Floyd Gordon’s paintings reflect growing up in the rural South

Every morning when I wake up one of the first things I see is Maude’s House. It’s not really a house, it’s a painting by legendary South Carolina artist Floyd Gordon and it hangs in my bedroom, facing my bed.

Gordon grew up the son of a Rowesville, S.C., sharecropper in the 1950s and 1960s. He often paints pictures that bring back his childhood and express his Southern heritage.

Though he often exhibits his work at prestigious art shows around the country, he regularly displays his paintings at the Mid-South Farm & Gin Show and the Southern-Southeastern cotton growers and ginners show.

He gave me the painting, Maude’s House, during a visit to his Orangeburg, S.C., art gallery — Unique Art Gallery and Frame Shop. It’s on Russell Street in downtown Orangeburg, and to call it an art gallery is not even close to accurate. It’s more like a museum of Southern culture.

I told him the story of my mother going to work in a cotton mill when I started the first grade and how an African American woman named Martha Hall played a key role in raising me. After hearing my story, he said, “I want to give you something.” Maude’s House was the gift.

Maude’s House has a story — not a happy one. Like the times I spent growing up with Martha Hall, Floyd spent time as a young boy at Ms. Maude’s house.  She was tragically killed and her house burned down in a senseless crime against a defenseless elderly woman.

The criminals destroyed Ms. Maude and her home, but it remained vivid in the creative mind of Floyd Gordon. He painted the picture of the house, and I’m told, it is an exact replica of the real house. Though the only words on the painting are Maude’s House, written in pencil in the lower left corner, the painting tells volumes of stories about growing up in the rural South in the 1950s and 1960s.

Amazing to me, it’s one of literally thousands of paintings, each with its own story that Floyd Gordon has painted in his 60-plus years of drawing and painting pictures.

He asked me some of my fondest memories of growing up in the South — only a few years behind him. I told him about playing baseball in the old mill leagues as a teenager. I told him about being a left-handed pitcher and throwing what I thought was my best fastball to a tall, skinny black kid who promptly hit it over a center field grandstand and totally out of the park.

What did he look like, Floyd asked? I don’t know. What did his uniform look like? I don’t know. What did your uniform look like? It had Red Sox on the front, like the Boston Red Sox — that’s about all the picture images I could conger up from so many years past. What a true gift it must be to be able close your eyes and recreate your past, like Floyd Gordon did with Maude’s House.

He says he can’t remember not being able to draw pictures, nor of not being fascinated by colors.

When he started first grade, his teacher gave each person in the class a coloring book and some colors. He colored all the pictures. There were no more coloring books, so he drew his own pictures and colored these.

One look by his first grade teacher, and she knew there was a special gift in this small, quiet young black boy. Floyd says one of life’s greatest treasures is that she lived to be 87 years old and long enough to see him become a successful artist.

There have been plenty of bumps along the way, but that first teacher who showed an interest in him, he says, was the springboard that has launched thousands of paintings and thousands of stories behind each one.

By the time he was in the seventh grade, the school principal cleared out the lunchroom and allowed Floyd to have an art display. He sold his first painting at the lunchroom art gallery, though he had been doing art work for teachers since the second grade.

Back in September, he was inducted into the Black University Hall of Fame, along with such notables as Ralph David Abernathy and other black business and education leaders.

A mutual friend attended the ceremony. Though some of the inductees got a little carried away with their accomplishments, Floyd humbly, and briefly, thanked God, family and a few friends in the audience for helping him along the way.

Many of his paintings depict cotton as part of Southern culture. He grew up picking cotton and recalls how 30-40 family members and friends would be on the picking line. One end of the line would sing a song, then another would add a different tune. It was hard work, but he remembers it, and paints it, as part of growing up in the rural South.

Floyd is featured in the program for this year’s Mid-South Farm & Gin Show program and in the program for the Southern-Southeastern annual meeting.

Those stories and this one are poor payment for Maude’s House, but he will no doubt be just as grateful for these few words as he would be at being chronicled in a Pulitzer Prize winning novel — that’s just how he rolls.

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