The Triumph and Terror of Nostalgia in the South: why Caitlin Cary’s artwork is killing me right now

By Angela Perez

This collaborative work between Caitlin Cary (fabric/thread) and Skillet Gilmore (screen printing) is some of my favorite Southern art being created right now. Warm, compelling nostalgia and deep-rooted longings for home are mixed with disturbing, bizarre feelings. Centrifugal and centripetal forces tearing me apart in good and terrible ways. I cannot like this enough. Mortal acts and emptied pastures are scratching at me. And then caressing me and it’s messing with my mind.  For me, this work is informed by the complexities of defining the “New South” and the identity struggles every progressive Southerner grapples with.  The jarring stitching harkens to the Frankenstein I often feel like as a Southerner who has lived all over the U.S. and in parts of Europe, where I was constantly trying to define and defend who and what I am.  Why I speak the way I do.  Even, still, oddly enough, answering for slavery, bigotry and backwardness.

This work was recently produced as part of Caitlin’s Regional Emerging Artist Residency with Raleigh’s Artspace.  That residency started in July 2015.  For this collaborative work with her husband, Skillet Gilmore, she says this in an Artspace interview:

He and I will decide on an image and screen print it, and then I will add to it with fabric and thread. I plan on choosing an iconographic North Carolina image – one that evokes a distinct sense of place. My work tends to focus on humble landmarks point up the relationship of art to troublesome histories: poverty vs. wealth, rural vs. urban, preservation vs. development, and commerce vs. beauty. The underlying print will be the same for all shares, but each individual piece will be unique, embellished by fabric, stitch and imagination.

This work has even gotten me thinking about the way Southern identity has been appropriated all over the U.S. to sell food, cookbooks, some homey, earthy way of life, some cohesive identity that doesn’t actually exist.  But causes gazillions to flock to over-priced fried chicken and pig picking joints every day.  To swarm to restaurants where they can sit on uncomfortable benches made from salvaged wood from old plantation homes built by slaves. To buy slick, shiny cookbooks about pickling and canning and the way the old folks used to grow collards.  To long for some agrarian way of living that life in the South “back in the day” seems to represent.  But is not possible for most and not desirable for the poor and for rural folks who have no romantic notions about the old way of living.  Underneath all of these quaint pastoral or nostalgic scenes lurks the racism, the poverty, the inequality, and the bigotry that still exist today.  Those old store fronts and barns may be falling apart and going away, but all that bad stuff hasn’t.  It’s still there – it’s in the threads and the stitching holding it all together.

What the fuck is it actually that we’re all longing for in that $16 bowl of grits at Standard Foods or that Instagram photo of a busted out old storefront in downtown Raleigh?  Caitlin and Skillet don’t give us any answers but they illustrate the painful process – internally and externally – all too perfectly.



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