Last April, one month before she died at the age of 96, the state of Louisiana designated its native daughter, sculptor Clyde Connell, a “legend.” According to the program notes for the Eighth Annual Louisiana Legends Award Banquet, “The person she is, the objects she creates, the moral beliefs she shares and the land she lives on integrate into one common strong impact on the individual seeing her work or visiting with her in her studio.”
Long before she joined the roster of past and present Louisiana Legend awardees, Connell was already a legend in certain art circles. The legend is most colorful in Louisiana where it is probably the truest. Her tall mudlike totemic sculptures embedded with rusting machine parts from the family plantation are regarded there with something of the reverence bestowed on Louisiana’s primordial ooze. Louisiana exhibitions of her work, like the one a few years ago where Spanish moss was hung between the works and taped cricket sounds chirped from the carpet, are as much experienced as viewed. For artworks born to be contemplated in stark white-walled galleries, such a presentation would seem ludicrous, if not outright insulting. But Connell’s sculptures come most to life in the context of their creation.
How Louisiana in both its human and natural ecology shaped Connell’s sculpture is clear. The daughter of a prominent white plantation family, she lived her entire life within a 50-mile radius of Shreveport, most of the time in close comfortable contact with rural Southern black culture. During a critical period for her art, in the 1950s while she was living on a Louisiana prison farm as the superintendent’s wife, she turned from painting watercolors of magnolia blossoms to embrace, at age 53, a starker, richer reality, making woodcut portraits of black prisoners. This change led to four decades of work dealing with the themes of enchainment and bondage. By the early 1970s, living in a bayou fishing cabin on remote Lake Bistineau, she made “Swamp Song” collages, drawing from bayou sounds and taking her first sure steps into personal abstract imagery derived from nature. At Lake Bistineau, she turned her training in the conventional domestic crafts of rug-hooking and woodcarving into creating sculpture covered with a rough gray papier-mâché material that closely resembled insect nests.
Though she had begun showing her work locally in the 1960s and in Texas in the 1970s, Connell was “discovered” in the early 1980s by the New York art scene. She was embraced as one of the last contemporary artists-and one of the few native-born U.S. artists-to use authentic primitive imagery to express surrealist-derived Abstract Expressionist principles. That New York network of critical support led to a decade of national awards for Connell: a one-person exhibition in 1981 at New York’s influential Clocktower Gallery, an Adolph Gottlieb Foundation award in 1982, a 1986 Award in the Visual Arts, a show at the 1987 National Sculpture Conference, and inclusion in “Different Drummers,” an important 1988 exhibition at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington D.C.
This recognition gave birth to at least three more legends about Connell, then in her 80s. For women artists, like those in the Women’s Caucus for Art of the College Art Association (which gave her the Distinguished Woman Artist Award in 1985), she became a role model for artists intent on defying social conventions about gender. As an octogenarian known to occasionally outlast much younger people in art world crawls, she was a symbol of the affirmation of late-life creativity. For regional artists, who had been friends and supporters from her earliest days in Shreveport, she was living proof that artists could transcend isolated locales to achieve national recognition on the strength of imagery alone.
Connell’s sculpture also reflects sensitivity to history and, particularly, a hopeful interpretation of art’s ability to bring beauty and understanding to it. Prior to committing herself to art, Connell had been a civil rights activist through the Southern Presbyterian Church. Her earliest sculptures from the 1970s have a trace of moral fervor, hearkening back to her religious training in interracial dynamics and what might be called today “conflict resolution.” The “Family Group” sculptures, stylized abstract figures in an embrace that forms a central enclosure, have names like “Burden Bearers” and “Three in Agreement”. Communication and dialogue were prominent themes in “Family Group” works from the early 1970s like “Gate of the East Wind” and “Gate of the South Wind”, in which a heavy black chain was suspended through the enclosed central space. Along with communication, chains would return as a theme throughout Connell’s later work, culminating with a collage series made in the last year of her life, “Chain People”.
Individual figures gradually broke away from the “Family Group” sculptures and, without the group context, often lost their specific reference to the human figure. Simply called “Posts,” these works marked the beginning of Connell’s totemic sculptures and led to her mature work of the 1980s. Along the way, several collages, among them “Non-Persons Posts” and “Non-Person Woman” (both 1977), combined past themes with her growing interest in feminist imagery. In these stylized figures, cups, chains, and various machine parts depict female genitalia, but only gear shifts portray faces. Connell attributes the inspiration for these pieces to observing restless and undefined women vacantly living through their children or husbands. During this period in Shreveport, Connell had joined with other women artists to invite some of the leading figures in feminist art to come lecture and view their studios. Lucy Lippard, Judy Chicago, Jackie Winsor, and Roberta Smith all made visits to Connell’s studio from 1976-1979. Their conversations with Connell contributed to the transformation of her “Post” sculptures from dignified commentaries on the human condition to visceral engagements with it.
