Aunt Clara’s Luminous World

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She has in fact set down most of the things that struck her strongly about that world, freezing its essences for us in a creative outpouring that began long after she had moved away from the Bosque to live in Dallas, after her children were grown, after her husband had died. She reached back into a phenomenal memory that includes events from a time when she could hardly walk (“It kind of leaves a picture; you just see it the way it was”) and, encouraged at first by teachers who were mainly wise enough to let her work flow by itself, made painting after painting whose cumulative effect is a communication of the wholeness and innocence and excitement of village life along the Bosque, as seen by a bright child and young woman in the latter quarter of the last century and the early years of this one.

Somewhat in the manner of the garden dial that marks only sunny hours, Aunt Clara has nearly always painted pleasant things. She likes subjects, she has said, that are “pretty and true, but not sad.” In her this is less a sentimental Victorian trait than a frontier female one, for with trouble and hardship and violence all around, if you let yourself dwell on them you stopped functioning; and functioning mattered.

Thus what we see in her paintings are matters for pride or joy—the hard, accepted work of the times with cows and crops and clothes and food; religion deeply and daily felt; play in the form of fishing and swimming and dancing and picnicking and other village pleasures; and special moments such as the big freeze, the arrival of the Texas Central, Christmas in the log house of her babyhood, even grown-up Clara’s first fascinated glimpse of an airplane.

What we do not see are the darker, more masculine aspects of life along the Bosque, nor anything about the starkness and melancholy that gradually invaded the land as destiny moved on elsewhere, and dependence on an ever skimpier single cash crop put farmers at the mercy of faraway markets, and the soil of the fields thinned and gullied and blew away under such exploitative use, and over them and the once magnificent grasslands crept a blanket of cedar and scrub oak and mesquite.

One does not feel like carping about the lack. It can be filled in elsewhere, and Aunt Clara’s omission of such things is not a denial of them. As an artist, she is a celebrant, and what she celebrates is the vigorous and high-hopeful spirit of the world that shaped her. Pretty and true, but not sad …

Iredell today, three quarters of a century and more after most of the events Clara Williamson has celebrated, dozes pleasantly beside the Bosque. Frontier vigor and high hopefulness, like destiny, departed long since, along with a good many of the people; for the town has shrunk to three or four hundred. The increasing proportion of elderly people are often retrospective—knowledgeable about the archaeology of old Iredell and about feuds and cemeteries and cattle trails, happy to talk with you on street corners and in cafés and along fencerows, about a time when destiny still strode along the Bosque.

The railroad quit running in the 1920’s, and now even the tracks and ties have been removed. Since boom has never laid its garish crust over the remnants of the local past, you can still easily find places and buildings, and even trees, from Clara Williamson’s paintings (the house her father built, where she grew up, still stands on the height north of town overlooking all below), but the village scene is faded, dusty somehow, without the shining, optimistic neatness and bustle her pictures show.

The ambient countryside is tired and faded and retrospective, too, in large part- brushy, eroded, depopulated, its once rich fields turned mainly into sorry pastures, its streams low or dry for much of the year, many of its old plank houses empty and held from collapse only by the staunchness of their limestone chimneys. There is much wildlife, but of small varieties except for deer, which prosper in the brush as do the Angora goats that make up much of the area’s livestock where there are fences that will hold them. Destiny’s boots, one discerns without much difficulty, tromped a bit hard around these parts.

Yet increasingly, here and there, a contrasting freshness meets the eye—a rolling grassy stretch of prairie free of brush, taut-fenced, dotted with fat cows and shady live oaks as it was in the old days, with green, terraced fields sowed to forage crops in the bottomlands, and on a hill neat houses and barns and corrals. Such restoration has been achieved through the use of big modern machinery that clears and reshapes the land, and its results stand in hopeful contrast not only to what started happening in that region at the tail end of destiny’s reign but to the sickening, continuing ruin of much of our national landscape elsewhere as a result of boom and growth.

Nevertheless, as the traditionalists of Iredell can point out to you, this process is rough on what is left of the region’s old way of living. Land reclamation is expensive and takes a good while to start paying dividends. Often, for economic results, it involves the consolidation of little homestead holdings into ranch-sized tracts. Bought out, old families move away, and that much more of the old frontier relationship to the land, and its lore, and its strength, moves away with them to be ground down to modern sameness in larger towns and cities.