Friday, May 11, 2012

`Into the Very Grain of Existence'

The Work of Joe Webb: Appalachian Master of Rustic Architecture (The Jargon Society, 2009) reminds us that artists make things, whether sonnets, sonatas or in the case of Joe Webb, log cabins and frame houses, and that the quality of their work depends on its sturdiness, elegance and craft. The reminder is welcome because much that passes for art is gimcrack. The book is a collection of photographs taken by Reuben Cox of the structures built by Webb in the nineteen-twenties and -thirties near the resort town of Highlands, N.C. The volume, from the press founded by the late poet/photographer/publisher Jonathan Williams, is assembled with the same sturdy elegance as Webb’s cabins.

For a book about an artist, the title is carefully chosen. In his foreword Cox quotes a passage he attributes to Guy Davenport from a text he doesn’t name and that I haven’t been able to identify:

“For style is everything. It is not, as [Comte de] Buffon said, the man; it is the work. It is also the work’s genetic heritage. The artist is a technician whose teachers go back to Lascaux.”

Artistic style is nothing so ephemeral as fashion, though styles have fashions. Webb was born in 1881. He was self-taught and no record of his school attendance survives. He worked construction jobs as a young man but also farmed and cut wood. He built his first house in 1922 for a man from Anderson, S.C., Davenport’s birthplace. Cox says Webb’s next house, built two years later, “has a different feel entirely—like a natural musician becoming abruptly acquainted with his talents.”

Cox deems Webb, without question, an artist, and repeatedly juxtaposes him with other artists, high and low, the formally trained and autodidacts, without snobbery:

“Webb’s ability to view the familiar and transparent design of the mountain cabin and reimagine it for a new clientele of rusticators is no less than remarkable, as basic and compelling a shift as packaging pre-mixed oil paint in tin tubes and freeing the impressionists from the confines of their studios.”

Webb used no power tools and Cox supplies a photo of the cabin-builder's crosscut saw hanging on a barn wall with lanterns. Cox’s text is brief and tightly written, and includes interesting digressions on such topics as woodworking tools and the blight that ravaged the American chestnut tree. Cox writes:

“Equilibrium is met between builder and his tools and materials, and then an aesthetic sensibility is generated. To offer a musical parallel, Louis Armstrong, asked by a fan why he played the trumpet in his particular style—always reaching for a high C note—responded, `Because that’s the way a trumpet is best played.’ Hiring Joe Webb to build a cabin was more like a commission than contracting—like having your portrait painted.”

Webb continued building cabins until about 1940, when demand decreased and alcohol started getting the better of him. He died of kidney failure in 1950, age sixty-eight. Cox writes of his legacy:

“He is the last, and has no descendants in the tradition of cabin building brought to America in the seventeenth century by the Swedes, though, of course, log cabins continue to be built in quantity today—just as daguerreotypes are still produced, painter’s pigments are still ground by hand, and madrigals sung.”

In his essay “Jonathan Williams” (The Geography of the Imagination, 1981) Davenport writes: “The poet works his melodies into the very grain of existence.”

[Go here for an interview with Jonathan Williams and a photo of the late poet by Reuben Cox.]

1 comment:

Dave Lull said...

The Guy Davenport quotation about style can be found in context here in the introduction to his 50 Drawings (New York: Dim Gray Bar Press and Barry Magid, 1996):