A Stillness in the City

Posted: Sep 08, 2014 8:55 PM
Just a few blocks away from Little Rock's snaggle-toothed skyline, its intersecting interstates and rush-hour traffic, an island of respite opens in the middle of downtown. It's an exhibit of photographs taken between 1995 and 2012 in and around sleepy little Wilmot (Pop. 550) down in Ashley County. That's in L.A., or Lower Arkansas, the southernmost part of the state, which is about as Southern as it gets.

The exhibit, now showing at the Arkansas Arts Center, brings a welcome peace to the state's capital as this year's political campaigns heat up. And you know the political frenzy is bound to grow even more as Election Day approaches like a fast-moving freight, its pitch increasing as it nears. It's the political equivalent of the Doppler Effect.

What's needed is a visit to the past, preferably a slow-moving rural past. Even the most violent episodes from that past may offer respite from today's obsessions. Why should that be so? Because it is the past. It's over and done with. We know how it turned out, if not always why. And so the tension and suspense is mercifully absent, or at least reduced. Even if historians can get pretty worked up over some controversial part of an ever dimmer past. At least all the death and destruction are done with.

Surely someday, pray God, today's headlines about Gaza, Syria, Iraq, Ukraine -- however wrenching -- will be the past, too, their dead given a decent burial along with their vendettas. Just as our own Civil War is now mercifully over, even if its effects yet linger. For it is the rock from which we are hewn.

"It is well that war is so terrible, or we should grow too fond of it," said Robert E. Lee as he watched from Marye's Heights as his artillery cut a deadly swath through the helpless Union ranks far below one day in 1862 at a place called Fredericksburg. But at least all that pain and suffering is now reduced to some antiseptic lines and arrows on a map in the military history books. The wounded no longer groan. The dead have been buried. And all is still. Peace, it's wonderful.

There is an emptiness that can be sweet peace, like the stillness that settled over Appomattox when The War was finally over. Or the emptiness of little towns throughout the rural South now that cotton is no longer king and their once bustling heyday is long past. Like ever littler Wilmot, Ark., where all seems quiet and homey in Susan Paulsen's photographs. Some of them are just picture-postcard pretty. Like classic cypresses rising from a lake, or old oaks covered with Spanish moss. They might as well be outtakes from "Gone With the Wind."

As a dear little lady named Julia Raley with a pixie's sense of humor and a social worker's practical conscience told me many years ago, when I was still writing editorials for the Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, and the town was only beginning its present decline, "You come on over tonight and we'll play Old South to beat the band." I still miss her. And old Pine Bluff, too. And that old-time, vanished small-town South with all its Wilmots. Maybe that's what Susan Paulsen was trying to evoke with these snapshots. There must be a couple hundred of them. And a few even approach art instead of poster art.

A picture of black hands jutting out of ragged sleeves could be an oil painting by an Old Master. And the pictures of the cemetery may be the best in the collection. Those little cities of the dead are usually the liveliest places in any small town. Driving past a rural cemetery as a boy, I must have looked nervous. Because the family retainer I was helping that day glanced over and assured me, "It ain't the dead that'll hurt you."

Whoever chose the signature picture of this exhibit, the one showing a lone bare tree at the bend of an unpaved road, chose well. It's beautiful and powerful. Most of the other photographs on display are neither. Taking them in color was probably the artist's big mistake. Surely they would all have looked better, more time-tinged, deeper, richer in texture in black-and-white. Which would have lent them a greater dignity, the dignity of a past technique made an art. As in photogravure or old woodcuts with their fine gradations of light and dark, sun and shadow.

Much of the exhibit looks like a family album of a typical small-town, upper-class family in the vanishing South, and the commentary on the wall plaques nearby is all too typical, too -- an admix of Southern History for Dummies and self-indulgent memories.

It's all familiar ground for those of us who grew up on it. Anyone in the market for the beauty of blight would do better to just head south by southeast for Pine Bluff to see the real thing. Or over to the country around little Humphrey (pronounced 'Umphrey) on the Jefferson-Arkansas county line, where the South still lives. Kind of.

What is it that mesmerizes about such places? Not so much their life as their after-life. Surely that is what the photographer was after in these pictures, and when she caught it in a couple of them, we mortals are lifted and filled with peace, assured once again that one day all the clamor will cease, and we can lay our burden down.