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Splendor in the Grass, Glory in the Flower: A Eulogy for Chatham Murray

Chatham at Don and Phyllis Nelson's wedding in 1979.

I first met Chatham at a raucous event in support of that deeply sincere children’s crusade, the McGovern campaign. It was the autumn of 1972, and I had arrived, bowtied, from the University of Kentucky to enter the English department at the University of Georgia, to which I applied for reasons now so obscure as to be seen through a glass darkly, and never again, I pray, face to face. In short order I became a gay activist, member of a radical student political party and ring-leader of a merry band of brothers whose group house on Milledge Avenue became Athens’ first dimly lit but highly fueled disco. 

Chatham was a star. A McGovern delegate, a talented artist, an uninhibited entertainer (we often sang in a trio with Chuck Searcy…Buck, Chuck and Chatham) and a celebrated object of desire. We became friends over the preparation of some rather exotic Alice B. Toklas pancakes in the cottage she shared with Pete McCommons, her amazingly intelligent and articulate lifelong friend. Soon she and I began to “hang out,” “kick up,” smoke a “doobie” and avoid anything that would “freak us out” or turn into a “bummer.” 

From time to time we did set aside our long-haired radical hippie personas to visit with, and be nurtured by, old South radical chicnics like Lamar God, Dean Tate and his bride the serene Southern Princess Sue Fan Barrow, Judge Uncle Jimmy and his wife the politically astute big Phyllis, and the Colonel and his bride the Empress of the Rising Sun Mary Hart Brumby. But they did not go tubing with us on the Oconee. Does anyone still tube on the Oconee? 

Soon it became clear that the real bond I shared with Chatham was a love of art. Before Athens I thought I might be a lawyer, Governor of Kentucky, or an Anglican Bishop in some exotic country like Canada. Then I discovered boys, an interest which in those days did not seem compatible with anything legal, political or religious. Once I arrived, bowtied, in Athens I soon drifted away from the English department, whose faculty only loved boys behind closet doors, and began to look at art. Art in books, art in old houses, art in the little jewel box University museum, endowed by some ol’ Yankee feller whose legacy continues to shine.

And I looked at art with Chatham. In her studio I learned about being painterly as I watched her cast brush strokes that glided like slightly softened butter across the planar field. We went places to see art…like Washington D.C. with our friend Charlie Hunnicutt…where we lingered late in the National Gallery and the Corcoran before actual Sargent portraits. Chatham would point out “shine marks”, richly impastoed bits of drapery, edges of drifting clouds or distant landscapes, laid down in close color harmonics whose tones drew the eye in and shut the real world out.    

From Chatham I learned that art is not only illustrative, it is a crafted artifact which renders the moment into an eternal experience which flows from the mind’s eye to the eye of the beholder. Thankfully, from Chatham, I also learned that not only could I learn about art, I could also feel art, and I could find the confidence to step outside my assigned identity to be what I really wanted to be…an art historian. 

So it came to pass that I left Athens, but not Chatham. We remained very close friends and in the early days of my career as a curator and director I called upon her to help me with museum design, faux painted backdrops for special installations, color choices for gallery walls which defied the white supremacy of the modernist movement. 

Chatham’s insights (“Look at this, Buck.”) continue to sustain me even as I have watched my profession become the province of sociologists and cultural anthropologists whose recognition of minorities does not seem to take into account the lapidarian artistry of Vermeer, or the textured mysticism of Rothko. Since meeting Chatham, I have spent nearly 50 years in the study of art, a pursuit for which I am deeply grateful and which has more than fulfilled my expectations. She lit the first candle.Tempus fugit…My favorite memory of Chatham will always be the night of my 24th birthday when she arrived late at Boys Town house for a surprise party. Standing at the back of the hall I saw her enter the big double front door, the porch lights shining behind her…she in a pale cream blouse outlined with silk roses, the light turning her hair into the golden halo expected of her. I lit up and ran to her yelling ‘Let’s dance!” and we did. Good night dear Duchess of Clarke…I know we will dance again.

Estill Curtis Pennington is an art historian who has published extensively on the art of the South.  He lives in Bourbon County, KY, where he was born.