Aunt Clara’s Luminous World

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Inevitably, most of the personal records of life on the-American frontier that have lcome down to us are masculine and epic in tone. Guns and battles and duels and expeditions, cattle drives and buffalo hunts and the carving out of empires —men were the ones who forged that drama, and for the most part the ones who had their say about it. So the quiet, hard, meaningful daily life of village and house and field that went on behind it is sometimes hard for us to glimpse.

In my corner of the world, the north-central part of Texas, this gap is filled in part by the paintings of a gifted and perceptive eyewitness, Clara McDonald Williamson, generally known in the art world as Aunt Clara. Mrs. Williamson, now ninety-four and still alertly interested in the world that was and is, did not begin painting until she was nearly seventy. Most of her important paintings—classified as primitive or naïve, like those of Grandma Moses, by people who classify such things—are what she calls “memory pictures.” They depict sharp moments and scenes recollected from her early life in the little town of Iredell, Texas, where she was born in the fall of 1875, less than two decades after the community had taken shape.

Astraddle the North Bosque River on the western edge of the Texas Grand Prairie, Iredell is about seven miles from the ninety-eighth meridian, often identified as the division line between East and West, woodland and plains. It has hot summers and cool winters, with good, dependable rain most years. The rolling prairies roundabout and the narrow flat bottomlands along the streams are padded with excellent limestone soil, where man’s use of them has not been ruinous. Rising three hundred feet or so above them here and there are steep, flat-topped hills and ridges, most of them dark with cedar and scrub oak and known locally as mountains, which keep the landscape from monotony and preserve, in the exposed strata of their slopes, a record of the ancient processes of inundation, deposition, upheaval, climatic change, and erosion by which the land was made into what it is.

Before white settlers came and for a time thereafter, most of this was good grassland. At points along the main streams there were villages of farming Indians—Caddo, Tonkawa, and some branches of the Wichita. But by about 1870 there were no Indians at all left along the Bosque, settled or mobile, except perhaps for a few sad, drunken hangers-on about the towns. The white men had it to themselves, to use for mixed farming and stock raising in a pattern that had been evolving on the Texas frontier and was both reminiscent of life in the woodlands east to the Atlantic and prophetic of life as it would be lived on the untimbered plains.

Most plowed and planted and reaped—foodstuffs in the earliest days but later and increasingly cotton, that ancestral cash crop which proved adapted to the Grand Prairie’s soils and rainfall. Probably they kept some chickens and bees and hogs in the old pattern and had fruit trees and a kitchen garden. Yeomen in ancestry and type, they did their own work or helped one another do it; hardly any had brought slaves. Their houses, in the days before pine lumber began coming in from East Texas, were likely to be made of post-oak logs, for logs were at hand and so was the old woodland aptitude in their use.

But most also were heirs to the complex, violent skills that Mexicans and South Texans had worked out for handling longhorn cattle. As often as not, farmers along the Bosque ran a few cows or a good many on the open range that included the whole region except for fenced-off croplands, until barbed wire came in the eighties. Some men did nothing else. The westward-shifting Chisholm Trail ran close by, carrying big South Texas herds northward and the wagons of settlers heading out for new country. Feeling the trail’s tug, young men sometimes rode north with a herd to savor the joys of the Kansas railheads, maybe never to come back. Or maybe they did come back to raise cotton and cows, to help shape a town, to organize schools, to celebrate life at dances and weddings, to reinforce by their attendance one of the little new hard-shell churches which, far more than the skimpy apparatus of law enforcement, held that world at one remove from anarchy.

Iredell was building when Clara came along, its few hundred inhabitants abrim with the feel of destiny that little western towns had in those days, the expectation of boom and growth. Her father was one of its builders, a carpenter and millwright who put up cotton gins all around the region as that king crop extended its sway, and erected pleasant, stout, simple frame houses, among them one for his own family on a high bluff overlooking Iredell and the Bosque valley from the north, where his daughter grew up with a panoramic view of things. The pine he used for building was hauled in at first by ox or mule wagons and later by the railroad, that ultimate nineteenth-century symbol of destiny, whose arrival at her village Aunt Clara witnessed and has set down dynamically on canvas.