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.

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.

But it is one of the special American sadnesses that the frontier way of life was, by its own vigor and appetite and techniques, foredoomed. And if there is among us still a nostalgia toward it, there is also much consolation in the fact that a few people like Clara McDonald Williamson, who knew it in its freshness, have managed to set down some truths about it that let us share their understanding.