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November 26, 2012
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Barry Smith: Irrelativity

My grandmother already has three children of her own. Suddenly, pretty much overnight, she had six. Wow. As if they weren't already, her hands became officially full.

Her brother was in the Army, stationed overseas, and his wife had some sort of breakdown, leaving their kids with nobody to care for them. So my grandmother took them in. That's the way she was.

One of these kids was Cousin George. Story goes that even as a young 'un he was prone to pitching fits, bit like a snapping turtle, would run hog wild and wouldn't mind a lick. This all takes place in the Mississippi Delta in the late 1950s, which explains the authentic rural language. It was also way before my time, so I've had to fill in some of the blanks over the years.

Cousin George was 5 years old when he moved in with his aunt, my grandmother. Things went along as smoothly as they could until Cousin George began bringing home his kindergarten "art."

This art (no examples of which have survived the years, alas) was not the colorful, folksy art that people have come to expect from the troubled Southern "outsider" artist. No, this art was dark. Literally. It was rendered in all black crayon. The little stick figures of George's family - all black. Crude renditions of Gabby, the all-white-with-one-black-spot family dog - all black with one black spot. The house, freshly painted white, became a gothic residence under the observant crayon of Cousin George. The tree in front of the house, the bright green magnolia bursting with fragrant white flowers. Yep. Black, bursting with black. Cars. Birds. The sun and its rays. Black. Everything. Black. Always.

My grandmother was really too busy with the cooking and the cleaning to also take note of subtle artistic trends, so the fact that this new body of noir work got her attention really says something about the turn Cousin George's schoolwork must have taken. My grandmother was even less of a psychiatrist than an art curator, but this struck her as a blatant cry for help. This was a small boy whose pain was so great that it was coming out on the page. This was deep. And wide.

As this problem was way outside the bounds of the usual Southern childhood corrective measures (a good whoopin'), Cousin George was sent to a psychiatrist. This was not the norm in our family, and not just because of the lack of practicing psychiatrists in the Shelby, Miss., area at that time (they probably had to drive all the way to Hushpuckenah), but according to the official family story, that's what happened. Get that kid to a shrink. A qualified professional will get to the bottom of these Satanic renderings. And if not, we'll take him to the preacher. Out! Out, Beelzebub!

George met with the psychiatrist for a few sessions. I imagine there was talk about feelings and parents and siblings and school. Clearly the kid had experienced some trauma recently, being uprooted from his home, living in a household away from his parents. This is big stuff. And you need to proceed slowly with these things. Gotta get the patient warmed up a little bit before you start discussing artistic influences.

When talk finally turned to the sinister pictures - which I sincerely hope my grandmother had pinned to George's shirt on that day, as that image is just too good to waste - the psychiatrist must have had his notebook at the ready, his pen poised to capture the angst and hopelessness that this young artist had taken to expressing on his Big Chief tablet.

"Can you tell me what this picture is, George?"

"That's me," George says, pleased with his work.

"Uh huh. And what's this?"

"That's my house. And Gabby. She's a dog. And that's a tree."

"Interesting, interesting. What color is the sun, George?"

"Yellow."

"And your house?"

"White?"

Now the big question.

"Uh huh. So, George, tell me," he says in a calm voice. "Why is it that in these pictures all of these things are black?"

And 5-year-old Cousin George gives his answer, an answer that has echoed through my family for generations

"Because I lost all of my other crayons," he says. "Well, I ate some of them, and I lost the rest. I only have the black one left."


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The Aspen Times Updated Nov 26, 2012 06:16AM Published Nov 26, 2012 12:13AM Copyright 2012 The Aspen Times. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.