tracks during one of my walks around town in 2020. It sits near the end of North Merrick, one of the oldest streets in Ozark. I grew up on the other side of town, several miles away from this building; I knew nothing about its history, but it commanded my attention somehow. I felt it was looking back at me, saying "Oh, the stories I could tell. I have stood here longer than you have lived, and here you are at last, noticing me for the first time."
The abandoned store on North Merrick was the first thing that I drew for the body of work that I now call "Going Home," and this drawing shows it as it looked on the day I first noticed it. When I returned to the store one year after first photographing it and several months after making this drawing, there was a pot of live flowers out front and a shiny new street number nailed onto the front. I had the pleasure of meeting the owner of the building that day, when he came out of his house next door on some pretext but, I suspect, mainly to find out what I was up to taking pictures of his building. He warmed to me when he found out that I am a Blackmon, as he knows my family well. He told me that the old store is about to be refurbished and used as a shop again. I look forward to stopping by for a look around inside.
This is a painting of the the abandoned store on North Merrick. Here, as in all of my paintings, I was trying to capture my response to this old place. This building was especially compelling from the very first; about a year after first finding it, I learned things that might explain why, when I chatted with its owner. He told me that not only was this building once a family-run grocery store, but the little block building behind it used to be a laundromat. When I was growing up, my family had the same kind of business just a few miles away -- the Beeline Grocery and Laundry. My grandfather, father and uncle owned and operated the store, while my grandmother ran the laundry. I'm not usually drawn to magical thinking, but I couldn't help but feel that this abandoned store had affected me so strongly because it was part of a small business just like the one where I spent many childhood hours hanging around listening to the grownups talk -- sometimes helping out in between reading all the comics on the magazine stand, making selections from the candy counter and grabbing bottled Cokes and Dr. Peppers from the big red Coca-Cola refrigerator box. The original Beeline was sold long and ago and has been so transformed that it does not summon up the atmosphere I associate with childhood days there. Somehow this old store -- worn and abandoned, but not modernized in any way -- stood in for the Beeline and carried me back to that time and place in a way I never expected. Hence the title of this painting -- "Where Time Circled 'Round."
This is the abandoned laundromat behind the store on North Merrick. My grandmother's laundry was attached to the Beeline Grocery and so was different from this configuration of buildings. Still, the feeling of this place carries me back to my days at the Beeline. The cracked pavement and the enormous old trees surrounding these buildings partly explain this, but there is more, I think. My grandfather owned a number of small houses that he had built himself; he rented these out, in a little neighborhood that fanned out all around the Beeline Grocery -- filled with the ubiquitous old trees, little dirt paths and cracked pavements of that time. The rental house directly behind the Beeline was built of cinder blocks and was always called "the little block house." The cinder-block laundromat on North Merrick is similarly situated directly behind the North Merrick store. I have memories of hanging out in the little block house while my grandmother cleaned it, for the next tenant, I suppose. She was pretty determined in her cleaning, especially the mopping of the floors with a big metal bucket of soapy water in tow. Walking around behind the store on North Merrick and seeing their old laundry summoned up strong memories of days filled with soapy smells and the images of clothes flying around in the huge dryers they had back then -- casting off that wonderful, sharp smell of clean laundry -- fresh, hot and ready for folding.
Newton Street is another of the older streets in Ozark. There are many interesting old houses there. This is not the grandest house on Newton and I know nothing about it. It captivated me somehow though. Something about the quirky porch furniture and the relaxed configuration of windows and brickwork and other shapes inspired me to make a collage.
Working with this house, I was taken back to the relaxed atmosphere of a front porch on a sunny day. I have sat on many such porches in Ozark, over many years. This house came to stand for all of that -- the bright sunshine all around, the sweet simplicity of a porch with rockers and straight chairs to sit in, and the special feeling of watching the world go by while wrapped in the comfy arms of easygoing old house.
I do not know what this little structure is. It sits off to the side of a house that is near my sister's house on Broad Street. I glanced its way one day and noticed it for the first time. It could be a child's playhouse or a small storage shed I suppose. Whatever it is, I found it to be very striking, very beautiful. I have drawn this piece many times in many media; I never tire of its simple elegance.
This house is divided into apartments. It is an old house, and it has always fascinated me because it is one of just two houses subdivided into rental units on Broad Street. It always gave off a kind of lively sensibility for that reason, and I always wondered about the folks who came and went through this house. Most of the other houses on Broad Street are, or were, occupied by families known to me, some for many years; this house with its unknown tenants was a curiosity of sorts.
This is the south side of my grandparents' house, and it is the exterior wall of the "middle bedroom" as it was always called. I usually stayed in that bedroom when I spent nights with my grandparents. My father recently told me that he used this bedroom when he had to move in to take care of my grandfather during his final year. When I returned to this house in 2021, I learned that it is being converted into a funeral home and mortuary. You may well imagine my initial shock. I introduced myself to the affable new owner, and he gave me a tour of the now-gutted interior, explaining how the old spaces I could still remember so well were being reconfigured into his new business. I recognized all kinds of things -- old wall papers, fixtures, doors, mantelpieces and the outlines of all of my grandmother's kitchen appliances and cabinets that had been removed to make way for a new casket display room (!). What an experience. I can't begin to describe the emotions here. I am glad that the facade of the house is to be preserved, and I hope that the new owner is able to finish this project and put the old place to good use. He has invited me to the grand opening, and I'll certainly be there if that day comes. Sadly, though, I understand that little progress has been made on the funeral home project since I last visited the site several months ago, so I fear the worst for this dear old house.
This house is just a few blocks from my sister's house on Broad Street. It has a very gracious air, so I always linger and look at it as I walk by. I recently learned that a good friend's aunt lived in this house when we were kids and ran a kindergarten there. Many friends of mine have fond memories of that kindergarten and its playground out back.