The paintings are alternately vibrant, serene and joyful, hundreds of them produced over a long lifetime in Yanceyville, located in rural Caswell County, N.C. Many of the images are strikingly oblique glimpses of attractive young women at leisure: blow-drying hair, roller-skating or poised on a tree swing. But as immediately appealing as the paintings are, they also manage to be evocative and emotional without being sentimental. Highly distinctive yet often heedless of international art fashions, the work of Maud Gatewood represents a singular and private sensibility nurtured among the pines and red clay of North Carolina.
Rather quickly and unexpectedly, Gatewood succumbed last fall to a pair of strokes at the age of 70, but she survived long enough to see a newly completed film about her life and work. This weekend, Gatewood: Facing the White Canvas will play in area theaters, while a small memorial exhibition continues through Aug. 11 at the North Carolina Museum of Art.
Like such Southern literary homebodies as Eudora Welty, William Faulkner, Flannery O’Connor and Reynolds Price (who appears in the film), Gatewood was hip to the goings-on in New York and Paris and London, but chose to practice her art in the land where her creative spirit felt at home.
Indeed, the salty and blunt, hard-drinking and smoking Gatewood tells us that she began her adult art training in complete thrall to Abstract Expressionism. “But Jackson Pollock,” she notes, “was trained by [Western muralist] Thomas Hart Benton.” The important thing is to follow your own muse, but skeptically and carefully. “If you don’t question what you’re doing, you’re an absolute fool,” Gatewood says.
In keeping with the spirit of Gatewood’s backcountry creative world, the film itself was nurtured in the woods. At the end of a gravel road on the southeastern outskirts of Chapel Hill lies a circular yurt, built from a kit and ready to go at a moment’s notice. Located between a house and a trailer that have seen better days, it could be the home of a reclusive poet or folk musician if it weren’t the headquarters of The Empowerment Project, a longtime activist documentary production company founded a decade and a half ago by David Kasper and Barbara Trent.
I’m sitting inside the yurt, amid a very up-to-date editing suite and central air that is swirled further by an overhead fan. Kasper and his co-producer Carlyle Poteat are describing the genesis of the Gatewood project, but I’m distracted by a golden trophy perched on a shelf behind Kasper. Finally, I can’t resist.
“Is that an actual Oscar?”
“Not everyone that comes in notices,” Kasper says as he takes it down and proffers it. I take it and find it to be as heavy as it should be. Kasper won it along with Trent for their film The Panama Deception back in 1993 (approximately the same week that the UNC men’s basketball team last won a national championship). More activist filmmaking followed, but with Gatewood, The Empowerment Project is shifting gears into the less overtly political but no less uncompromising subject of Maud Gatewood.
The project began when Poteat, a visual artist herself, ran into Gatewood at Chapel Hill’s Wellspring Grocery. The idea of a film clicked in Poteat’s head and she approched Joe Rowand of Somerhill Gallery in Chapel Hill. “He put me in touch with Larry Wheeler of the N.C. Art Museum, who was very keen on the idea of a film.”
Fundraising began in late 2000, and production a year later. “It surprised me how much enthusiasm there was for it,” Kasper says. “I don’t think I’ve ever been involved with a project that this many people with money supported.”
“But it wasn’t without struggle,” Poteat adds. “It took a lot longer than we anticipated.”
The film itself provides a generous helping of Gatewood’s paintings and meticulously chosen archival images of Yanceyville, including home movies taken by a neighbor. Born in 1934, Maud Gatewood was the only child of a locally-prominent family; her father was the sheriff of Caswell County. As a result, Gatewood tells us with arched eyebrows, “I had a more than average knowledge of the many foibles of human existence.”
In some ways, Gatewood’s existence was archetypically Southern, complete with a superstitious black housekeeper named Juja (the toddler Maud’s rendering of Julia) who buried the infant Maud’s afterbirth for her future protection from evil. One old family friend tells us, “It was a different world back then, even in the 1950s–families were closer.” (If Jim Crow and his family lived in Yanceyville then, the film does not say.)
Unsurprisingly, Maud Gatewood was a preternaturally bright and inquisitive child who skipped two grades and graduated high school at 16. One of the artist’s most eloquently narrated memories is of the night the young girl spent in her yard staring at the stars and suddenly coming to grips with her mortality. What was a sublime awakening became magical when her father arrived home later in the night and surprised her with a pony.
After studying and teaching in Greensboro for years, Gatewood returned to Yanceyville in 1973 after a dangerous bout with hepatitis, which she’d contracted on a trip to India. It was there that she embarked on a largely solitary life, cranking out painting after painting and making an increasingly reliable living. But the Maud Gatewood we meet in the film emphasizes the difficulty of filling a white canvas over and over. There’s more than a hint of depression and loneliness. According to Kasper, this forthrightness was unusual. “Painting was not always easy for her. She struggled a lot and not many people knew that.”
“She said things in this documentary that she’d never really said before,” Kasper adds.
Viewers of this film may find themselves wondering about something else that remains unsaid: Gatewood’s romantic relationships with women go unexplored, much to the regret of Poteat, who said that the topic was off-limits. “She was gay, but at her insistence we kept it out of the film,” Poteat says. “I felt it didn’t need to be spelled out but I also felt like it needed to be in there.”
“The great love of her life was Molly Sexton,” Poteat continues, “who was her model for some of her most joyful paintings. I had quite a few conversations with her by phone and e-mail.” Sexton hesitated then finally declined to be interviewed for the film. Although Sexton’s relationship with Gatewood ended many years ago, the women remained in touch and Sexton, a Greensboro resident, was one of two people at Gatewood’s bedside when she died.
Poteat says that her working relationship with Gatewood was occasionally strained, particularly toward the end. “Maud must have seen her death around the corner. She was frantic to get it finished,” Poteat says. “I was frantic, too, because we were so late.”
Gatewood did see the completed film, but five days before its premiere at the N.C. Museum of Art, she suffered the first of her strokes. She went to the hospital, rallied but then suffered another. She never returned home.
Poteat was told by Somerhill’s Joe Rowand that at one point, a VCR was wheeled into Gatewood’s hospital room. She was asked what movie she wanted to see. “Joe told me that she said, ‘I want to see my movie.’”
“That made me feel good,” Poteat says.
Starting this weekend, Gatewood: Facing the White Canvas shows at Colony Theater in Raleigh, Galaxy Theater in Cary and Varsity Theater in Chapel Hill (see Movie Calendar for times). The film will also air on UNC TV on April 28. Call 928-0382 or visit www.empowermentproject.org for more information.