Saving Ralph Lanning’s Sculptures in the NY Times

Search for de Soto in Southeast Georgia

By EVE M. KAHN
Published: May 20, 2010 
Matthew Kile
“Lady Godiva,” a sculpture from the garden of Ralph Lanning, an outsider artist who died recently. His works are w at Missouri State University.
Hernando de Soto left little trace of his 1540s scramble for gold across the American Southeast. With an entourage of about 600 men on horseback, he built camps and fought Indian tribes from Florida to Arkansas, but only a few Spanish coins, beads, chainmail strands and pig bones have turned up in archaeological digs.
“You’d expect this small army to have trashed the place up somewhat,” but the artifact supply is puzzlingly skimpy, said Dennis Blanton, the lead archaeologist at Fernbank Museum of Natural History in Atlanta. For four years, he has supervised a dig at a remote pine tree farm in southeast Georgia, where a dozen excavated chunks of glass and metal now suggest that de Soto passed through.
Fernbank is displaying the tantalizing relics in “De Soto’s Footsteps: New Archaeological Evidence From Georgia,” which opens on Saturday. Photos, videos and wall graphics explain how de Soto researchers have argued about his exact path for decades and why Mr. Blanton descended upon that particular tree farm.
He originally expected to find ruins of a 17th-century Spanish mission and Indian settlement; Spanish and Indian pottery shards had turned up there over the years.
Instead his team pulled out zigzag-striped European beads from the early 1500s, a silver pendant made from an early Spanish coin and embossed brass and iron fragments, possibly from Spanish horse tack, armor or tools.
“We believe the best interpretation is that de Soto is responsible for this material,” Mr. Blanton said. The team is still digging, he added, and further research could reveal that the beads and metalwork actually came from Spain’s short-lived 1526 colony on the Georgia coast.
“Maybe some desperate survivors cast their lot with Indians in the interior,” he said. “That would be an even bigger story than de Soto.”
CABINETMAKER’S CURIOUS LIFE
Thomas Day ran North Carolina’s most successful cabinetmaking workshop before the Civil War, supplying plantation owners with curvy mahogany furniture and house parts. He was a free black artisan, and his loyal white clients protected him from racist laws, including bans on interstate travel.
Since he employed white and black woodworkers and owned a dozen slaves, he was unlikely to stir up abolitionist trouble or “any disturbance amongst the Blacks,” a lawyer friend wrote to the state assembly.
Day’s steam-powered factory in Milton, a hamlet at the Virginia border, produced hundreds of pieces a year between the 1820s and his death in 1861. The North Carolina Museum of History in Raleigh has gathered about 80 works, in addition to paperwork documenting his paradoxical role as a slaveholder, for an exhibition, “Behind the Veneer: Thomas Day, Master Cabinetmaker,” that opens on Saturday.
The furniture, in fashionable Rococo, Gothic and Greek Revival styles, has signature Day twists like flared feet and scrollwork filigree. “He exercised total creative freedom within his sphere,” said Patricia Phillips Marshall, the museum’s decorative arts curator.
The museum has acquired about 50 of his pieces in the last four decades, occasionally prying them away from his customers’ descendants. At a tag sale in Raleigh two months ago, the museum paid $3,000 for a Day church pew and marble-topped table that were still in family hands.
His clients’ heirs have also helped preserve about 80 houses in North Carolina and Virginia with Day carvings, including lacy staircase posts and pilasters shaped like worried men’s faces. The museum exhibit contains, along with tables, chairs and bedsteads, a few architectural fragments and a reproduction of an 1850s parlor that he built for a tobacco farmer.
The exhibition and accompanying book, “Thomas Day: Master Craftsman and Free Man of Color” (University of North Carolina Press), give hints of the artisan’s hidden inner life. He came across as subservient in his newspaper ads, promising that commissions “will be thankfully received and punctually attended to.” But he sent his children to an abolitionist boarding school in Massachusetts and wrote them that he longed to leave “the Oppressive South.”
After a bank crisis in 1857, however, plantation owners defaulting on furniture bills left his company bankrupt, and he later died in Milton. One of his sons, Thomas, revived the workshop briefly after the Civil War, and Day descendants still own pieces of his furniture and keep his legacy alive.
At the exhibition opening, Thomas Day VI, an M.B.A. student at the University of North Carolina, will present the museum with an 1840s family Bible. In the galleries’ videos, Carolyn Green Boone, another descendant, plays the role of the furniture-maker’s wife, Aquilla.
Ms. Boone, who runs a historic preservation fund in Durham, has studied records indicating that her forebear kept his slaves’ families together, fed and clothed them well and trained them as woodworkers and bill collectors. “It was not the stereotypic owner-master scenario,” she said in a recent telephone interview.
“I’m reluctant to use the words ‘benevolent slave owner,’ ” she said. But she understands the compromises required of antebellum black businessmen, she added: “They had to position themselves as part of mainstream society.”
SELF-TAUGHT BUT NOT FORGOTTEN
Outsider art environments, hand-built by untrained sculptors often expressing religious devotion, are notoriously fragile. After the artists die, nonprofit groups and government agencies struggle to maintain yards full of painted statues and towers of bottle shards.
“The outcomes of many, many of these environments, by self-taught artists who want to leave their mark on this earth, are not good,” said John Foster, an outsider art collector and branding agency executive in St. Louis. Last month he secured last-minute grants to save 28 outdoor sculptures in southwest Missouri carved by Ralph Lanning.
Lanning, a retired dam builder in Republic, Mo., let the public roam his lawns studded with stone and concrete mermaids, hearts, two-headed creatures and life-size biblical figures. He planned for Missouri State University in Springfield to run the site eventually as a museum, but never wrote a will. “He didn’t like lawyers,” Mr. Foster said.
Lanning died in December at 93, and his family scheduled an artwork auction on the lawns. Mr. Foster persuaded the Kohler Foundation in Wisconsin, which finances outsider art preservation, to buy the sculptures as gifts for the university’s campus. He represented Kohler at the sale on April 9, paying more than $1,000 for unwieldy pieces. “I held my card up and never put it down,” he said.
The carvings are now in storage at the university, where Kohler will finance repair work while school officials decide where to display them.
Fortunately, said Wade Thompson, the art and design department head, “some of them are small enough to go inside.”
A version of this article appeared in print on May 21, 2010, on page C26 of the New York edition.