"... to be barefoot in the world - in the wet grass and cold clay and harvested fields and inky bayous and to pay attention is a miracle that feeds creation." - Church Goin Mule
Coppage: Art holds value in the sacred space of the collective unconscious. Certain images and symbols can be impregnated, from its historical representation, with loaded meanings that inspire wonder, awe, and curiosity. Your work uses repetition of images and symbols – Mules, angels, devils, gestures from a rural landscape, the list goes on and on — to induce awe. I notice that this use, creates a narrative and heightened energy for your overall body of work, where each creation is in conversation with the next. Can you talk about your use of repetition in your work — whether conscious or unconscious —, and how the images and stylistic choices you use in your work attach themselves to the existing body of rural-focused art.
Church Goin Mule: Slowly new ideas get added to my visual vocabulary, but I rely on outside sources to feed the wellspring, and it can’t be fed if you holed-up or sleeping in. Looks like I started out on this path and been picking up things along the way, but learning all the time that the good things last, the powerful things last, like John Steinbeck or Memphis Minnie, they’ve dealt so expertly with the ideas of light and dark and song and heart that they might live forever in their work. The devil and God been around so long because even though it seems easy like good/bad, they’re more complex than that, and rooted in more cultures outside of Christianity - the cross, for example - was the crossroads before the crucifixion came to pass. Something simple like horseshoes for good luck has lasted for centuries, same as bottle trees. The repetition is an extension of the lore we have already carried with us for so long, as well as an active dig to find the next piece of good luck that we used to reply upon but have forgotten about.
The mule is a steadfast friend and is in most of the work I do. The mule keeps me grounded, brings me home - keeps these old feet on the ground. Without the mule I think I'd be worse off and scattered around, not focused or focusing and trying to do and paint everything I fall in love with. The mule keeps plowing ahead and I get to hold the reins and follow him into rural abandon, past country stores and fall down churches and boiled p-nut signs.
It seems like the rural-ness, the forested parts of the world, too, are forgotten or left to the wealthy people, or the farmers, or the hunters, and the National Parks are for tourists out west, but the rural world of Mississippi seems accessible to me.
My great grandfather planted and harvested his own garden, kept pigeons and pigs. His son milked the cow for the house. They pulled well water and spring water and had a basement to store all their jars of pickled-this and pickled-that and potatoes and everything. We all used to live in a rural world. We done lost so much of that. And maybe the rest of it is fixing to be lost, too. I’m just trying to get back to the past and wake myself up. We have this rural world in our bones because its what kept us alive for centuries until ice and air-condition and vegetables shipped from other countries.
Coppage: I often tell folks that for me, the concept of a muse to influence the artist to create is fickle, and usually it is discipline and creating a schedule or “space” to allow a focus on the creation process. However, inspiration can come from anything from a conversation with a friend to a drive on the levee to litter lining the streets. Would you say this is true for you? Where do you find inspiration to fill your wellspring for the time you create?
Church Goin Mule: Yes - you are so right. Routine is a wonderful and a horrible thing. Routine is key - make art every day; make art as often as you can. And space is very necessary. Especially a space you can make your own and not worry about keeping tidy. Although, ultimately, I have found that muses (being painfully in love with something) is when I make my favorite work.
Carsie Blanton says “fall in love and take a drive,” and that’s maybe my favorite phrase about creating. Reading southern writing, and listening to southern music is the backbone of the work I make. And listening or reading can take place anywhere. Then you need a place to think on it all. And in the thinking - walking, driving, getting away - is where the ideas begin to hum in for me. Then it’s just that old matter of catching the idea and writing it down and remembering it to bring to life one day.
In a conversation about art practice earlier this year, someone asked, “well what if you run out of things to read or discover?” It was a brilliant question, but the South is so old, so wide, so deep, so varied from state to state I don’t think it could ever be exhausted. The mule keeps me curious in his origins and purposes and places and modes, and that in itself could be tireless just within the 1900s.
But I seen it myself these past two years, to be barefoot in the world - in the wet grass and cold clay and harvested fields and inky bayous and to pay attention is a miracle that feeds creation.
The miracle after that is love. It can be in love on anything, and that’s all right. But these past two years I been blessed with this intense love that has caused me to write and paint and generally pursue the light in things, and in saying prayers about love it has opened the path to make it to the Delta, which in itself is a muse.
Routine is it for sure, but so is attentiveness to and a curiosity in the world around you to the miracles of everyday - and then to be passionately in love with someone or something or somewhere. And in the three of those things: attentiveness, love, and routine - one will wax, one will wane, but it will all come together again in persistent pursuit of it. I think.
That’s why I love Bill Traylor’s work so much. He captures his life so expertly. He knows his subjects so well. They are boiled on down to their doggone substance, and that’s all that’s needed. Color and paper and subject (that he’s known and studied since childhood, just daily life) and this need to create. Once he got a hold of a way to make art, all of that life just flooded out onto the paper and it was nonstop. Howard Finster started at 70 and made almost 50,000 works - there’s routine, and then there’s the muse, and the attention to life, and maybe some craziness. But whatever it is, it’s beautiful, and the pursuit of making music or art or dancing, is the pursuit of the soul and it must be done.
Coppage: Southerners are known as great storytellers, both long winded and direct to the point. Do you feel that you are telling a story through your work, such as presenting the viewer with a narrative, whether linear or broken? Or, do you see your work as a lyrical moment or rumination of a thought or emotion?
