To Louisiana artist Rolland Have Golden, the South has long been the metaphysical "heartbeat" of inspiration.
To Louisiana artist Rolland Harve Golden, the South—its land and history—has long been the metaphysical heartbeat of inspiration and the source of a lifelong inner journey, one that has taken him on back roads across Louisiana, the Mississippi Delta, Alabama, Georgia, the Florida panhandle, the Carolinas, Virginia, Maryland, and eventually above the Mason-Dixon line into New York, New England, and France.
Throughout his long career, Golden (born in New Orleans on November 8, 1931) has developed an almost spiritual reverence for landscapes, especially the Southern landscape, and the stories of the people who inhabit the terrain. That journey has defined who Golden is and his place among Southern artists. His paintings, though silent and often melancholy, tell stories and evoke memories of shared experiences among those who connect to his imagery. He seeks to grasp the rhythm of a place, whether he is painting rain-soaked cotton fields in the Mississippi Delta, a brilliant New England autumn, the hazy afterglow of a sunset over the Appalachian mountains, the warm light and colors in a South Louisiana meadow, the frenetic streets of New York, the twisting blacktop of a Southern road, or a languid field of red poppies in the French countryside. Golden has an eye that captures subtleties, be it a bright golden banana leaf hanging lazily over an old wooden fence in the French Quarter or cows grazing in a flowering French meadow. Louisiana writer Don Lee Keith, in his 1970 book The World of Rolland Golden, described Golden’s paintings as an “evasive melody” that touches on the “faintly familiar.”
Golden’s paintings of the rural South are nostalgic, but not in the sense of a romanticized Old South that lives in the imagination of novelists and on the silver screen. His subjects are anachronistic remnants of fading Southern glory and of the hard times endured by sharecroppers and tenant farmers who lived on the edge of survival. In a similar vein as many Southern writers, Golden has an emotional connection to the rural Southern landscape and its people, themes that repeatedly emerge in his art. “Perhaps a non-Southerner doesn’t feel the strange stirrings I feel and I find myself compelled to paint,” he was quoted as saying in Keith’s book. “However, I do think being a Southerner is a big factor in my personal outlook on art. I’ve tried, but I can’t quite put my finger on it. It has something to do with history and ancestors. And childhood. And the very land itself.”
Two themes have persisted throughout his career: country highways and the gray textured wood found mostly in decaying old buildings and the abandoned sharecropper shacks that litter the Southern countryside like skeletal remains. “I started doing roads as soon as I got a car and could get out of the French Quarter,” Golden says. “I just love roads. In the late 1970s, I did two shows. One was called Roads, Streets and Highways because it included city scenes. Then I did Roads and Highways because they were out in the country. When I’m traveling and I see a stretch of highway that strikes me, I pull over and take a picture.”
In a way, these rural Southern icons are like vague memories inspired by a family album. “My Dad’s family was rural Southern people,” Golden said. Though born in New Orleans in 1931, young Golden spent his early childhood moving across the South. In 1933, his father’s job at AT&T took the family to the North Mississippi town of Grenada. Over the next thirteen years, the Goldens lived in Jackson, Mississippi, followed by Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama. “I didn’t realize it at the time,” Rolland told Southwest Art magazine in 1978, “but the beauty of the rural South was making quite an impact on my young mind.” Some of his earliest memories were of drives through the Delta country with his mother and father, and long car trips from Grenada to visit his grandmother in New Orleans.
While highways and shacks remain constant in his work, two other major themes dominated Golden’s work in the 1970s: demolition of historic buildings in the New Orleans Central Business District and the Vietnam War. In 1974 and 1975, Golden painted an emotional series, Demolition by Neglect, depicting the razing of entire city blocks of nineteenth-century buildings in downtown New Orleans. He believes artists should use their work to make political statements. Along with a series of paintings he did after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans in 2005, Golden believes the demolition series ranks among his most important work. “I had put together all these things I had been working on for a long time—cubism, abstract realism, realism—all these things came together in this show. I was really passionate about it.”
In 1970 and again in 1977, Golden responded to the Vietnam War and his fascination with the American Civil War with a series of controversial paintings on Civil War battlefields and monuments. The idea for the series resulted from reading about the Civil War while he was bedridden with the flu. “I was struck by the similarities between our Civil War of the 1860s and the Vietnam War of the 1960s. I felt I had to make a statement about war and its futility. In my show the emphasis was not on brilliant charges but on the sufferings of the soldiers.” The similarities were great, he said: “The lynching, the draft riots in New York, and the same old mistakes.”
Another high point in his career also took place in mid-1970s. In 1976, the Institute of Soviet-American Relations in Moscow, through the International House in New Orleans, invited Golden to the Soviet Union for a two-week visit to launch a national tour of his work. A few months after his return, Golden told Southwest Art magazine: “I went to Russia to become the first Westerner to have a traveling one-man exhibition inside the U.S.S.R. Fifty-one of my paintings were viewed by over 100,000 Russians in Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev and Odessa.” Apparently, the Soviets liked his work. They may have been attracted to his stark and unromantic depictions of the rural Southern landscape, a theme common in Russian literature. His paintings were well received. The Soviets purchased the painting, Louisiana No. 1, to hang in the American collection at the Pushkin Museum in Moscow, along with a painting by Andrew Wyeth.
