“We got up at four in the morning, that first day in the east.”
– Sherwood Anderson
Some explanation is probably in order regarding this blog. Most of you reading this probably already know Lyss and I, but for those who somehow managed to stumble upon this obscure little corner of the internet, allow me to introduce us.
My name is J. Max Hunt, born of the lovely green mountains of Vermont; raised in the swamps of Southern New Jersey, at the edge of the fabled Pine Barrens. A self proclaimed “goober” with an interest in the paths that carve out the collective ambivalent identity of this strange concoction of ideals, transgressions and fever dreams we call “America.”
I’ve spent the past 10 years living in and around the Asheville, NC area, among the rugged, haunted hollows of Southern Appalachia, trying to follow the footsteps of luminaries like Thomas Wolfe, John Ehle, Ron Rash, Popcorn Sutton and all the other poets, moonshiners and dreamers that shaped that landscape.
By trade, I’ve been a landscaper and a journalist at Asheville’s alt-weekly newspaper, Mountain Xpress, where I tried to learn about and share the culture, history, and social issues of Western North Carolina. Along the way, I’ve met many a fine friend, burned a few bridges, and perhaps, learned a thing or two about myself and the world around me.
My incredible partner and wife, Alyssa CD Hunt, is a folklorist, chef, circus-maker, and all-around witchy lady from the great state of Texas, by way of Asheville and Chapel Hill. She’ll tell ya more about herself later on down the road. Trust me, she’s amazing 🙂
Beginning this April, Lyss and I quit our jobs and set out on the road to transverse this country, catch up with family and friends, and, following the advice of the great poet Paul Simon, “walk off to look for America.”
Our mission has an ulterior motive: research for a pseudo-biographical sketch of the life and times of Rea Norman Redifer: American artist, writer, filmmaker and rascal, who also happens to be my grandfather and a mentor. Many of his paintings adorn this blog. Many more are scattered across the country in the halls of congress, universities, and private collections.
While he was a close friend of the Wyeth family, and is often lumped in among the Brandywine River art scene in Southeastern Pennsylvania, Redifer always marched to the beat of his own drummer, never satisfied to resign himself to the accolades afforded by others.
“I’d rather be my own failure, than someone else’s diluted success.”
– Rea N. Redifer
A student of Whitman, Thoreau and Van Gogh as much as Andrew Wyeth, a fervent admirer of the complex character of Abraham Lincoln and the maverick WWI flying aces, Redifer was a fixture for decades around the Chadds Ford area prior to his death in 2008, at the age of 74. Despite his local notoriety, he eschewed much of the pomp and pretensions that came with the “art world,” holding it in thinly-veiled disdain, at the hazard of his “success” among those who measure such things in dollar amounts and press clippings.
I was lucky enough to have the chance to spend many of my formative years around him before his passing; I’m humbled to say that he took a shine to me, and took me under his wing. In addition to the usual family gatherings around holidays, I can recall sitting with him in his cluttered studio as he tried, in his mumbling, meandering way, to instill the antidote for a life of “quiet desperation” in my somewhat attentive young mind.
“I never wanted to have a job that precluded the possibility of taking a walk outside in the afternoon.”
– Rea N. Redifer
I remember long car rides through the country around Chester County, down dirt roads and across open fields, getting lost many times, while he offered up recollections of a family history seemingly stretching back to time immemorial, with names that seemed to spring from the very dust of wagon wheels and glow with the fires of bivouac camps.
His meditations on art, writing, and the ways of seeing the world honestly through the raw, chaotic beauty of nature stuck in my adolescent mind, bearing the waves of puberty and teenage preoccupations to form a vague longing to truly see things as they were, rather than through the peepholes that polite society jams us through oh so effectively.
“To grow is a painful thing.”
