June 12, 2008

James Brown's Boots

“The one thing that can solve most of our problems is dancing”-James Brown
As a volunteer at the local I.P. Stanback museum here in Orangeburg, I was privy to the recent loan of artifacts and documents from the estate of James Brown. While collating the objects and assisting in cataloguing the collection, an intricate mix of items emerged as complex as the man who collected them. The first thing I was struck by was the ordinariness of much of it - as if one would expect even mundane paperwork to look different for the famous from what it looks like for the rest of us. Yet there were albums of family photos, baseball cards, and kitsch knickknacks that I would have expected to find among the household remains of any ordinary person. But these photos, these everyday items belonged to James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, which made the most mundane things poignant.
What became evident from the materials that filled James Browns’ house was that he was a man of sentiment, which I somehow didn’t expect from his flamboyant persona. There was a small bible with a leather cover so worn that it wouldn’t close. In a clear plastic bag was a carefully preserved stem of a cotton plant with the balls of cotton still clinging to it. I heard that he had kept a number of samples of these around the house. I later read that James Brown had to work shining shoes and picking cotton as a boy. Perhaps he kept these pieces of cotton plants always near him to remind himself of those early years. Was it a kind of personal vanitas symbol? Or humility? Maybe it was a symbol of conquest over the past. Or was the cotton ball James Brown's "Rosebud?"
I was curious about the Native American rattles, beads and little statuettes. Apparently these were James Brown’s acknowledgments of his purported Native American heritage. There was a nod to his Asian heritage as well in the form of a worn jewelry chest with the Chinese characters for “long life” and “wealth” on it.
Most of the items I saw were personal effects that I probably could not hope to understand. But the items that truly moved me were James Brown’s boots. I saw them as objects worthy of veneration. These were the boots that James Brown danced in. I could not believe that I was actually able to hold one and briefly connect to history. They were exquisite things, black suede with intricate tooling. They curved gracefully upwards slightly at the toe. Silver bands embellished the heel and the toe. For a moment it seemed as if they were alive.
In a moment of synchronicity on the drive home from the museum, I listened to National Public Radio and heard an announcement about the impending auction of the other objects from James Brown’s estate at Christie’s in New York next month. There will be the keyboards, the capes and all those obvious things of the showman. But I appreciated these small intimate things that I was helping inventory - the cotton and the boots. For the showy and extravagant auction in New York will feature those famous objects important to us as symbols of a popular icon. But the stuff of South Carolina were the possessions important to James Brown, the man. Back in my studio I made a little painting in a folk art style, picking up some of the decorative details from artifacts I saw in the James Brown collection here in Orangeburg and what it felt like to touch a beautiful thing.

1 comment:

harriett said...

You described very well one of the reasons museums are so important - to record and preserve that which would otherwise be lost forever.
What lovely sentiments!