The artist formerly known as John Anderson looks a little out of place among the more typical patrons at a downtown-Asheville gallery opening.
Cornbread, as he calls himself and signs his work (something to do with an adolescent acquaintance who used to tell people, “I’m gonna tear up your ass like a piece of cornbread”), is an ex-cop and deputy sheriff, and a current part-time farm hand and big-rig mechanic. A hefty, extremely clean cut, good-natured man from the north Georgia mountains, Cornbread has unexpectedly found himself quite the phenomenon in the folk-art world.
He seems amused by his new situation, being interviewed by a journalist at American Folk Art & Framing, surrounded by his paintings.
“The people I grew up with wouldn’t give you 50 cents for one of these,” he announces cheerfully, making a sweeping gesture around the room. “You could leave these things layin’ on the side of the road up at the house and nobody would get ’em.” Pause. “But people off from the house, now they like ’em.”
His large painting of guinea hens to our left is priced at $2,200.
Cornbread’s painting career began in 1995 as a sort of hissy-fit reaction against abstract art.
As he describes it, he accompanied his wife to Atlanta’s High Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Shaker baskets.
“We got to lookin’ at the paintings,” he explains, “and I don’t know who done it or what, but somebody painted a big ol’ painting … and it looked like they stood about 20 or so foot back and just slung paint at it.” This seeming affront to the art of painting (was it a Pollock?) raised Cornbread’s hackles.
“I got kind of mad,” he remembers. “It just kind of aggravated me. People was there tryin’ to figure it out, and I thought, ‘Well, there ain’t nothin’ to figure out.'”
Cornbread says he’d always drawn as a child, and had thought about taking up painting many times, since both his mother and his wife painted landscapes and such as a hobby.
“I said, ‘By Ned, I’m goin’ to go home and I’m goin’ to paint tonight. We might want to stop somewhere and get me a brush or two,'” he remembers of that day at the High Museum. The couple stopped and bought brushes, and when they got home, Cornbread borrowed some of his wife’s paint and went to work. “That’s how it all got started,” he says simply.
“I was working dope then,” he remembers, meaning he was a cop assigned to drug enforcement, “and you get kinda depressed doing that, because you see the same ol’ people all the time. Wasn’t nobody gettin’ no better, and you keep puttin’ the same ol’ ones in jail. Anyway, I got to paintin’ in the evenings when I got home to air my head out a little bit, then I started paintin’ way on up into the night.”
Like the man himself, Cornbread’s paintings put on no airs. Their plain titles reflect exactly what the art depicts — “Guinea Hens,” “Fox,” “Robins,” “Quail & Morning Glories,” “Turkey” — the animals that inhabit the farm on which Cornbread works and the woods where he spent countless hours as a boy. Done in bold acrylics and often painted on pieces of wood, his mostly one-dimensional — yet strangely expressive — figures are infused with a near-heartbreaking innocence, their inordinately large, staring eyes a focal point.
Closer inspection, though, reveals a kind of pop-art postmodernism — something almost Warholian (I hope Cornbread isn’t reading this). Seemingly identical figures repeated over and over across the canvas, stencil-style, mark such works as the large “Guinea Hens.” The animals themselves, while more or less representational, are festooned with large, cartoonish polka-dots that stand in for black-and-white feather patterns. Some of the hens are purple, even.
If Cornbread hadn’t literally run out of space to store his paintings at home, the world would likely never have seen his work — especially after a couple of his Georgia co-workers at the Lumpkin County Sheriff’s Office, upon viewing a few of them, asked Cornbread if he’d been “getting into the evidence bag.”
Still, Cornbread was attached to the depictions of animals that had, for him, deep personal resonance. Not surprisingly, he expresses a special fondness for the foxes and guinea hens that crowd his canvases.
“Foxes, it seemed like when I was growin’ up, got blamed for everything. If chickens was killed, it might have been a possum or a bobcat, but the fox always got blamed.” In fact, a fox was blamed for killing 30 of the then-fifth-grade Cornbread’s guinea chicks while his family was in Florida seeing the ocean for the first time. Ever since, the two animals have forever been linked for him by a certain sorrow.
“I practically lived in the woods when I was younger,” he relates. “I’d go out there and sit and think. … I had a lot of freedom then that people ain’t got now, because there just ain’t no woods much to go into. I look back, kind of reflect back in appreciation.”
After a few months of work, Cornbread literally had paintings “layin’ everywhere. I had ’em behind the door, in the closet, on the bed. And I told my wife, ‘I hate to paint over any of these, but I just don’t know what to do with ’em.'”
Luckily, Cornbread was out “loaferin’,” as he calls it, on a day off from the farm and came across a gallery in Cleveland, Ga. He realized his paintings fit right in with the other art there.
“They sold what they called ‘folk art,'” he remembers.
These days, his work is exhibited in galleries all over the Southeast — including in Atlanta, a city Cornbread disdains because of its suburban encroachment on his beloved woods.
He remembers a time in grade school when a teacher noted different careers the children might grow up to pursue — “artist” was one of them.
“I thought, ‘Boy, that’d be a cushy job,'” recalls Cornbread. “Who in the devil could be an artist? But the Lord has blessed me to let me do somethin’ I enjoy.
“It might run out tomorrow,” he acknowledges, “and nobody might not want any more of my work, but I’ve had a good time, and I’m real appreciative of it. I feel blessed.”
Cornbread’s work is on exhibit at American Folk Art & Framing (64 Biltmore Ave.) through Saturday, Oct. 25. Call 281-2134 or visit www.amerifolk.com for more information.