Spending time with him also lit a fire of curiosity in me: the people and family members he mentioned; the subtle mastery of the brush and typewriter that he quietly offered up to the world; the way people spoke of him as if he were some magician conjuring beauty from the mundane — I wanted to know more about this man and what drove him to the arduous task of capturing lightning in a bottle.
Alas, youth is seldom steady in its gaze, and the masters cloak their meanings in breadcrumb trails. I moved to North Carolina after graduating high school to learn the academic side of writing and plant my flag somewhere new, and my grandfather died soon after.
“We can ask and ask but can never get back what once seemed ours forever.”
– J. L. Carr
As I sifted through the condolences from important men and women I’d never met, I came to realize how little I really knew my grandfather. What I had gathered of him was increasingly hazy: recollections of the things he had tried so hard to impress upon me, coupled with a copious amount of letters, screenplays, journals, paintings, and books gathered in my grandmother’s house. They could offer insights and clues to his mind, sure, but without context, one runs the risk of mixing up the message.
Well, I thought, I still have those who knew him. Over the next few years, I spoke with my grandmother here, my mother and aunts there, a few family members and close family friends who knew him well when the occasion afforded itself. My approach was casual; time never seems of the essence to a 20-something in relatively good health. Years were spent finding myself, as one should do, but all the while, my clues to the man were passing into memory.
This realization hit home with the passing of my grandmother, Patty Redifer, last November. Suddenly, a central stitch in the tapestry I had constructed for my eventual dive into Rea Redifer’s life was gone, and more memories and questions arose. Approaching 30, with a wife and the urge to procreate on my mind, I decided that if I was ever to get to the bottom of this “Rea” question, I had better start now.
“Many times, in a wry sort of way, I think of painting as a form of that asking; an attempt to evoke the fleeting moments of the life we have lived. Those moments can never be defined they can only be hinted at for … ‘what once seemed ours forever’ was our innocent wonder. … perhaps a crow at dusk, a tree in winter, magnolias in the evening or even a moment of tragedy in the skies over Passchendaele in 1917 … compelling moments and the feelings they evoke. I try to touch upon those feelings.”
– Rea Redifer
I want to know the man behind the family mythology. I want to see the beauty and awfulness he was capable of, and how the peculiar genius he was imbued with came together. This project is not merely a love poem to someone I admired — true art never turns away from the ugly parts of life, and I want to be as honest as I can about who Rea was, and the effects, good and ill, he had on those around him.
Nor do I think this is simply the story of one man — what could be more boring than that? To focus exclusively on Redifer would be a disservice to who he was, and what shaped him into what he became. In order to tell this story, I have to go back down the trunk of the family tree, chase the spectres of this landscape from the hills of Virginia to the coast of Oregon, back again across the prairies and plains to the rolling valleys of rural Pennsylvania, and a thousand places in between.
This is a story as much about those around him, the world around him, as it is about the man. It’s a tale of how the American landscape, the angels and boogeymen who live therein, come to carve out a vision, rightfully or wrongfully, in its image.
It’s also a story about me, about us, about how hard it is to be a family, a friend, an artist — genuine person — in this place. It’s a story about holding on, letting go, and transmutations from the stovepipe hat to the baseball cap.
And so we wander off in search of the past and future, simultaneously, with a promise to be present in the moment. As my grandfather once told me:
“Be a sponge: absorb as much of the world as you can, without filtering it through your judgements or preconceived notions. Take it all in until you feel like you’re going to burst, and then wring yourself out. Squeeze yourself dry onto the page [or the screen] and try to make some sense of what you saw. And when you’re stiff and thirsty again, when every last drop you can muster is gone, start over.”
– Rea Redifer
The midday heat of Ft. Worth, Texas, is rising, and I am thirsty once more.
“I can’t make it out. Darn him, what did he want to do like that for? I keep thinking about it and it spoils looking at horses and smelling things and hearing [people] laugh and everything. Sometimes I’m so mad about it I want to fight someone. It gives me the fantods. What did he do it for? I want to know why.”
– Sherwood Anderson