Before he achieved international fame as a painter, Carroll Cloar considered other endeavors — football coach, track star, preacher, cowboy, cartoonist, writer, musician. But a 1934 trip to Europe introduced him to great art and set him firmly on course.
What followed was a career that spanned six decades and a body of work that earned critical acclaim. His works hang in major museums and adorn the homes of private collectors. These dreamlike renderings capture the Delta South that Cloar knew and painted so well.
Born January 13, 1913, in the small town of Earle, Arkansas, Cloar was the child of a strict farmer father and a Pentecostal mother and grew up exploring the landscape that later found form in his art. He studied at Southwestern at Memphis (now Rhodes College), the Memphis Academy of Arts (now Memphis College of Art), and the Art Students League of New York. His talent eventually landed him an Edward MacDowell Scholarship and a Guggenheim Fellowship.
By the 1950s he had achieved no small measure of fame. He was featured in Life and Time magazines, and after his first one-man show in New York, critics hailed his “sharply observant eye for faces” and his knack for rendering “concrete expression to the ghosts of old memories.”
In 1954 he moved to Memphis — where he would live and work for the rest of his life — and soon such collectors as John D. Rockefeller III and Joseph Hirshhorn were buying his art. He continued to refine his style so that one critic wrote, “His work became instantly identifiable in any place and any context” and another described it as “luminescent.”
Cloar’s wife of 20 years — now Pat Cloar Milsted of Athens, Georgia — says her husband was always confident of his work and never surprised by his success. He pursued his art with a vision and a routine from which he seldom wavered. He was also prolific, finishing a painting about every three weeks, more than 800 by the time of his death.
That death came at his own hands one April day in 1993, after a four-year bout with cancer. But his images endure — whether happy and vibrant, or dark and Gothic — as do the themes that transcend generations: fear and yearning, heartache and humor, magic and mystery, the struggle with faith.
Just as his work endures, so does his reputation, as this summer, celebrating the centenary of his birth, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art presents “The Crossroads of Memory: Carroll Cloar and the American South” from June 8th through September 15th, with 80 of his works on loan from major U.S. museums (see page 69).
Set for release later this year is a book by Rick Gruber, former director of the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art, and published by the University of Mississippi, titled The Last of the Old America: The Art and Life of Carroll Cloar. The poignant title is drawn from text the artist wrote in 1955 about a way of life he saw growing more remote with each passing day: “If you will go northward in Arkansas, you will still see people who might have stepped out of my mother’s album; early American faces, timeless dress and timeless customs. But they are changing too. They are the last of the Old America that isn’t long for this Earth.”
The book is the first to use treasures from the Cloar archives at the University of Memphis library’s Special Collections department — family scrapbooks, lithographs, sketchbooks, and more — as well as personal items his widow, Pat Milsted, has contributed.
Looking back on her years with the artist, she recalls how “he loved to tell stories as he painted, or as we traveled about the country, or as we sat on the sofa in our little library with the usual drink, or with friends who just loved to hear him.”
She credits her second husband — Jack Milsted, who died in 2012 — with encouraging her continued promotion of Cloar’s art. “Jack was surrounded by Carroll’s paintings and quite proud to have the association; he even loved giving tours and telling some of Carroll’s stories.”
Milsted has lived for five years in Athens, where she has worked as a docent at the Georgia Museum of Art. That institution will host “Crossroads of Memory” when it travels from Memphis to Athens in October. Milsted recently entertained the Georgia Museum docents and collectors, showing the Cloar works she owns, which include seven paintings and more than 20 lithographs.
Emphasizing the universal appeal of her husband’s art, she says, “Those doubts, dreams, fantasies; the loves, deaths, memories — everything we had or wished we had — are there in his paintings.” People from other countries, as well as other regions of America “have identified with Carroll’s work and love it,” she adds. “That identification and the way the emotions reach the viewers — that’s what I cherish the most. I hope the viewers of the show will recognize how one painter captured their lives and loves.”