GUY COBB, SHELBY FARMS, AND THE DISTILLATION OF LIFE AND PLACE
There is something sublime about Shelby Farms. With over 4,500 acres in east Memphis, Shelby Farms is one of the world's largest municipal parks. It is overgrown and unkempt, a place where development has been thwarted. Mostly pasture and woodland, it is a geographic muse that inspires the paintings of artist Guy Cobb, filling his mind with a tenuous equilibrium.
I am visiting Memphis shortly after a storm with hurricane-force winds leveled thousands of the city's trees. The damage is jaw dropping. Entire lawns are missing, having been pulled up by the tree roots that lay perpendicular to the earth. Sawdust and limbs are piled along curbs and the roads are full of dump trucks hauling the debris to be burned.
This is the fruit of the natural world: chaos and unpredictability. But Guy Cobb sees the other side of nature. To him, it is ordered and beautiful, spilling over with colorful light, radiating out from the Mississippi Delta like a healing liquid. Guy is a long way from his initial inspiration in southwest Missouri and longer still from his Mississippi days, when he pursued girls and beer, caring little for the quality of either.
Playwriting was his first obsession, a suitable way to digest his youth. "I was trying to write a play about my freshman year at Ole Miss," he says. "I thought that was such a pivotal time." The images from 1983 when John Hawkins became the first black cheerleader at Ole Miss left an indelible impression. Hawkins refused to carry the Confederate battle flag, sparking a visceral campus demonstration among some die hard Southern apologists. For Guy, the moment was a watershed. How could something as innocuous as cheerleading turn so ugly? After all, cheerleading was a family institution for Guy's family. His sister, Dawn, had cheered at Mizzou; his older brother, Ty, was an Ole Miss cheerleader; and Guy was elected into the ranks for the coming fall of 1983. It was an honor he never accepted.
He left Ole Miss to travel with Ty's new acrobatic group, The Bud Light Daredevils. For Guy, this was cheerleading as it should be--it was physical, heartpounding and absolutely nonpolitical. They appeared across North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia, energizing basketball crowds with a blend of gymnastic precision and comedy. It was a job Guy would do intermittently for the next decade.
When he wasn't traveling, he was writing, polishing his craft with poetry and short story courses. By 1990, he had taken a furlough from the Daredevils and was living on twenty acres in Fair Grove, Missouri. It was an idyllic setting, pastoral and serene, but his writing stalled. "Every night on the news was this litany of murder. Here I was in one of the most gorgeous settings in America, in the heartland, and all I was hearing about was meth labs, marijuana fields, and crazy acts of violence," says Guy. He was becoming aware of a dark underside of rural life, a darkness that grew from loneliness and isolation, casting a shadow over an entire community. There was so much he wanted to say, but words were inadequate.
One fateful night he happened upon a documentary of Jackson Pollock that lifted him from his morass. As he describes it, on impulse, "I went into town and got some sheet metal and started working with it." He peppered it using every type of gun he could find. The rigid metal held the shape of the exit wounds. "I then painted it a solid white, to give it a sort of gessoed look." In homage to Pollock, he then splatter-painted the surface. "I was thinking of some way to capture the essence of rural violence." Not satisfied, he applied a dense array of projecting "horse apple" thorns, some more than four inches long. The sense of suffering that overlaid the punctuated fury of the bullet holes was almost Biblical. He called it, Down in the Valley of Rural Violence, the first of six major pieces exhibited in Missouri, garnering him notice as an artist whose work was impossible to ignore.
In 1992, he met Laura Wilson, a bride's maid at Ty's Memphis wedding. Attractive and fiercely intelligent, she was also an art history major. They eloped after three weeks and Guy experienced a sudden shift in self-awareness. Parts of his Y-chromosome were unlocking and putting age old responsibilities into motion. He signed up with the Daredevils for one last tour. "We were going to try to get some money and make a stake. I had no skills, other than jumping off trampolines," he remarks. "No transferable skills."
What had been routine ten years prior had become agonizing. "I discovered I had all these problems I had never known before, like tendonitis and arthritis in my hips," he confesses. The repetitive impact of each performance and extended separation from his new wife made the season seem interminable.
He has no idea how Laura and he discovered Shelby Farms when he returned to Memphis in 1993. "All of a sudden, I found this place . . . this sanctuary." They lay beneath the sun, letting the past burn away and the future take shape. "From that point on, we've always come back." In this haven, this under commercialized antidote to the snarling traffic and ever lengthening corridor of strip malls that threaten to envelope it, Guy found his balance.
"We had no money, but I had it in my head that I needed to start painting again." It had been a year since leaving Missouri and soon his home was filled with canvas rectangles. Everything had changed except the basic need to paint. The isolation of an Ozark farm had been traded for marriage and a bustling Southern metropolis. Summer was long and romance was fresh.
Soon, fields of flowers were flowing directly from his paint tubes. Shelby Farms became a central theme, and a proliferation of vibrant luminosity gave each piece a living quality. Blooms seemed to writhe in the sunlight. He was trying to capture the new mood of his environment, but experimentation came with a price. The one opinion that mattered was Laura's and she was not, at first glance, smitten. "My wife's art [history] background means that I've caught hell from Mesopotamia on down."
