- The Washington Times - Monday, July 17, 2006

Southern witness

Clad in his blue-and-white-striped seersucker suit, William Christenberry looked every bit the Southern gentleman for his exhibition opening at the newly opened Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery.

Even the evening air fit the occasion — as hot and humid outdoors as Mr. Christenberry’s native Alabama, which he left 45 years ago. The celebrated photographer, painter and sculptor, who will soon turn 70, has since made Washington his home and studio, “just above the National Zoo,” he told Inside the Beltway.

Still, seeing how Mr. Christenberry’s myriad creations so capture the Southern landscape and culture, you’d never know that he ever left Tuscaloosa.

“I left Alabama in 1961 and never went back to live. Not because I dislike it, but because living outside it, I can see it more objectively,” he once explained of his work.

Indeed, fellow Southerner Reynolds Price, the renowned North Carolina novelist and poet who has taught at Duke for nearly 40 years (he’s the James B. Duke professor of English), once observed of Mr. Christenberry and his subject matter:

“No piece of America has undergone so rapid a rise, high noon, and death as the rural Deep South. In a mere 200 years, an entire civilization flourished and all but vanished. And no such spectacle has called forth a more eloquent witness and recorder than William Christenberry — eloquent and truthful and brilliantly witty.”

Mr. Christenberry’s exhibit — photographs, drawings, paintings and sculptures (and a most eye-catching Styrofoam egg carton cross with artificial flowers, discarded outside an Alabama cemetery in 1975, only to be preserved in a museum vitrine) — will be on view through July 8, 2007, at the newest of the Smithsonians, the old Patent Office Building at 8th and F streets Northwest.)

The most haunting of the artist’s works, by far, are three drawn images of hooded Klansmen.

“This is my way, meager as it might be, to deal with evil,” he wrote of the pieces. “Some people have told me that this subject is not the proper concern of an artist. On the contrary, I hold the position that there are times when an artist must examine and reveal such strange and secret brutality.”

Among the many Washingtonians on hand for the opening were David C. Levy, former longtime director of the Corcoran Gallery of Art (Mr. Christenberry is a professor at the Corcoran College of Art and Design); Washington arts figure Marsha Ralls; and Elizabeth Broun, director of the American Art Museum.

Celery farmer

You’d think after his flawed story about President Bush‘s National Guard service that former longtime CBS News anchor Dan Rather would leave the president alone.

Are you kidding?

In his first broadcast TV appearance since losing his anchor chair — a two-part interview with Chris Matthews — Mr. Rather remarked that Mr. Bush’s beloved Texas “ranch” is nothing more than a “truck garden.”

“I’ll bet you this August that President Bush spends less time on his, quote, ‘ranch’ in Texas — some dispute as to whether his ranch is actually a truck garden — but nonetheless, he’ll spend far less — ”

“You got that in, didn’t you?” Mr. Matthews interrupted.

A truck garden is a farm where vegetables are grown for market.

The first part of the interview aired yesterday; the second will air next Sunday.

Wise guy

Out for a stroll in Old Town Alexandria over the weekend, this columnist encountered a Cunningham Funeral Home director as he was washing a hearse in the driveway.

“How’s business been?” I couldn’t help but ask.

“Dead,” he replied, without missing a beat.

Priceless obit

Speaking of dying, we were inundated with mail after republishing an obituary from the July 9 Richmond Times-Dispatch for Frederic Arthur FredClark.

In short, Mr. Clark was the type of American whose “back straightened and chest puffed out when he heard ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’” When it came to politics, he was amazed at “what the process does to its participants.” And he was sadly deprived of his final wish for “a double date to include his wife, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter to crash an ACLU cocktail party.”

At least he’ll have his ashes “fired from his favorite cannon at a private party on the Great Wicomico River.”

Because David T. Bryan, chief estimator of Hoar Construction LLC in Birmingham, Ala., wrote the shortest note to Inside the Beltway, we’ll let him speak for others: “Thanks for starting my day off with a hoot! Taking a line from the advertisers, this was ‘Priceless.’”

John McCaslin, whose column is nationally syndicated, can be reached at 202/636-3284 or jmccaslin@washingtontimes.com.

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