Stories of the “southern experience” are as prolific as kudzu. A new exhibit, “Southern Impressions: Paintings From the James-Farmer Collection,” at the N.C. Museum of History in Raleigh will take visitors on a historical journey that explores the cultural heritage, dramatic landscapes and diverse peoples that have shaped the South and the southern experience.

Opening Friday, Dec. 11, the exhibit will feature 40 loaned paintings from the collection of Dr. Everette James and Dr. Nancy Farmer, of Chapel Hill, alongside museum artifacts. The free exhibit will run through July 4.

“The variety of paintings by native-born and visiting artists captures their unique reflections of the South from 1820 through 1950,” says Michael Ausbon, associate curator of Decorative Arts. “The artists convey the beauty — and the harsh realities — of the region’s history.”

For example, “Lady With a Flower Basket” depicts daily life in Charleston, S.C., and “Swamp Scene With Cabin” highlights the South’s breathtaking scenery. On the other hand, “Cotton Picking” is a scene of enslaved individuals at work.

Artists with works featured in “Southern Impressions” range from Sarah Miriam Peale, of the noted Peale family of painters, to Eugene Healan Thomason, who is recognized as the “Ashcan Artist of Appalachia.” Ashcan artists portrayed gritty realism in the early 20th-century American experience.

In “Southern Impressions,” museum objects — quilts, baskets and other handcrafted items — speak to the region’s diverse cultural heritage. Among the objects are a pottery vessel created by a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and a dulcimer made by an Appalachian craftsman.

Greeting exhibit visitors will be an eye-catching, organically inspired “bottle tree” made by Durham metal artist Jeremy Stollings. The southern tradition of placing bottles on tree limbs near a home’s entrance reaches back to central African traditions and to superstitious Europeans who believed that evil spirits roaming at night could be captured in empty glass bottles.

“The Civil War and race are two of the most enduring legacies of southern culture, and the exhibit features artifacts that contextualize these issues in southern history,” says Ausbon.

Near a portrait of Gen. Robert E. Lee, for instance, is General Order Number 9 that Lee issued to announce the surrender of forces under his command at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 10, 1865. Only 12 official copies were made for distribution to the Army of Northern Virginia, including this one, which passed into the possession of Maj. James Franklin Beall, of Davidson County. 

“The exhibit encourages sharing and ‘sorting out’ our collective memories of the South,” says Ausbon. “These memories are part of a complex story, and they play a vital role in determining how we live in the present and how we deal honestly with the past.”

Dr. Everette James and Dr. Nancy Farmer have built a specialized art collection that is not only distinctively southern but that also honors women artists. James received the 2015 North Carolina Award, the highest civilian honor given by the state, which recognizes significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine art, literature, public service and science.

James is a dedicated historian and philanthropist who has guest-curated many exhibitions and published more than 500 articles and 20 books. His wife, Dr. Nancy Farmer, is a distinguished educator who is active in many cultural programs throughout the state. She is a dedicated philanthropic partner in managing their collections. The couple has generously donated portions of their collections to museums and other cultural institutions throughout the country and abroad.

For information about the N.C. Museum of History, a Smithsonian-affiliated museum, call (919) 807-7900 or visit ncmuseumofhistory.org.

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