Life as Art: Elayne Goodman

Portrait of Elayne Goodman by Whitten SabbatiniStory Birney Imes | Photographs Whitten Sabbatini

On the third page of Elayne Goodman’s resumé is a hand-drawn map showing directions to her studio. Visitors are directed to take the New Hope/Stokes Road exit off U.S. Highway 82. Now a thriving array of suburban housing developments, New Hope was a far-flung farming community when Goodman attended high school there in the 1950s.

After taking the exit, you drive a mile north through a creek bottom and up a hill past a water tank to the intersection with Tabernacle Road. The mile from there to Goodman’s driveway takes you past brick, ranch-style homes surrounded by pines and scrub oaks doing the best they can on poor, rocky soil. This part of Lowndes County is known as Rural Hill.

At first blush, this seems to be an unlikely setting for the studio of an artist whose work has been shown in New York and Paris and reproduced in Rolling Stone. Nor does it seem an environment likely to produce an imagination as prolific and a wit as sharp as Goodman’s. But then, we should remember: This is Mississippi, a land famous for its storytellers. This is the South, where people have stayed in one place for generations, where scarcity of opportunity and resources has proven to be fertile ground for artistic expression.

Looking back at Elayne Goodman’s 71 years, with the benefit of hindsight, it seems inevitable she would become an artist. Like the woman, her journey has been anything but conventional.

“I was the fourth generation to live in that particular place,” Goodman said.

“That particular place” is a home site several hundred yards west of where she lives now with her husband, Pete.

“The outbuildings were filled with the debris of former generations,” she said. “That’s what we played with. The children didn’t go to town unless it was to try on shoes or go to the dentist.”

Goodman was born during the lean years between the Great Depression and the start of World War II. It was a time when people made do, and children relied on their imaginations for entertainment.

Goodman’s studio is a red building attached to her house. At the time of this writing, the artist was in full production mode getting ready for the annual Kentuck Festival in Northport, Ala. Shelves and countertops are teeming with art so vibrant the pieces almost breathe. There is a large portrait of a smiling black woman made of buttons. (“There’s 55 gallons of buttons in here,” says Pete.) A small, coquettish woman made from a red bottle of vanilla extract waits to seduce an unwary collector. There are painted fish and lots of Elvis.

Nothing escapes the artist’s touch. Not even the furniture. Beds and dressers throughout her house show evidence of Goodman’s whimsy. The line between art and life is indistinguishable here.

Years ago Goodman used her son’s refrigerator door as the canvas for a painting of its contents. When her son and wife bought a new refrigerator, they took the door off the old one and hung it on the wall as one would a treasured painting.

“I always knew that I was a notch off, just slightly different than most of the people of the world,” Goodman says, laughing. “But in art a little bit weird is an asset.”

Goodman speaks with the self-assurance of someone who has found and is succeeding at her life’s calling. It’s not always been that way.
As a young woman Goodman worked in local garment plants and raised two sons. Feeling that she needed a skill, she enrolled at a just opened-county vocational school and became a LPN. Later, at Mississippi University for Women she became a RN.

Beginning as teenagers, she and her sister made small dough figures from flour, salt and water and sold them at craft fairs. The $1-apiece trinkets were irresistible — “Women would show up at our booths in the rain when it was still dark. They would have those lights on their heads like people wear when they were going coon hunting,” Goodman said. The dough figures paid for three college tuitions.

At 42, Goodman was facing what she calls “a serious case of burnout.” She was going to school, working as a surgical nurse and raising two teenage boys. A visiting doctor advised her to do something she had always wanted to, but never had the chance to do.

“I had always driven past the art building at The W, and they had all the ceramics in the window. I always wanted to go in there and play, and that’s what I did.”

Goodman enrolled in a night class for ceramics with David Frank.

“If I had landed anywhere else but in his class at this particular time, I would have never succeeded at all,” Goodman says of Frank. “He could read people well and could see I didn’t have any confidence. He just left me alone and let me play.”

And play she did. For nine years Goodman immersed herself in the offerings of the school’s art department. She never went back to nursing.

Two things happened to Goodman during her time at The W that solidified her confidence as an artist. After she had been in Eugenia Summer’s sculpture class a few months, Summer and The W’s Harvard-trained art historian, Mary Evelyn Stringer, called on Goodman at her home.

The two women told Goodman she already had an established style she should develop. “You are doing what you are supposed to be doing,” they told her. “We want you to come to The W and have a good time,” they said. “Learn what you want to learn, stay as long as you want to stay.” The three women became lifelong friends.

