The Magazine

‘The Habit of Art’

Flannery O’Connor, illustrator

Nov 14, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 09 • By KATHERINE EASTLAND
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Milledgeville, Georgia

Drawing of a family sitting in a living room

Illustration for ‘Clubs,’ The Spectrum, Spring 1944

Georgia State College & University

In 1955 Flannery O’Connor wrote to her friend Elizabeth McKee that “the only way to get here”—her home, the antebellum farm Andalusia—“is by bus or buzzard.” Yet many came to see her, and many still come. In fact, there’s a small sign to let you know where to turn off Highway 441 for Andalusia—it’s right across the street from a barbeque place—but the sign is so small you might mistake it for a back or side entrance. Go past the sign, and within a few minutes’ drive you’ll see O’Connor’s red-roofed house set on a slight hill and girded by pecan trees.

For the past eight years Andalusia and its surrounding acres have been open to the public. In that time, nearly 30,000 visitors have made the pilgrimage to Milledgeville, where old wrought iron signs declare in white letters the town a “bird sanctuary.” Here O’Connor grew up and, weakened by bouts of lupus in her late twenties, returned for the last 13 years of her life, and wrote.

Her slender, meticulously wrought corpus, shot through with Gothic sensibility in its depiction of what she famously termed the “Christ-haunted South,” has afforded her a high spot in 20th-century American fiction. The popularity of her stories has increased steadily since her death in 1964 at 39, making her a misfit in the mainstream. When the Library of America published her complete works in 1988, the volume outsold William Faulkner’s, published three years prior. And just this past summer Penguin released A Good Hard Look, in which novelist Ann Napolitano uses O’Connor doubly as muse and character in a story set in Milledge-ville. (The dust jacket features her favorite bird: the peacock.)

Despite the uptick in O’Connorania, there is a portion of her work that remains little explored: her art. Like many writers, from William Blake to her contemporary Elizabeth Bishop, O’Connor understood the double-headed definition of the ancient Greek word graphos, which can refer to a mark as a word or as an image. O’Connor did not have pretensions about what was clearly her secondary gift; she painted for pleasure, and because it made her a better observer of her country. To young writers seeking advice, she wrote, “You have got to learn to paint with words,” and argued that any discipline, be it mathematics or theology—but especially drawing—would help them to see and, ultimately, to judge. For judgment, which is critical to fiction, begins and ends in sight: “Everything has its testing point in the eye,” she wrote, “and the eye is an organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.”

A phrase O’Connor used in her book of essays and speeches, Mystery and Manners, published posthumously in 1969, is “the habit of art,” which she culled from the book she “cut her aesthetic teeth” on, Art and Scholasticism by Jacques Maritain. By Maritain’s phrase (which is not truly his, as its roots extend to Cicero’s writing on rhetoric) she does not mean artistic activity—though that, too, has its place—but the quality or disposition of mind that yields such activity:

Writing is something in which the whole personality takes part—the conscious as well as the unconscious mind. Art is the habit of the artist and habits have to be rooted deep in the personality.

O’Connor displayed the beginnings of such a habit early. In high school she fashioned lino-cut cartoons by the dozen. Classmates didn’t think of her so much as a budding writer but a quirky, constant cartoonist—the next James Thurber, as one peer put it. She earned that reputation by holding the art editorship of the Peabody Palladium, for which she wrought 120 block print cartoons in five years. Then at Georgia State College for Women she made one print per week for the literary magazine, the Colonnade, and would at times illustrate her own articles. After her freshman year, the Macon Telegraph ran a profile of her with this headline: “Mary O’Connor Shows Talent as Cartoonist.”

She likened thinking up an idea for a cartoon to “catching a rabbit,” and then tying it to something current on campus, such as the sudden inundation of WAVES in 1942 (one of her two references to World War II) or the much-dreaded Physical Fitness Day. In her senior year she drew the endpapers for the annual, the Spectrum, depicting a bird’s-eye view of students shunting to and from class along angular paths. While studying journalism at the Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa, she submitted cartoon after cartoon to the New Yorker, which sent her, she wrote, “a lot of encouragin’ rejection slips.”

Even in 1953 when she was known as a writer—Wise Blood having been published the year before, to mixed reviews—O’Connor tried to convince Harper’s Bazaar to run her oil self-portrait with a pheasant cock, a pet whom she nicknamed “the Muse” and painted with tiny devil horns sprouting from its head to better complement her “halo” of a straw hat. (Harper’s wrote back, “Couldn’t you send us a snapshot?”) She then asked Harcourt, Brace to run the painting on the jacket of A Good Man Is Hard to Find. They told her, almost tactfully, “We don’t think it would increase the sale of the stories”—and then wrapped the book in ghastly mustard yellow and placed each title word in its own raspberry bubble.

The self-portrait with pheasant cock is the only O’Connor painting that is widely available for reproduction—and then only in a black-and-white version in which O’Connor stands in front of her painted self and tries to make her face match the one she painted. The image is striking but tells nothing of her palette. The one publication to run the painting on its own, in color, is the tiny Flannery O’Connor Bulletin, published annually by her all-brick alma mater, now called Georgia College. The colors are discordant, earthy, ugly: ochre, hunter green, brick, mouse brown. She painted the canvas in thick layers, with nothing to thin or silken the oils.

