Ben South and the ‘perpetual gift of curiosity’

“Sunflowers In A Cobalt Vase” from Ben’s “Master & Gardener” series

CULLMAN, Ala. – Over the course of its history, Cullman has been home to many great creators and artists in all mediums. One hometown “consummate creative,” as he put it, has been drawing inspiration from the natural world and the concept of “southernness” here for nearly 70 years – an inspiration so strong he now uses it as part of his professional name. With his art gracing the cover of the latest Community Matters, The Cullman Tribune sat down with local artist Ben South to get a peek into the mind of the man behind the canvas.

An Early Start

Ben Johnson South was born to Ben and Ruby Johnson in 1952, a unique family situation in that both of his parents were orphans. While South acknowledged the sadder elements of such a family unit, he claimed that it was also one of the two main experiences that benefitted his creative growth. “I’m coming into the world with the benefit of people who kind of make up their own script because you don’t have that thing of ‘Oh it would just kill your grandmother if you didn’t have a day job’ or something like that,” he said, “because there wasn’t a grandmother to kill.”

The other main benefit he received was constant encouragement from both parents to use his creativity – painting, writing and coloring all day – and to be curious about the world. “My parents were both also so passionately curious about life that it was just kind of inevitable that I would have what Buckminster Fuller called ‘the perpetual gift of curiosity,’” said South. “It just never ever stops.” In describing his parents’ curiosity about the world, he reminisced about how they both would spend their days reading, gardening and studying up to the ends of their lives – a fate South hopes to have for himself as well. “I’ll turn 70 in March and I’ve just always had this childlike curiosity about stuff, and I don’t expect I’ll lose it until my brain totally decays – which hopefully won’t be in April.”

Sharing some stories of his childhood, South recalled an early memory from the days when his father served as the principal of Baileyton School. A fear of chickens and a large rooster blocking the path between his house and the farm pump house where he colored all day led to a terrified young Ben shoving a crayon up his nose, after which his mother brought him to a dentist for tools small enough to remove it. He joked, “So I guess you could say that’s my earliest memory of being really into art or really, art being really into me!”

An even earlier memory from his time in Grandview saw a 4 or 5-year-old Ben playing under a quilt frame at a local women’s quilting bee his mother attended. “I remember at some point they unrolled and stretched the full quilt top on the frame above me and that kid. It was glorious,” he recalled. “If you come into the world very visually-oriented, it was like a cathedral window was put up above us – this splendid canopy of color above our heads.” South went on to describe how all the cathedrals he’s toured – most notably, Saint-Chapelle in Paris – bring him back to the memory of that quilt.

An International Journey

When asked about the places where his art career has led him, South recalled the many trips he took to France before all else. Creating a business that allowed him to travel there gave South the opportunity to tour museums and art galleries, take private art lessons and work with French perfumers in Grasse and Paris. Other places in Europe he’s visited include Italy for the religious art and Renaissance influence and England for the museums of London, though he said France was more to his interests than the rest.

He’s also traveled around the United States and its territories, being featured in galleries across the Southeast and selling paintings to influential people such as Richard Dent, former NFL player for the Chicago Bears and former Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice.

He was even offered an invitation from the Puerto Rican government to create a museum show in Ponce. “This is a downside of always being curious: I can easily move on to the next thing, the next obsession, and that’s exactly what happened. Over time, I just kept putting off doing the work for this museum show,” South said, mentioning that this invitation was originally offered to him 25 years ago. “I now have that show ready, and I got back in touch with the people in Ponce two and a half years ago, and then of course COVID comes and nobody’s going on a cruise ship or going on an airplane.” He has been eagerly awaiting the day that travel and leisure activities are safe enough for him to go back to the island.

On where he hopes to go next, South said, “I haven’t been in Asia, and that’s something I’d like to do once we’re over COVID. I’ve been thinking I’d like to go to Japan and study indigo dyeing – that’s kind of an interest of mine, and I think Japan’s where they do it the best – and then I’d like to go to China too, if we ever get back into China in my lifetime.”

Drawing Inspiration

In terms of subject matter, anyone looking at a collection of South’s work can see the interest he takes in nature and the colors found in an everyday garden. “The sun generates a lot of the color I’m interested in,” he mentioned. “I’m not very good with modulated color – I want it to be vivid.” Much of this interest was instilled from a young age by his parents’ gardens, and it was only strengthened when he became certified as a Master Gardener (a certification gained by taking courses written by the American Horticultural Society).

On his technique, South said his style blends the simplistic look of Henri Matisse (his “art father”) with the bold paint texture of Van Gogh. “The gift that Matisse gives to the history of art is simplifying the image, and that very simplified but rich image really appeals to me. What I try to do is combine the rich paint thickness of Van Gogh with the even-more-simplified images of Matisse,” he stated. The technique he uses to achieve this bold texture is painting with a palette knife rather than a brush.

One example of this blend of inspiration – the natural subject matter and the French style influence – can be found on the cover of Community Matters. The artwork depicts a rubrum lily from South’s family’s garden in a Sundrop bottle, something that South described as “very Cullman, but influenced by post-French impressionism.”

However, the ultimate inspiration for his work comes from the feeling of joy. “I feel like art should either make us think something new or make us feel something new, and great art can make you do both. I think in my works, joy is the emotion I embody the most, and I hope that’s what people feel when they look at the cover of Community Matters. I hope it’s just joyful.”

When asked about the different mediums he’s used to express his art over the years, South stated, “I think when you’re creative, you want to work with everything. It all sounds interesting. I’ve done collage a good bit. I’ve done watercolors some, but it’s just not very engaging to me. I want to communicate freedom in my work.”

