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Racial Metaphors in the Art of Don H. Marr

My father was a renaissance man with a broad range of skills and interests.  His art reflects that range in the spectrum of styles he learned to master, ranging from cubism to finely executed realism in the vein of Fredrick Church to many a Monet study. But he also greatly admired the surrealist movement, particularly the work of René Magritte, as you can see in many of his works, most notably Metaphor.  

For me, this work is one of Dad’s most poignant and didactic pieces. Consider the elements: you have a young dark-skinned boy in the center of the frame, wrapped in a sari (most likely based on a photograph Dad took while studying in India).  To his left is a dead tree laden with a murder of crows.  

To his right is a distant snow-capped mountain and a dove of peace.  Above the boy, the Zodiac looms, implying his fate has already been cast. The snow-capped mountain and dove of peace lay far from the boy, and he must cross a vast body of choppy water to reach them. In contrast, the dead tree with the murder of crows is right in front of him, and  perhaps it is his fate to head in that direction.  Above it all, is a red hibiscus (a symbol of passion and love) in the place of the sun, perhaps representing hope. I believe this work is a mediation on the lives of people of color across the globe, as well as the power and limitations of symbols and metaphors generally. 

Dad’s fascination with race relations began early in his career.  He was a profoundly empathetic man, always looking outward at the world and reflecting the best and worst of what he saw in his art.  In his early work The Charioteer, he portrays a one-legged African American man who was known to ride around Conway on a tricycle in the early 1960s. 

I suspect The Charioteer was the original inspiration for one of two characters that recurs throughout my father’s long career: The Southern Raconteur.  The Raconteur probably first appears in Wallace, walking out of the “eye” frame of the painting in the shadow of a campaign poster for Dad’s other recurring character, Noah Webster Greenlee (sometimes Greenleaf), who Dad admitted to me was a thinly veiled caricature of Arkansas’s infamous segregationist governor Orval Faubus

Greenlee appears again many times, most notably in See Rock City, where a campaign poster for him hangs just above a black snake (Dad was not always subtle) and many years later in Remembrance

Dad’s meditation on race reaches its zenith in two works clearly painted around the same time in the 1980s: Wafted to the Ole Land… and Rebirth of the Southern Raconteur. My father gave me Wafted in the late 1990s claiming no one else would want it. 

And I confess it took me many years of contemplation to understand its vast narrative complexity. To “get” it, I suggest you study both the elements and the long Faulknarian title together. Without giving too much away, let me say what you see here.  The “Eastern Enlightenment” is  represented by a leprechaun riding in on a rainbow, giving rebirth to the ghost of Noah Webster Greenleaf, AKA Orval Faubus. 

In a coy moment, my father once confessed to me that the leprechaun just might have been some yankee cultural critic, such as Stanley Fish, who came to Hendrix and talked down to all the “hicks.” 

The Greenleaf character is retelling the tales of the “Racoonteur,” spelled the way Faubus might have pronounced it, as if they are is his own. In the painting the Raconteur is but a shadow with his head held low. 

I believe Rebirth of the Southern Raconteur came after, and is a response to, Wafted. In this piece the Raconteur has clearly found his voice.  He is standing proud, looking directly at the viewer with a flower in his lapel, not intimidated by all the hateful forces surrounding him including the KKK in full regalia.  He owns his story now, and he is going to tell it.  In the 1980s Rebirth was sold by the Heights Gallery in Little Rock to an Italian collector who took it to Milan. Presuming it is still there, one can only wonder what the Italians make of it. In his later years, and up until his deathbed, my father claimed Rebirth of the Southern Raconteur to be the best thing he ever did. 

Were he alive today, my father would be painting outrageous caricatures of various politicians -- and he would be proudly marching with the Black Lives Matter movement. 



Essay by Duke Marr

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