I know I’m supposed to be writing about Canadian outsider art, but here I am in Raleigh, North Carolina. I got up early enough to make my arrival at the Gregg Museum of Art and Design, not too early to appear pathetic, but not too late to appear uninterested. (In truth, it took me a frustrating hour to get there with an Egyptian cab driver, Sammi. But I digress.)
So, the Gregg Museum is on the second floor of the student centre at the University of North Carolina, and you get there by dragging yourself up 3 flights of stairs in insufferable heat. I met Roger Manley, the Museum’s gracious director, when I arrived, and he sat me down at a big table with a stack of documents and two suitcases of papers left by Annie Hooper. Heavenly. I spent the entire day sifting through a mountain of letters, poems, and novels left by Annie. I call her “Annie” only because I had the chance to catch a glimpse of her in the two days I spent reading the material she left behind. I discovered that Annie was a prolific writer of poems, sermons, and stories.
I started with her novel because I believe that so much of a person can be discerned from his or her writings, even if they are fictionalized. My heart sank when I read the title of her novel – Swastika, A Good Omen. I thought I was about to uncover a nasty anti-Semitic secret about artist Annie. In fact, it turned out to be a romantic novel, in the style of Jane Austen, with the title referencing the ancient meaning of swastika – a lucky or auspicious object.
I am a child of the 60s and 70s. I grew up with a view to righting the wrongs of gender inequality. I eschewed the trappings of conventional gender roles and stereotypes and believed that, within a short time, a better world would emerge from the ashes. But I have a proclivity for Jane Austen novels. I admit it. The male character is always terribly misunderstood and maligned by society, but in the end, the virtuous female character gets the (misunderstood but honourable) man, she gets the house, she gets the money. Hmm. Annie’s novel follows this traditional story line. In the end Lena gets the poor (but soon to be rich) Walter. She gets the refurbished house (named “Swastika”) and she lives in fabulous wealth, happily and forever after. Indeed, I have stripped the plot to omit all metaphors of birds trapped in cages, lengthy descriptions of incredible dresses with lace and velvet trimmings, and declarations of unrequited love (a la Romeo and Juliet), but you get the gist of it.
I wondered how this novel would set me up for viewing Annie’s sculptures the next day. I didn’t yet know what I may have learned about my artist.