Flannery O’Connor could be as proud as a peacock about The Meanest of Them Sparkled, a show in her honor at Thunder-Sky, Inc.
O’Connor, the Southern writer who died of lupus 50 years ago this summer at age 39, kept peacocks at her Georgia farm — and the birds appeared in her stories, too. They also populate this exhibit, which features more than 20 artists.
The peacock, a Christian symbol of immortality and God’s all-knowing eyes, might be too predictable for an O’Connor tribute, but some artists spread their wings.
Joey Versoza, who has an eye for pop culture icons, has contributed a decapitated concrete duck with flaking white paint as a stand-in for its brilliant avian cousin. Even without a head — or perhaps precisely because it was lost in an accident — the statue holds a strong presence as a reminder of our flaws.
ArtWorks’ Colleen Houston, meanwhile, stuck a peacock feather in her hair for the opening and embodied O’Connor in an inspired piece of performance art dreamed up by Antonio Adams. (Lifetime Movie Network really needs to see Adams’ vision for an O’Connor biopic.)
A devout Catholic living in the Bible Belt, O’Connor wrote about evil and grace, and the dingbats, bigots and liberals who existed before All in the Family. Though rich with details, O’Connor’s stories are never flowery. Her sardonic-yet-funny tales shock and get under our skin. The most successful contributions to this show recognize her as an outsider artist who flew her freak flag proudly.
Writer Keith Banner, Thunder-Sky’s co-founder, counts O’Connor as a major influence.
“I love her so much, that intensity of her vision,” Banner says. “She writes with a purpose — to convey what she believed in, but not to proselytize. There’s nothing sacred in her stories, but it’s all about being sacred.”
He admires her point-blank narratives. “Bam! Conflict is spelled out,” he says.
There’s a visual “bam” in an installation by Dale Jackson, Mike Weber and Bill Ross. In block letters on three red panels, Jackson has written a mysterious, memorable line from O’Connor’s A Good Man Is Hard to Find: “The trees were full of silver-white sunlight and the meanest of them sparkled.”
The phrase is presented here as a soothing mantra, Ross explains. But the chant has been interrupted by Weber’s shocking splash of paint against a green background, like a fatal gunshot heard from the woods in A Good Man. A turquoise ceramic peacock with piercing eyes sits unruffled on an ornate pedestal as the violence unfolds. And below rests a pillow, like that from Lincoln’s deathbed, sliced to reveal sweet Vidalia onions sprouting in O’Connor’s red Georgia clay. There is life.
Saad Ghosn, who’s long used words and art to promote justice, created some of the most religious works. Vibrant peacock heads and “eyes” extend like weapons of righteousness from a board scrawled with O’Connor’s titles. The rainbow of colors on the tail feathers represents inclusion of all humans, “sinners or none, disabled or none, religious or none,” Ghosn says. In O’Connor’s Revelation, the so-called virtuous, blacks and white trash all rise to heaven together.
By contrast, Avril Thurman puts the absence of color to good effect. The viewer can barely make out “HECK,” which the artist repeatedly scratched and erased in a panel of spackle.
Her inspiration was The Turkey, in which a boy cusses and then reconsiders God as he catches and loses a fowl. Thurman’s piece — addressing the washing away of both sins and good deeds — is easy to overlook, but there’s more than meets the eye.
It does help to know O’Connor’s writing to appreciate the exhibit. Banner has included excerpts in the wall text. The Complete Stories sits beneath a haunting block print by Maine artist Scott Minzy of the Misfit, the antihero of A Good Man.
And the exhibit includes a handmade book by University of Cincinnati Libraries conservator Holly Prochaska. Take a seat and lift the Mylar pages, fashioned to resemble a window in The Geranium, to reveal illustrated passages.
You might recognize yourself in O’Connor’s words and artists’ works. “She’d focus on people who you think you aren’t, but you are,” Banner says. “She cared about making people think about where they fit in the universe.”
He’s unsure whether his idol would like this tribute. But she probably would like everyone involved. “She thinks that everyone’s a freak,” Banner says, “and that all are beautiful in the eyes of God.”
THE MEANEST OF THEM SPARKLED continues through Aug. 9 at Thunder-Sky, Inc., 4573 Hamilton Ave., Northside. Artists will read from O’Connor’s stories at 2 p.m. Aug. 3, the anniversary of her death. raymondthundersky.org.