Judy Chicago, whose book “Through the Flower” had appeared in 1973, provided particular inspiration for Connell. At the urging of Chicago (an outspoken advocate of women making explicit use of the female body), Connell put central cavities into the “Post” sculptures that became for her less vaginal cavities, as Chicago might have wanted, than ritual spaces that sheltered and protected life. In works like “Swamp Ritual” (1977), stones and twigs from the Lake Bistineau landscape that Connell placed inside the tall monolithic “Posts” were invitations to the viewer to consider the sacredness of nature and what it represents about life on earth.
Once the form had been penetrated, Connell’s imagination seemed to have been unleashed. By this time, she had also perfected the technique of applying gray papier- mâché material onto a wood armature to produce works that looked stonelike and ancient. Connell claimed to have developed the papier-mâché technique because she could not afford her first preference, steel. However, a large part of the mystery of her work is due to this innocent, low-tech material, which Connell made from recycled local newspapers combined with Elmer’s Glue. It gives an unmistakable folk art quality to her work and suggests the natural materials used by insects and birds to make their nests. The mottled gray papier-mâché surfaces are unornamented and almost severe, colored only by occasional red rust stains from nails in the wooden armature or rusting metal machine parts.
Between 1978 and 1982, Connell produced her best-known body of work, incorporating components of the Louisiana landscape and nature, feminist art ideas, and her continuing notions about communication and personal growth. Large structures, like “Rain Place” (1978) and “Woods Habitat” (1979) completely obliterate the formality of her earlier works, becoming fragile twig art fabrications of swamp rattan held together by papier-mâché. One twig work, “Trail Stones” (1980), is an isolated effort at earth art but it introduces the theme of passage which would gain prominence when Connell returned to a more geometrical format. Increasingly, by the early 1980s, ladders, complicated lattice structures, and stilts-all structures designed to facilitate elevation to higher places-became major stylistic components. In “Dialogue Gate” (1981), a ladder leans resolutely against a tall sturdy structure where a large stone rests, identifying it as the ultimate “ritual place.” One particularly evocative untitled work is a complex structure of interlocking ladders, suggesting one of those secret contraptions contrived by ancient people to prevent uninitiated intruders from gaining access to sacred mysteries.
Connell wanted her viewers to stretch to comprehend the meaning of her work, increasingly contained within the ritual places independent from the forms which supported them. The “Nests” are a series of sculptures made in the early and mid-1980s in which the interior ritual places, now reduced to three-sided geometric boxes, are set high atop tall ladder stilts. In works like “Lake Stilts” (1982), ritual places are made slightly inaccessible and just out of reach of the viewer, as though glimpsing into the boxes were an achievement that visually required climbing higher up the stilt’s ladder. The boxes themselves, while still containing stones, suggest a more specific and more dramatic reading. Inside, different size pebbles are permanently installed like characters in an ensemble acting out a scene of unknown meaning. Like miniature theaters or shadow boxes, these ritual places are less arbitrary and, though the meaning of their drama remains unclear, their message, repeated over and over again with variations on top of the stilts, appears urgent.
A similar dramatic urgency is conveyed in the last major sculptures Connell, then in her early 80s, would make, by then always with the help of an assistant. The geometric scaffolding once supporting the ritual spaces falls completely away, and the ritual spaces, now enlarged to invite viewers to physically enter into them, become architectural spaces for human contemplation. Originally, as in “Written in Stone” (1982), these large works consisted of screen panels embedded with stones, resembling enlarged versions of the “Nest” ritual places. However, in these works, Connell is more insistent that her viewers take time to contemplate the message of her work. In three of her largest pieces, “Mantis and Man in Time and Space” (1983), “Numbered and Filed, No. 2” (1984), and “Marks for Man” (1990), she built benches, often contained under a protective canopy, to encourage viewers to sit and reflect. In most cases, the stones embedded on the walls offered for contemplation are arranged, once again, to depict the human figure.
It would appear that, as Connell entered her 90s, her art had come full circle, returning to her first themes of social interaction touched by spiritual values that earlier she might have been reluctant to impart. What was the higher order the ladders directed her viewers toward or the message she wanted contemplated in her miniature chapels? For Connell, heaven, nirvana, a Zen-like place in nature will all do. As she mused in 1988, “I have a feeling there is an afterlife. Now, what it is, if it’s you come back or don’t come back, I don’t know. It’s hard for me to believe that a thinking person just disappears forever.”
Old age had begun to slow Connell down. Her final show at Arthur Roger Gallery in New Orleans last October consisted primarily of earlier pieces, drawings, and small wall hangings, often reiterating her themes of the last decade. Still living in the Lake Bistineau cabin, she was recovering from cancer surgery last spring when she died. Among the many obituaries that appeared in the local and national press was surely one of the rarest tributes ever given an artist: an editorial page cartoon. Upon seeing Connell arriving at the Pearly Gates holding a maquette, Saint Peter says into the telephone, “Yes, boss. Clyde Connell is here and she wants to suggest some designs she has for the Pearly Gates!”
Charlotte Moser, author of “Clyde Connell: The Art and Life of a Louisiana Woman”, is a former editor of Artweek and art critic for the Houston Chronicle and Chicago Sun-Times.