Stung by her judgments, he resolved to work harder. He displayed his work in public spaces like the airport, and the lobby of The Commercial Appeal. His brother helped finance an exhibit at the Eades Gallery. With very few of the paintings actually selling, he gave the pieces away. By his own estimate, he donated more than 60 works to charity auctions and to anyone who expressed a fondness for his work. All the while, his style was developing strength. His painting became more speculative, less representational of specific reality, full of clean lines and intense color.
"It's what I would call, Retro-Fauve," he says, and indeed there is a familiarity of design with the Fauve movement of the early 20th century. But there are differences as well, more willingness to saturate the eye. Rarely does any white of canvas remain, and just as rarely does any man made object appear, save as a prop for some flowering plant or tree. One exception is a rendition of sailboats that hangs in the Shelby Farms Visitor's Center. Like his other paintings that have been exhibited there over the past three years, it reflects a stylized vision of the landscape.
Wild Daffodils at Shelby Farms, Wildflowers at Shelby Farms, Willow at Shelby Farms, the park is prominent in his titles. The irony is that few of the painted scenes actually exist. "I dream of a lot of different scenes that I can see out here, that may not necessarily be out here," Guy says with a shrug. "But you can see it, you can see that somebody could make those things come about."
In response to the volume of differing Sunflowers at Shelby Farms paintings he produced, sunflowers were recently planted near the visitor's center. It is a case of life imitating art. The sunflowers from which the paintings draw inspiration actually grow across Walnut Grove Road on property belonging to Agricenter International. Naturally, three of Guy's paintings hang in Agricenter's office building.
"Sunflowers have such great qualities. They feel like you're with people. It's like a quiet group of beautiful people who don't ask anything of you," he says as we walk amid the new blooms. The Agricenter staff has interspersed red sunflowers into the mix. Guy is snapping away with his camera. The predecessors of these same sunflowers indirectly influenced his artistic mission.
In 2002, he drove past the Memphis Mental Health Institute, thinking of Van Gogh, wondering, "How many artists have been institutionalized?" That day, he called the MMHI and asked to donate four sunflower paintings. It was the logical outcome of the past decade's experience. Having previously donated his work to charity, he began donating entire collections to nonprofit institutions involved with either the arts or mental health issues.
"The MMHI accepted my work blindly," says Guy, but in order to propagate his idea, he wanted people to have instant access to his body of work. Accordingly, he bought a digital camera and set up his website, guycobb.com. "Everything was clicking . . . I've always had respect for people who commit their lives to the betterment of society through the promotion of the arts." He also felt his work should hang where it could be appreciated by persons who were in need of, "a cold splash of brightness." These are, he hopes, the beginning of a trend for his recipients: the seeds of a growing collection that will be held and displayed for posterity.
His puzzle was coming together when little else seemed to be going right. In mid 2002, he nearly died of sepsis. Shortly afterward, he was laid off. Out of work for six months, he continued to paint, while Laura scrambled to control the budget. The paintings were time consuming, expensive to produce, and weren't generating a single dollar. A distinct difference of opinion was fomenting under one roof. Laura's childhood memories of West Memphis public housing were causing legitimate financial anxiety.
His job situation improved in 2003, not long before he completed a series of paintings for the Mississippi State Mental Hospital at Whitfield. Guy took Laura with him to deliver the collection and tour the facility. It was a trip that crystallized Laura's reluctant acceptance of his mission. She finally understood the motivation behind his ambition.
With his wife's blessing, Guy is on the threshold of achieving a delicate purpose. He has recently completed paintings for the Governor of Tennessee and the Mayor of St. Louis. In addition to locations previously mentioned, his work is on display at Union Mission and the offices of the Memphis Symphony Orchestra. Once again, he is an artist whose work is impossible to ignore.
"What is driving all of this?" I ask. Art, he explains, is an essential part of being fully human. Thirty nine years of life have condensed into a burning desire to transmit joy. "I think that if someone [with an illness] looks at one of my paintings, and for even a moment they're shaken out of their depression, then that's enough. That's why I want to do this."
In the distance, the clearing of the wind-killed trees continues as smoke from a massive debris fire plumes into the air like a mighty dragon. Memphis will undoubtedly recover from nature's wrath until all but the memory of destruction is grown over. Guy Cobb's mission is more difficult than replanting trees. He is attempting to solidify his purpose and recultivate hope in the minds of those who may have lost it. He has wondered for years why he can't stop painting and how his past and present would combine to yield a future that made sense. Perhaps he is on the verge of understanding. His life has become something, the preciousness of which is measured more than by a backflip or a beer. Life has become meaningless if not given to others.
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To view close-ups of Guy Cobb's art, go here.
William Gill is a native of Jackson, Mississippi. For the past 12 years he has lived and worked in Kentucky. He says his wife and four children keep him and his writing focused on what is true and good in this life.