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Everyone’s tired of defining art — it’s become the
exhausted trademark question of the overly contrary.
Dive into an exploration of how one writer found art a
little closer to home than he expected.
T E X T BY RYAN JAR R ELL
W e all have a blindspot when it comes to art.
There’s an etymological distinction that
divvies art when it crosses the threshold
of domesticity and time. In the household I
was raised in, the word “art” was reserved
for municipal museums, fancy coffeetable books and public
spaces. When it came to objects we owned, to things in our
home like illustrations, whether portraiture, landscape or
abstract, were called “pictures” — regardless of whether they
were print or original. Occasionally, and only occasionally,
were such items referred to as “paintings.” Similarly, any
sculptures were knick-knacks or souvenirs, as almost all
were vestiges of vacations past. On my father’s side of the
family, it would be unthinkable, utterly pretentious, to refer
to anything in my grandmother’s home as art. And yet in
138 memory, some pieces of her salt & pepper shaker collection
(displayed in painstakingly symmetrical arrangement behind
glass), are truly, in the fullest sense of the word, beautiful.
Our family portrait of a man known congenially as “Uncle
Claude” has haunted our family for as long as I can remember.
A sallow man with slightly effeminate features, consumptive,
but handsome in a genteel manner, dressed in dark clothes
undescriptive of epoch or region, Uncle Claude had been
placed imposingly at the end of dark hallways or ghoulishly
glaring from basements in my family for 5 generations. In
recent conversations, my grandmother revealed to me that
Uncle Claude had likely been painted by one of an itinerant
band of portrait painters known to frequent the hills of
North Carolina. Such men would have canvasses pre-painted
with generic, generally gentlemanly attire of a carefully