Christenberry, William

American (1936-)

William Christenberry is a prolific photographer, painter and sculptor. Trained in New York City, his first foray into the art world found him painting large abstract-expressionist canvasses. Soon, though, had an awakening of sorts. Spurred on by his love for the James Agee / Walker Evans collaboration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Christenberry began working with more personal themes rooted in his childhood home, Hale County, Alabama. While teaching, Christenberry would make a pilgrimage to Alabama each summer, taking pictures of old buildings, structures and signage that told the story of the South – its rise and fall. Initially shooting with a Kodak Brownie camera (no focusing device, just shutter), Christenberry was able to lend these shots a rustic feel. The images were beautiful in and of themselves, but he also translated them into very detailed sculptures, the base of which often contained soil from the actual locations.  

Walker Evans accompanied Christenberry on this pilgrimage in 1973, and Christenberry continues to make the trek today. He attempts to revisit the same buildings year after year, chronicling the decay, weathering and sometimes rehabilitation of these mythic places. In addition, Christenberry has long been a collector of Klu Klux Klan memorabilia – paintings, found objects, sculptures, dioramas, hooded robes – which he displays in a room off his studio. After being confronted by actual Klansmen, he became obsessed with containing the bigotry and hatred he observed in one place, and started gathering together whatever he could find.