O’Connor made several paintings at Andalusia and joked that her mother had commissioned her to cover the walls of their home. Her longtime friend Robert Fitzgerald described a few: “A rooster’s angry head” glaring from the top of the steps, “simple but beautiful paintings of flowers in bowls, of cows under trees, of the Negro house under the bare trees of winter.” Little else of her oil painting is known.

What can be seen and studied, however, are the cartoons. They are a few minutes’ drive from Andalusia in the special collections of Georgia College. But the curious don’t need to make the trek to see the pictures, for the college has published them in a simple coffee-table edition, The Cartoons of Flannery O’Connor at Georgia College (www.gcsu.edu/flannerycartoons, $16.99). Only six of the 150 images have ever been published before (and those only in the college’s Bulletin). The book’s well-chosen cover image hints at the correspondence O’Connor later saw between words and images: a close-
up of her signature, the initials MFO’C arranged in the form of a squawking chicken, with the apostrophe as the bird’s eye. In January, Fantagraphics will publish Flannery O’Connor: The Cartoons ($22.99).

The young O’Connor pushed her drawn and linoleum-block figures into exaggerated characters and types. There is the boy-crazy bimbo, the bookworm wallflower who says at a dance, “Oh, well, I can always be a Ph.D.,” the lanky schoolgirl beside the stout schoolgirl—and phalanxes of WAVES who look like hulking cylinders whose skirts would clank if they touched. Each figure is distorted under her busy gauge. Out of the blocks she cut Pinocchio noses, eyes popping out of heads like twin tubes (to better see passing hunks), swollen feet under meaty calves, bodies with Olive Oyl proportions, and so on. And while the cartoons are, for the most part, happy, lighthearted, effervescent—many of them silly inside jokes about assemblies and chapel—they do have this in common with her fiction: They are stark and hard, without shades of gray or shadow or crosshatching. Every frame is a severe jagged puzzle of black and white.

Like her fiction, the cartoons, with their pulled and twisted figures, are visceral, grotesque, comic. This style jars with the cutesy cartoons about spring break and other holidays—the juxtaposition seems nearly sinister—but works well when the cartoon is satirical. In one frame, O’Connor outs the artificial intellectual: One girl student says to another in an art exhibition, “I don’t like looking at these old pictures either, but it doesn’t hurt my reputation for people to think I’m a lover of fine arts.”

These early cartoons bring to mind one of O’Connor’s most famous lines about the characters in her fiction. Viewing her country through the hard lens of Roman Catholic orthodoxy, she recognized sin and could see with searing clarity, and humility, the depravity of man.

The novelist with Christian concerns will find in modern life distortions which are repugnant to him, and his problem will be to make these appear as distortions to an audience which is used to seeing them as natural; and he may well be forced to take ever more violent means to get his vision across to this hostile audience.

By violent means, she meant that “you have to make your vision apparent by shock—for the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind you draw large and startling figures.” Reading her fiction after looking at her art, you begin to wonder what Haze Motes’s preacher’s hat, or the “green halos” of a peacock’s tail, would look like on her block. The mature writing style and the early cartoon style are of a piece because they come from the same firm personality. But only one style is mature, and the cartoons can’t be analyzed to understand her writing.

Violence has a considerable presence in O’Connor’s fiction—characters tumble in her peaceful prose into extremes of death and destruction, much as they do in Greek tragedy—but it is not the action that haunts us after reading but the image: a girl’s wooden leg, Atlanta as Purgatory, a mummified holy child, Christ lingering in car windows, a pig charging into a river with a peppermint stick in its mouth. Revelation itself comes in the form of an image, too, when it comes: The story “Revelation” closes with a woman who is blind to her own depravity shooting water from a hose into a sow’s eye and then, suddenly, seeing a great procession of souls rising up to heaven in silence. In this moment we are watching a woman watching an event; O’Connor’s writing is dominated by sight and suffused in hard, physical images.

Many of these images, in her writing and in her art, O’Connor mined locally. The cartoons depict classmates and teachers, the paintings capture scenes from Andalusia, and the characters in her fiction draw upon what she heard on the local radio station or saw in the streets of Milledgeville or read in weekly livestock journals. Her interest was not in the intricacies of consciousness but in the “objective world outside the mind” of her own small town, she wrote, because reality does not end at the surface of things but begins there: The “things of the world pour forth from God,” and behind surfaces there is potentially everything as opposed to nothing.

Even the objects included as props in her stories—a Bible briefcase, a warthog—accumulate meaning and become symbols that are almost too heavy to exist only in ink. They refuse to be empty or random or anonymous. In Mystery and Manners O’Connor quotes Joseph Conrad verbatim, but without quotation marks, as if she had internalized his sentence so much that it had become her own thought. The purpose, she wrote, in writing so intensely is “before all, to make you see.”

Katherine Eastland is associate editor of Commentary.

Recent Blog Posts