Look around. If you chose seven belongings whose stories would impart an understanding of who you are and the life you’ve lived, what would those things be?
Story & Photographs Birney Imes
Being a good storyteller does not necessarily make one a good teacher, but safe to say many of the best teachers are also good storytellers. Buy that premise or not, it hardly matters in the case of painter Brent Funderburk, who is a prolific storyteller and by all accounts a sensitive and inspiring teacher.
And like good teachers — and good artists — Funderburk is receptive to subtle cues from unexpected places, especially from unexpected places. Take this teaching thing, something Funderburk has done now for about a third of a century.
The artist was applying himself at East Carolina University — he was going to be an illustrator and design iconic album covers. Problem was, while he worked his way through college in a record store, he watched LPs shrink to cassette tapes. A secretary in the art department suggested Funderburk would make a good teacher, and the student made a course correction.
He taught two years in a two-person art department in Lincoln, Nebraska. However, he had no time to paint: “Baby, dogs, snow,” he explained. After two years Funderburk and family decamped from Nebraska to live in a tree house in his native state, North Carolina. There he hoped to make a go of it as an artist. The first exhibition in his hometown of Charlotte was a success and the second, at the Peachtree Center in Atlanta, seemed a sure thing. An adjacent exhibition featured the Shroud of Turin.
“This is great, me and Jesus,” Funderburk said to himself as he watched the crowds file past. But, in the artist’s words, “there was no trickledown.”
He began looking for steady work and came across an employment ad for a watercolor teacher in Mississippi. At the time Funderburk was in the thrall of Walter Anderson (a condition that persists to this day), and he went for it.
“Got on that two-lane highway through Reform and Gordo and thought, ‘What the hell have we done?’”
Not long after the family arrived in Starkville, a position opened up at MSU for Funderburk’s wife, Debbie, a dancer, and it’s been happily ever after since.
When asked to select seven items that offer insight into the narrative of his life, the artist hews to family and work.
While at Eastern Carolina, Funderburk studied with the watercolorist Edward Reep. Though he claims to have been a lackluster student, teacher and student formed a bond they maintained through 30 years of letter writing. (Reep died in 2013.) Funderburk has saved every LETTER from his mentor.
“He taught every student as though they were going to be a master,” Funderburk said.
Apparently that attitude passed from teacher to student.
“Brent is the pied piper of color, paint, paper and pencil,” said Jamie Mixon, who has taught with Funderburk for more than two decades. “Students will follow him anywhere,” she said, adding, “I wish Brent Funderburk upon all art students everywhere.”
Funderburk’s favorite book growing up was a BOOK OF ILLUSTRATED POEMS, “Poems of Early Childhood” from Childcraft Books.
“Call me crazy, but this is still my favorite book,” he said. “It’s full of pictures.”
The artist also draws inspiration from the frenetic energy of the books of Margaret Wise Brown, another children’s author/illustrator.
Funderburk’s monthly PRODUCTION SCHEDULES, color-coded with highlight markers, are works of art themselves — they offer a thumbnail history of the more prosaic comings and goings of a college professor.
Throughout his childhood Funderburk’s mother collected FROGS. So obsessive was she about them she once bought an airline ticket for a 6-foot toad she purchased in San Francisco.
One day while Brent was walking past a movie theater in Greensboro, North Carolina, a beautiful girl working there recognized him as the lead vocalist for a band she’d seen the night before, Rocky and the Flying Squirrels. At a rare loss for words, the young musician noticed in the theater’s display window a poster for a horror movie titled, “Frogs.”
“Could I get that poster for my mother?” the befuddled musician blurted. “She collects frogs.”
The following day Funderburk returned to the theater and got the poster — and the girl.
“It was the worst pick-up line ever,” he said.
Debbie Funderburk, who was the girl, may beg to differ.
One afternoon Funderburk came home from a difficult day of teaching to find his 13-year-old son had completed a recording project.
Using two CASSETTE players, the teenager had recorded the Beach Boys’ “Surfer Girl,” one track at a time.
“It was perfect,” the father said years later. “I cried. That was when I recognized what he was going to do.”
Wyatt Funderburk is now a successful producer, performer and songwriter in Nashville.
The Funderburk’s second child, Jackson, discovered his avocation on a beach, you might say. The family was vacationing on Santa Rosa Island, Florida. Brent told his younger son that Walter Anderson had in his studio a jar of purple shells, the rarest of shells.
“I’ll give you a $100 if you find one,” father told son.
After hours of fruitless beachcombing, son stood before father, reached down, and picked up the tiny purple SEASHELL at his father’s feet.
That trip — Funderburk believes it was that moment on the beach — proved to be catalytic. Before, the son had been struggling with what he wanted to do with his life. Jackson Funderburk soon returned to school; he now teaches social studies at a middle school in Starkville.
Most summers the Funderburk families — Brent has a twin brother, an architect in Charlotte — reunite at BAT CAVE, North Carolina. There they rent cabins and get together and play music at night.
“We play bad music really well together,” he said.