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Southern Cultures 8.3 (2002) 78-81

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Paradox in Paradise

Lea Barton


I was born in Yazoo City at the edge of the Mississippi Delta in 1956, the year Elvis Presley made his television appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show but was shown only from the waist up. My father was in the service, and I moved from city to city as a "Navy brat." But no matter where we lived, each summer I returned to Yazoo City on a Greyhound bus to visit my grandparents. My mother, concerned that I would lack the proper southern upbringing, decreed that my grandmother would be the overseer of my southern belle soul. I grew to love those rides on the bus, arriving at the end of a long kudzu tunnel down Highway 49 where my grandmother was waiting in the Piggly Wiggly parking lot. Having the keys to her old blue Plymouth long before I had a driver's license was my first taste of freedom and responsibility. It wasn't long before I was making the beer runs to town for my grandparents' country store and jook joint on Wolf Lake. My memories of those summers are mixed with euphoric freedom and hard-fought accomplishments in a racially segregated and impoverished agrarian landscape.

Although I have lived in the South most of my life, I became more of a southerner after living in New York for two years. Like Quentin Compson, the young Harvard student from Mississippi in Faulkner's Absalom, Absalom!, I was frequently asked to "Tell about the South. What's it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all." And it was during my trips home that I began to examine the culture that I had ignored, rebelled against, and taken for granted. Not until then did I fully appreciate the South's richness and influence on the rest of the country.

The series of paintings Paradox in Paradise explores the South and all of its contradictions and ironic juxtapositions. The region is known for its hospitality, yet violence is part of its history. There is enormous wealth and heart-wrenching poverty, literary genius and illiteracy, and extraordinary cuisine along with inadequate nutrition. The southern belle is fragile and dependent, willful and determined. For all its religious zeal, the South is a world of both teetotalers and hard drinkers; and, to some, football, hunting, and stock car racing rank as high as religion. [End Page 78]

In this series I use my own photographs as well as old images of the South, 8.3 and the picture plane is often layered. The work is pluralistic; images may have multiple meanings. A lone chimney may represent a simple way of life, poverty, or the houses and buildings that were burned by General Sherman and gave Jackson, Mississippi, its nickname "Chimneyville." Pictures of cotton fields can evoke a nostalgic feeling for a rural, less urban place, but can also recall the harsh ways of the past. The kudzu vine is beautiful and a menace, strangling everything in 8.3 its path, a metaphor for some of the old customs and prejudices that are still 8.3 embraced.

Understanding the South is difficult. When asked what was the most defining characteristic of the South, Willie Morris responded, "Remembrance. The South has a history—the South never forgets." My work is about remembering, recording, and reclaiming. It can be seen as cultural commentary and southern storytelling. It is my way to tell about the past—the South's as well as my own.

See More of Paradox in Paradise

Lea Barton's paintings in the series Paradox in Paradise can be seen at the Alexandria Museum 8.3 of Art in Alexandria, Louisiana, September 7-October 27, 2002; the Mississippi Museum of 8.3 Art in Jackson, Mississippi, November 9, 2002-January 12, 2003; and the Fine Arts Gallery of the Mississippi University for Women in Columbus, Mississippi, January 25-March 9, 2003.


Lea Barton resides in Flora, Mississippi, and works in several art forms including photography...