He continued, “I started out as an oil painter, but the fumes involved with that became an irritant to me. I think sometimes people who don’t paint overly-value oil paintings; they see oil paintings as the ultimate, but actually acrylic dries faster so it’s harder to use. So once I became a better oil painter, then I could move into acrylic paint. I do sometimes miss the heady smell of the paints and mineral spirits, but I don’t miss the headaches and allergies that go with that.”

Looking Back and Looking Ahead

Asking South about his favorite pieces to have made, his initial answer was one that most artists may resonate with: whichever ones he sold. On a more detailed note, flower pieces hold a special place in his heart because of his family’s garden and his mother’s work as a botanist. “I’ve mostly done flowers as still life painting, but actually that term isn’t really accurate. We say still life because that’s the term most people know, but life just doesn’t stop – those things we are painting are dying.”

Continuing on the topic, he said, “When my mother was dying, I came up from Birmingham and spent a week with her, knowing that she was declining and our days were limited. I was going to be with her when she was awake as much as I could, but when she was resting, I went to our farm and did these time studies. I would draw one in the morning and one in the afternoon, and they ended up being very modern-looking geometric images. I was drawing patterns in the algae and pine dust on top of the pond and watching the fish come up to the surface and make these ripples. That was a series that I loved doing, I guess because I was so surprised at the changes that happened from morning to afternoon. Just looking at how the light in the passing of a few hours changes things, and how I’m looking at the passing of my mother with that.”

Ultimately, his favorite paintings are the ones he’s planning next. Always driven toward the future and not lingering in the past, South said that his “new baby” will always be the biggest thing on his mind. One of these new creations, a ballet based on a children’s story he wrote, has made great strides in progress, and South couldn’t wait to share his excitement.

The Reluctant Topiary, a storytelling ballet for children, tells the tale of a gardener who was a former slave and the importance of being who you’re meant to be rather than what other people shape you to be. Current progress on the ballet has brought on Shannon Darby, a choreographer from Talladega, as both the choreographer for the ballet and the lead character. South, for his contributions, is in charge of coming up with the artwork for the set pieces and backdrops. “At the end of his career – and you know, at 70, I have to be looking at last decades for myself – Matisse no longer had the energy to stand and paint, so he was cutting out pieces of colored paper and collaging those. That’s kind of how I’m approaching the backdrops of The Reluctant Topiary, as pieced-together color that might become quilted works.”

As a last comment about the show, South said, “We’re creating this as a community effort in Talladega, and we’re planning to make it very mobile so we’re looking at outdoor venues like the Huntsville Botanical Gardens, the governor’s mansion lawn, and so on as potential places to perform this work. It’s a project I’ve been working on for decades. It feels like we’re really moving it forward with Shannon and Talladega, and I’m really excited about it!”

Reflections on the Self and the Environment

“I think everybody is creative, but I think that some of us have different opportunities to exercise that more. Cullman is a wonderful place for artists to focus because it’s quiet, it’s orderly and it’s got so much beautiful nature all around. Now for artists just starting out, I know that this isn’t exactly the most exciting place to get inspiration from – folks trying to find their way might go to Birmingham or Atlanta for the excitement and variety. But for those of us who do well in the quiet, Cullman is an artist’s dream.”

“I don’t think of myself as Cullman’s all-time greatest creative because I think that’s Charles Kleibacker. I think that’s a name that everyone in town should know, I think there should be a marker at the house where he lived. His family ran a department store here, and he went on to become a world-class fashion designer. He had an atelier in New York and Paris, and his work was known for the bias cut. He would just create these fluid, beautiful clothes, and his whole collection is in a museum in Ohio where he was a curator later in life. He is somebody that Cullman needs to be proud of; I don’t think anybody in fashion in Alabama is as important as he was.”

“I’d also like to thank The Cullman Tribune. I open The Tribune and I see poems, there’s photography that comes from various people in the community; The Tribune isn’t just churning out updates on sports or community stories, it’s a presentation of various arts from our area. I was fortunate a couple of years ago to do a series for The Tribune called the ‘67-County Alabama Garden Party’ during the Alabama Bicentennial. I was looking in each of the counties for where plants and people come together, and I was fortunate that that won the Best Feature Series from the Alabama Press Association that year. What I’m writing right now is a series called ‘52 Odes to Joy,’ and every week I’m reflecting on my work as a gerontologist over the last 40 years and the choices we can make to add joy to our lives.”

Current Interests

“I became a certified gerontologist about 40 years ago, and that’s the study of aging. I got the certification in my 30s, but now that I’m 70, I certainly feel like I understand aging from another perspective because I’m living it. My interest in gerontology is not in the decline of aging, but rather how to optimize one’s life. I want to encourage those readers who wish that they had been an artist when they were younger – go do it! The late Grandma Moses started painting at 78 and painted the last 20 or so years of her life. I’m not a prodigy, so I’m interested in the late bloomers.”

He finished our conversation by saying, “I know this is shameless name-dropping, but I once had the opportunity to be seated at a dinner next to Paloma Picasso, Pablo’s daughter. She’s an incredibly talented creative with her own line of jewelry, but we ended up talking about this quote her father said that I’ll probably mangle. Something like, ‘I could draw like da Vinci at 12, and it took me the rest of my life to be able to paint like a child.’ Paul Cézanne was also an amazing painter, but his artwork didn’t mature into his own style until later in life. I think that similarly, I’m continuously simplifying my art as I age and trying to recapture that child that I was in the 1950s. Always trying to recapture the joy of coloring in the pump house. At my age, there’s still many nights where I’m like, ‘Dang it, I don’t want to go to sleep. I still want to draw this thing or write this thing.’ I’m also eager to bounce out of bed and work on something I was working on the day before. I can’t imagine a more joyful way to live.”

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Heather Mann