Two colleagues and I recently traveled to Arkansas to give some workshops at the Delta Heritage Symposium. On the way from the Memphis airport to Jonesboro (home of the Arkansas State University, go Red Wolves!), we visited the Johnny Cash Boyhood Home in Dyess. Dyess was an interesting planned community, built by the U.S. government as a WPA project in the 1930s. Families were picked after a rigorous application process to come live there in brand new houses, albeit in a reclaimed swamp, with designated farm land to work. (Remember the Johnny Cash song, “Five Feet High and Rising?” That was about a notorious flood which brought water to their front door in Dyess.)
Yes, the Cashes were poor, but they had a nice new home and by all accounts they tried to keep it up well. I was impressed by the level of detail in the restored house – lovingly recreated with the help of surviving family members. We were quite impressed at the little touches – historically accurate cleaning products in the kitchen pantry, shaving cream and cod liver oil on the bathroom shelf and a lot more – as well as the bigger items – furniture, quilting frame, linoleum “rug.” It felt as though a family could walk right into it and live in Depression-era style, quite well just as is. Attention to detail.
During one of our workshops, one of our activities was an open interview (we call them “narrative stages” at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival and they usually include a couple more people) with Jonesboro sign painter Vince Pearcy. Vince learned his art from a master sign painter in the days of lead paint (this prompted a whole discussion about what the consequences were of those earlier sign painters messing around with lead paint without any protective clothing, but that is another story). Vince paints new signs based on old photographs (he painted the one on the reconstructed Dyess Theater, for one) and commercial signs, but one of his favorite things to recreate are signs from “ghost marks” on the side of buildings. He has done some dandies in downtown Jonesboro, including this one on the side of the Arts Center. It emerges from the plaster and brick, unfinished but just right, like a glimpse into a past we can feel and may even want to touch. It is sharp in its detail, but still haunting. (Maybe that’s one good reason to call them “ghost marks”?) Again, attention to detail, continuing to amaze and delight.
Look around for attention to detail in your travels, or even right in your neighborhood – or home. In a museum, on a front lawn, or on your own bathroom shelf. It seems to be a human trait which we often look past. When we should using it to look into the past.