1927 -

James Arnold

Virginia Beach, Virginia
About
History Man
By:
John Beardsley

James Arnold makes no grand claims for his yard show, an assortment of brightly painted and carefully arranged farm implements and domestic goods occupying a corner lot on a side street in Virginia Beach, Virginia. "It's just some stuff I have," he says. He doesn't even call it a yard show or a dressed yard; he especially doesn't call it art. "I never gave it no kind of name," he insists. "I just started putting it up, that's all." But beneath Arnold's modest exterior beats the heart of a historian: the man to African American rural life in the inter-war years. He is honoring first of all his own family, but he is also commemorating the larger experiences of southern black farmers in the Great Depression.

Arnold was born in 1927 in Solgohachia, Arkansas, a small community near Morrilton, about fifty miles up the Arkansas River from Little Rock. The eldest son and second oldest of eleven children, he was no stranger to hard work. While he attended a local black school through the tenth grade, he spent his afternoons and weekends helping his family grow cotton, wheat, and potatoes on their hundred-acre farm. He also hired himself out to neighbors: "I worked for seventy-five cents a day, ten hours plowing," he remembers. "I picked cotton for fifty cents a hundred." At sixteen and seventeen, he spent summers in Kansas City and Omaha working in meat-packing plants, sending money home. "Daddy was sick, so I had to take care of the whole family."

Asked of his recollections of Arkansas in the years before World War II, Arnold remembers, "It was a really poor state. All most people had to depend on was the farm. Cotton was the biggest thing to sell to make money. But there was a limit on how much you could plant. If you had forty acres, you could only plant ten in cotton. There wasn't nobody to buy it." Two weeks shy of his eighteenth birthday in January 1945, Arnold enlisted in the navy. Stationed at the amphibious base in Virginia Beach, he was eventually assigned to the steward branch, working as a baker and cook for naval officers. He married, had five children, and built his own house. "Daddy come up from Arkansas, I drawed the plans, and he and I built this house before I retired from the navy. Took two and a half months to build it." When he retired after twenty-one years of service, he and his family decided to stay in Virginia Beach.

"I started fixing up the yard in '66," Arnold recalls. "My dad would give me old stuff when I'd go back down to Arkansas. I'd bring it back and put it up. Some stuff come from Bayville Farm around here," he adds, gesturing toward his Virginia Beach neighborhood. "All this area was fields of Bayville Farm."

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Arnold's front yard contains several simple constructions that evoke life on his family's Arkansas farm. One is made of wooden posts with two crossbars, from which plow blades and pots of various sizes are suspended. Nearby is an old wood stove. "Those are pots we used for cooking and boiling water. The little ones we'd hang over the fireplace for beans and collard greens. The big pot we used outdoors—to wash clothes or scald the hogs. The stove we used to heat by. When he stopped using it, my daddy gave it to me." On the other side of the yard is another post-and-beam construction, this one featuring a long, slender metal bucket hung by rope from a pulley. "That's the way we used to draw water. We'd lower that bucket down the well pipe and pull it up."

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Along one side of the yard is perhaps its most compelling feature—a long, wood-paneled fence that doubles as a display board. It is hung with all kinds of tools and equipment: horseshoes, plow blades, harnesses, and bits; saws, clamps, and drills; cowbells, pulleys, shoe lasts, pots, scales, washboards, rat traps, andirons, an ice cream maker, and his grandfather's wood plane, given to him by his father. Though assorted, these objects are far from random—they all relate to rural life and the manual labor on which it depends. And they are carefully arranged: as with many of the displays in Arnold's yard, compositions are rigorously symmetrical.

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Almost everything in Arnold's yard also conforms to a color scheme. Most objects are uniform shades of black or red; wood constructions are white. To preserve the objects, he coats them regularly in outdoor latex paint. "I started painting them—some black, some red. They'll rust out if I don't keep them painted." But red, black, and white have become his signature colors, a way of identifying his yard. The color scheme extends to planting beds: he has matching red and white azaleas in whitewashed concrete planters. He has even painted his wheelbarrow with red, white, and black stripes.

Arnold's yard has become something of a community project, linking Arkansas with Virginia Beach, family and neighbors with strangers. Most things came from family and friends in Arkansas. "I showed them pictures. They said, 'Take this back and put it on the fence.'" But he has also received contributions from passersby: "People give me stuff—some I don't even know." His yard has become a focus of neighborhood sociability—an old stump has become a picnic table and bench. Along one side of the yard is another bench where he says "neighbors come sit. People leave stuff, take pictures. People borrow stuff for displays." As an entertainment for his visitors, he has made a convertible chair: put it one way, and it's a recliner; put it another, and it's an upright, straight-backed seat. "I call it the lazy man/smart man chair."

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Humor leavens sorrow in Arnold's yard. In some ways, it is a shrine to what he has lost: a place, a way of life, a network of connections. His siblings, he says, "are scattered all around, from Seattle to Illinois to Florida." A son died by drowning in 1975, two weeks before graduating from high school—though Arnold has a surviving son and three daughters. His link to the family place in Arkansas is weakening: He inherited part of the farm, but he has since passed it on to his brother's children. Pointing to some rocks in a bed of white gravel, he says, "That's all I got left of the farm." It looks like the decoration you might see on an old grave.

Arnold's larger yard is commemorative, recalling the people who worked with its tools and equipment, including his own family, their neighbors, and nameless others. Like the bikes or bed frames you might see in an African American cemetery, the household goods in Arnold's yard are memorials to the lives that don't get recounted in the regular histories. But Arnold's yard is also an expression of satisfaction—satisfaction in his own labor and in the labor of others. Speaking of his life on the farm, he says, "It was hard work. But I feel good about what I did. It wasn't hard, 'cause I was used to it." His yard continues to express the value of effort. "People look at what I done here and say it must be hard work. But it don't seem hard, 'cause I come up working.

"I feel proud. It's like a woman having a baby. You feel pain. But when it's over, you feel good about it."

Quotations in this chapter are taken from interviews with James Arnold, by John Beardsley in 2001, and by William Arnett in 1999 and 2001.

Completing the two-volume set, "Souls Grown Deep, Vol. 2" takes the visual and historical presentation of the first volume to a richer level, offering an even broader array of artistic styles and media. Breaking away from the stereotypes that identity folk art and the South with rural, isolated, static and agrarian ways of life, these pages unveil an art that embodies social change and continues to flourish at the dawn of a new century.