While at The W, Goodman was given a one-person summer show. She filled the gallery with her work. “We hauled stuff down there for three days,” she remembers.

“That was an astonishing experience,” Goodman said. “People signed the book from Greece and Canada. The comments were so fantastic, and people would call me up and tell me how fantastic it was.”

Through the persistence of Summer and Stringer, Goodman found gallery representation in Atlanta. There her work also found an enthusiastic audience. When the Atlanta gallery owner opened a branch in Manhattan, she took Elayne’s work with her. The gallery put her Elvis altar in a street-level window, and three days later, an editor from Rolling Stone called.

The magazine ran a picture of the altar, describing it as a “multi-tabernacled ziggurat made of sewing supplies and Elvis memorabilia” created by a “50-year-old homemaker from Columbus, Mississippi.”

A collector from Italy was interested; so was actor Nicolas Cage, who is said to have an Elvis fixation. Cage sang “Love Me Tender,” and assumed an Elvis persona in David Lynch’s 1990 film “Wild at Heart.” The actor balked at the $2,000 shipping cost from New York to L.A., though, and Goodman’s gallery was unyielding. “I would have driven it out there, if I’d known,” Goodman said years later.

After a long entombment in Goodman’s studio, the altar is about to become part of the permanent collection of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans.

“Nicolas Cage aside, Goodman has scored in Hollywood. Actress Julia Roberts, director Joel Schumacker and former Warner Brothers Studio head Bruce Berman have bought her work.

While it makes for interesting conversation, the glamour of big-name collectors is only a small part of the picture, Goodman is quick to say.

Mostly, art is hard work.

Three mornings a week, she gets up and goes to town to work out at the YMCA. She comes home, eats breakfast and then works until supper. She works Saturdays and Sundays.

Weekends, she and Pete prowl auctions and estate sales looking for the raw materials for her art: forgotten boxes of buttons and cigar bands, derelict furniture and failed woodcarving projects.

“The reason that most people don’t succeed in art,” she says, “is that they want to have a life. You cannot simply have your toe in the water.”
That is an accusation no one is likely to level at this artist. When it comes to art, Elayne Goodman is totally immersed. Not only has art provided sustenance for her and her family, it nourishes her spirit.

“The real reward is the people you meet and the experiences you would not otherwise have,” says Goodman. “We have met some of the nicest people, some of the funniest people, some of the craziest people. I just love that, wacky people.”

Portrait of Elayne and Pete Goodman by Whitten SabbatiniThe words pour out of Goodman in the cadences of a storyteller. She dwells on certain phrases for effect; she punctuates with laughter:

On the desire to create: “I really believe you have to be born with the seeds of it…. I’m driven to do it. I think the reason I burned out in nursing was that I wasn’t doing anything creative. I wouldn’t have burned out if I’d had a creative outlet.”

On the guidance she received at The W: “Most people who attempt to go to art school do not run into that.
(Instructors) want to change everything their students are doing and how they do it. They (Eugenia Summer and Mary Evelyn Stringer) said I already had an established style and it has as much merit as any form of art. I didn’t understand that at the time.”

On how you recognize true folk art: “There’s some kind of magic … . The public knows when somebody’s real and when they’re not. The most uneducated person in art can tell the difference. They can distinguish. They know the difference.”

“I don’t think any other individual had benefited as much from The W’s existence as I have, through the nursing, through the art.”

“When they gave me that first show at The W, nothing was for sale. It was absolutely like appearing in public nude. People really are seeing into your soul, if you will. It’s very hard to get past that, that I am putting way too much of myself out there for the public to see. Everybody’s got a few things they don’t want everybody to see.”

“As soon as I started taking what I do now to Kentuck, it sold. On the way over to Kentuck the first year I took my work instead of the dough figures, my husband said, ‘You’re not going to sell this shit. We’re wasting our time.’ By noon I’d made $3,000 worth and I said to him, ‘You might have to go home and get some more shit,’ and he said, ‘Well, I will.’”

“Nobody was more surprised than I, not even him (Pete), that people found this (my work) appealing.”

“I don’t know if the American public will ever tire of Elvis.”

“I was terribly upset a few years ago when they had a poll and they announced that Oprah Winfrey was the most famous personality of all times … that’s just not true. She will never eclipse Elvis. There are people in the Outback who know who Elvis is and don’t know who Oprah is. That upset me. Someone said Elvis, Coca-Cola and Jesus were the most three recognized images ever. I think I agree with that.”

“I hope I help people see things in a different way.”