By Jessica Isaacs | [email protected]
The folks behind Banner Elk’s Art Cellar Gallery invite you to join them for a special occasion this weekend — a rare opportunity to get to know the artist William Dunlap.
Meet and greet with this Mississippi native, who has strong ties to the North Carolina High Country, on the afternoon of Sunday, June 26. He’ll show you some of his latest work and read from his new book, Short Mean Fiction, and you can even take home a signed copy.
This nationally acclaimed artist has been featured in major museums and prestigious corporate and private collections across the country over the past four decades, but a part of his heart remains here in these mountains.
At Home in the High Country
Dunlap first made his home in the hills of Appalachia after completing graduate studies at the University of Mississippi. When he left the Deep South, the peaks and valleys of the Blue Ridge Mountains changed the way he looked at the world.
“I came from Mississippi like a feral animal with an MFA; but the state of North Carolina removed a thorn from my paw and I’ve been devoted to the place ever since,” he said. “The winters were sublime, the springs were wonderful and welcoming and I’ve never seen more outrageous color in my life than when I was in the mountains of North Carolina in the fall. The place really turned me around, and I mean that in the best sense of the term.”
He joined the art department faculty at Appalachian State University in 1970 and taught there for nearly a decade, although he doesn’t like to call it teaching.
“I’m fond of saying that I coached art there,” he said. “You can’t really teach art; you can only coach it.”
Although he never aspired to be a Southern artist, per se, he played a pivotal role in a revival of Southern arts culture that transpired in the ’70s during his time at ASU.
“There are some people who only know the decade through the bad T.V. shows about it, and that’s unfortunate,” he said. “It was really a remarkable time to be there. Boone and Watauga County were halfway between New York and Miami, so everybody went through there.”
In an age of bright eyes and open minds, Dunlap and many of his colleagues helped make the North Carolina highlands a center for forward thinking and progress during a renaissance of Southern art.
He led the effort to create ASU’s New York Loft, a residency program that still offers Appalachian affiliates a place to stay during scholarly pursuits in the New York area. The original branch, known as ASU-NY, was located along Vestry Street downtown in New York’s SoHo neighborhood. Today, the loft is located along 24th Street in midtown Manhatten’s Gramercy Park district and can accommodate 22 residents at a time.
Dunlap was an integral part of bringing the 1976 Southern Rim conference to the university’s Broadstone Camp in Valle Crucis, which drew a crowd of nationally acclaimed artists like William Eggleston, John Alexander, Marcia Tucker and Ed McGowin, to name a few.
“There was a confluence of really interesting faculty, and the university was on the cusp of something. It was not quite a part of the university system, so we were not locked in by tradition,” Dunlap said. “We were in these pristine mountains, just left alone. It was a very dynamic time, and I think people got a damn good education.”
Dunlap had a lot of fun in the High Country, too, and recalls many good times at the legendary P.B. Scott’s dance hall in Blowing Rock. Nationally recognized comedian Bill Murray is among the list of friends who traveled to visit him in North Carolina.
“I met Billy through a friend of mine who was a collector and owned a minor league baseball team in Texas, and that’s how we got to be friends. He’d come down here to get out of New York so people wouldn’t bother him,” Dunlap said. “Once, we even wrote him in so we could vote for him as homecoming queen, and he almost won.
“Another time, he opened up for some concert down at the gym. They didn’t have an opening act, so I went up and introduced him and he did about 20 minutes of stand up. The SNL thing was just burning up the airwaves at the time. We also canoed the Watauga River. Little things like that were going on and we were having some fun.”
While he still does guest lecturing on occasion, Dunlap elected to leave the world of higher education in 1979 and has been pursuing his artwork ever since. He left the High Country shortly after, but the deep connection he felt with the Blue Ridge hill country remains woven into the fiber of his artistry today.
While he keeps studios in Virginia, Mississippi and Florida, the artist, lecturer and now author looks forward to returning to the North Carolina mountains as often as possible.
“I always love the landscape. It changed the way I think and the way I see things,” he said. “I try to get as much of western North Carolina under my belt as I can at one time. Any excuse to come back is a good one.”
Short Mean Fiction
Dunlap will be in town this weekend to share about his new book, Short Mean Fiction — a collection of vignettes focused on notes and characters from his sketchbooks developed over 40 years of making art.
Born, neglected and recently rediscovered, Dunlap’s entirely fictitious characters are figments of his unchecked imagination.
“I have always admired the people who can write memoirs and tell the story of their lives, but I’m just not one of them,” he said. “These stories are about entertainment — that’s what I do. I wish it were my life, but it hasn’t been that interesting. These people that I write about, they’ve got some crazy shit going on.”
“Like tales from the Old Testament,” Dunlap says, these frank, unapologetic stories of the human experience are “mean, rampant with sex, violence and death.”
“I found these short stories in 40 years of sketchbooks. They’re fun, ironic, a little cold and a little mean, which is why I called it Short Mean Fiction,” he said. “I wrote these little stories and I totally forgot about them. I had no ambitions in literature, but I started showing them to people and they all said, ‘Hey, there’s something there.’
“The stories are edgy. This is not my day job, so I didn’t do any market research. I just get in, get the story told and get the hell out. There’s no back-story and no psychological profiles. The characters are what they do. I like people of action.”
Although Short Mean Fiction is his first book, much of his art is heartily influenced by Southern literature and fiction work in general.
“I’ve always lived in this juxtaposition with writers and I’ve always liked it. Writers are revered in the South in a way that the artist is not quite,” he said. “I admire them and I think they have a little bit higher position in the Southern imagination than do the painters. I don’t know why that is, but I think it’s true.”
Dunlap’s storytelling employs much of the same “hypothetical realism” that is applied to his artwork.
“I didn’t always call it that, but I came up with that phrase when I was in Boone as a tongue-in-cheek answer to some critical question. Everybody had to have a name or everything, so I invented that,” he said. “I’m a small D democrat — one thing is just as important as another and everything has equal value. I can’t take you to the places in my paintings because they are not real; but they could be, and the same holds true to the fiction.”
Dunlap looks forward to spending time this weekend at the Art Cellar, where his work has been featured since the gallery’s inception.
“I have been with them from the very beginning — I can’t remember when I wasn’t. It’s a wonderful gallery with clients all over the country and the world,” he said. “They do a really good job for me, and it’s always a good excuse to come and stay for a few days.
“I’ll tell you, it’s run by people who are artists and care about the art. They bring the same passion and risk to selling art as we do to making it, while some galleries would be just as happy selling rugs. They are in the art and they are in the culture. I gain something every time I’m down there.”
Get to know Dunlap and see some of his latest work from 3-5 p.m. at the Art Cellar, 920 Shawneehaw Lane in Banner Elk, on Sunday at the “Cocktails and Tall Tales” reception.
For more information, call 828-898-5175 or visit artcellaronline.com.
Some of Dunlap’s recent work:
June 2016 Schedule of Readings:
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