Golden occasionally journeys into surrealism. He also explores a fascination with geometric forms and the creative use of space by juxtaposing unrelated but similar shapes on contrasting planes to create visual impact. These studies often appear in thematic series, such as Variations on Reds, Whites and Blues and Highways, Roads and Streets, where stark winter landscapes and abandoned shacks are contrasted in the foreground by totally unrelated objects such as a single red rose or a bloodied white cross, imagery that suggests the work of the Belgian surrealist painter René Magritte. In his almost Dali-esque Game-Landscape Series of the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Golden contrasts elements such as dominoes, checkerboards, Chinese marbles, and jigsaw puzzles with visually related elements found in cotton fields, autumn landscapes and Manhattan cityscapes.
Golden also has traveled through villages, vineyards, and hilly pastures of Southern France in search of new inspiration. At first, Golden had a difficult time capturing the ambiance he wanted in his paintings of France. He eventually understood that the key to what he was looking for was the aging classical architecture found in the small French villages just as sharecropper shacks had been the key for his paintings of the rural South. As a result, his rural landscapes contain at least one building as a visual reference to France. “Even for me, this work was conservative,” he said. “When people think of French paintings, they think of impressionism. If you don’t paint like the Impressionists, people think it’s not France. I saw so many things I wanted to paint. People will just have to take my word, it’s France.”
The creative and emotional high point of his career came with Hurricane Katrina in August 2005. Katrina was a desperate call home for Golden, a melancholy homecoming to the city where his career began in the mid-1950s. Golden, his wife Stella, daughter Lucille and brother, Neal, rode out the storm in their home near Folsom, Louisiana, in the rural countryside about fifty miles north of New Orleans. His emotionally dark paintings made in response to the storm are composites and impressions of actual scenes in the most devastated parts of New Orleans. Because the destruction was so vast, so complete, and so profound, these compressed composites were his way to capture the enormity of the devastation in the limited space of a canvas. Essentially, these images reveal not only what Golden saw when he surveyed the aftermath of flooding and wind damage, but also what he felt. Golden’s Katrina series represents everyone lost or living, every destroyed house and neighborhood, every sorrow, every hope.
While painting the series, entitled Katrina: Days of Terror, Months of Anguish, Golden relived much of the same anger and despair that drove him in the 1970s to paint the destruction of entire city blocks of historic architecture in the New to make way for parking lots and new high-rises. “Emotion is easier to capture in difficult times than in good times,” he said. “It’s like being a masochist and hurting yourself everyday. We express our deepest souls during times like these. This series was very, very different and more depressing than the Civil War or demolitions series. It was much more personal and I’m in there by myself, living in this depression.”
Ironically, Katrina reawakened Golden’s love for New Orleans. “I was tired of the making-a-living aspect of being an artist,” Golden said. “I was ready to retire. It’s a constant struggle, but this inspired me and rekindled my passion for the city. I had lost much of that when I got involved in painting rural scenes, the East Coast and France. What a shame it took such a terrible event to rekindle that passion. It’s the crowning work of my career.” Shortly after the storm, Golden and his wife, Stella, moved to Natchez, Mississippi, but kept their home in Folsom.
After completing the last of the Katrina paintings in 2008, Golden almost immediately began a series of paintings of the Mississippi River above and below Natchez. “I just needed to do it,” he said of the project titled River and Reverie. “It has been uplifting for me and I’ve been inspired by the river and the colors. North of Natchez, I found places on the river, and I found wonderful views from the old Natchez cemetery that overlooks the river from high on a bluff. I found views in Vicksburg and in Greenville [Mississippi] at flood time. I enjoyed being on the road again.” Golden also included views of the New Orleans riverfront painted from photographs he had taken on the Algiers ferry in the 1960s. “I have always had an attachment to the Mississippi River,” Golden said. “In the 1930s and ’40s, I grew up in various parts of Mississippi and often visited my grandmother, who lived near the river in New Orleans. We would sit on her front steps and listen to the ships’ horns just five blocks away. Later, as an artist, my wife, children and I lived in the French Quarter, never more than four or five blocks from the river.”
During his long career, Golden, who studied in New Orleans under the famed regionalist painter and teacher John McCrady, has received many awards and honors. In 2011, he received the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters’ Visual Arts Award. He has placed first in competitions sponsored by The National Arts Club in New York three times. Other honors have been bestowed by the National Watercolor Society, Watercolor U.S.A. Honor Society, Allied Artists of America, American Watercolor Society, Audubon Artists, and Rocky Mountain Watermedia. His paintings can be found in the Pushkin Museum of Art in Moscow; the New Orleans Museum of Art; the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson; The Historic New Orleans Collection; The National Arts Club in New York City; and the Springfield Museum of Art in Springfield, Missouri. His paintings also have traveled in one-artist shows in the Soviet Union to Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, and Odessa; along with the French cities of Marseilles, Toulouse, Agen, and Villeneuve-sur-Lot.