Church Goin Mule: I so desperately want to be a good story teller. I so desperately want to be a good southerner. I think the two things go together. I think the mule brings all these things to the table. It doesn’t seem like I’m really in control of things. They’re all a multitude of mules. It’s not one mule. I guess they’re telling their story, and this abstracted story of the South, and the story of the blues, and my own story, and I hope it has it’s lyrical moments. There’s also things I been thinking on for years I can only eventually bring to the surface one by one. There’s so many birds and plants and flowers and creatures that have been around me my whole life, and it feels like I only am really seeing them now. I don’t know what story I’m telling but I hope one day I’ll know. Yes - telling the story of the southern world and it’s strange history, in the lyrical way of storytelling that folks have perfected, in the lyrical way of blues and bluegrass, hill country and Appalachia, in the way we get told the world was created, and in the lyrical way we see the world as a miracle every day.
Coppage: Beyond art that hangs on a wall, you have painted murals in communities. In creative placemaking, the acknowledgment of the community’s cultural history is presented and preserved through art and creativity. This can be an opportunity for artists to not only elevate positive histories but to highlight injustices. Artist in all mediums seem to be looked at as the “mirrors” of “truth tellers” in society. Do you feel the artist can be burdened with the weight of the past and expectations; and furthermore, if so, how do you navigate this responsibility through your work?
Church Goin Mule: Yes. In this comes the understanding of things, and the attentiveness of things, and the love of People and Places. And I sort of have this idea that even in the age of information we still only have what "We Personally Know About Something," and that doesn’t mean that’s all there is to it. Everything, every plant, cloud, star and smell has all this terrific complexity to it. Now shine that light on Folks. Then shine that light on Folks in the centuries of Earth, and we got a big task to tackle. I’ll never know it all. Things is more complex here in the south, in Mississippi, you know.
I was listening to this interview with Eudora Welty and Walker Percy, and the interviewer kept interrogating them about the South. Like it was theirs to explain, and make excuses for, and apologize for or salve up, but I don’t think that’s the job. I hope, I think, the job is to cause folks to be Curious, and Attentive, and then if you are those things you’ll see there’s Love there, too. I don’t want to apologize for the monstrous complexity of life. I hope you’ll see my silly old mules that I love, and love them too, and then get curious and find out about Louis Jordan or someone like that, and just let the dang rabbit hole take you to your own understanding.
People tend to fuss on Voodoo and also snake-handlers. And if you get to reading on them, they do share a lot. Same as world religions. Same as a lot of things. Okra and cotton and hibiscus flowers are related directly. We can’t see the true nature of things if we don’t care to look. Its a hard balance because for so long people been shining light on things to a point where it’s bleached out. There’s so much more to it. History has been lost and obscured, and I mourn all the time the creators we have lost to time and poverty. We don’t know who the first blues singer was, but it probably was long before Charley Patton started growling. But we’ll never know. Hold on to your history, get curious about it, preserve it - so we don’t lose anymore stories, more than we already have.
And if you never had to question anything I think maybe that’s a little bit like blinders or blinkers on a horse; you have your path and you’re gonna follow it, and I guess that’s ok. But it’s so much better to be in love with the whole world no matter what and to be very curious. The duty of the artist, in the end, is to inspire curiosity and it’s left to the viewer to follow their own way to their own answer. I cannot personally know or paint everything about one place, or even one individual, but I can begin to ask questions so maybe I can begin to understand.
Coppage: Let’s talk about community. The South is known for its people, hospitality, and community. Beyond studying artwork and artist of the past to learn, the “community of the present,” especially due to social media, allows artist to connect to share ideas. Do you see the creation of art as a solo or collaborative process? Furthermore, how do you see “community” influencing your growth as an artist?
Church Goin Mule: Shoot. I am so thankful. I just want to be a Good Southerner, and art has led me to so many Good Southerners that I couldn’t brag on enough. It’s hard to picture life without this Southern community, and most specifically for the Mississippi and Louisiana communities. It’s like having family everywhere I go. In school I came from this place of terrific competition and intense silence and “I like this color in your painting,” and that’s absolutely fine but it just sort of hurt a lot. To get the chance to get into this New Life and New World and New Community of actual Friends who also make art, and who are supportive, and where ideas sort of revolve in this whirlpool and dream world, and I think if you’re following someone on Instagram, you’re gonna absorb something of them and their art, whether you want to or not. I see it in what you do, I see it what I do. I don’t always know I’m doing it. But people mimic their friends or pick up their phrases when they spend time together.
The community has made me a better person, and has introduced me to so many fantastic and yes, dynamic individuals that are fearless and constantly creating and intensely curious, and it’s amazing. And it’s caused me to want to collaborate. The folks on Instagram for instance, are always doing incredible things. Singing, dancing, sewing, painting, pottery, photography - it’s this beautiful world of creativity, and that’s something big and rare and still it’s all right there. All these folks being so open and loving and supportive has caused me to be that way, too.
Coppage: Since I have this opportunity to interview you, and we are both “Southern Artist,” I must at least highlight this connection in one question. Let’s talk about place, nostalgia, and inspiration. How has living in Louisiana or Mississippi (or anywhere else in the South) inspired your work and technique? Do you see this connection to the South as a creative wellspring or obstacle?
Church Goin Mule: I have never known it as an obstacle. I guess that’s lucky. I been to NYC and spent summers in Upstate New York, and I say that like maybe I’ve been to lots of exotic places, but even Kentucky was too north for me. just love the grandma who asked me in a grocery store in Opelousas, Louisiana, if avocados are any good, really? And the lady at the post office who was so grateful I helped with her packages, and the softness of the new-harvested fields that are so old, and the manager telling the cashier “God don’t like ugly,” and the am radio in Ruleville crying “living on the hallelujah side,” and the sign that says “No smoking in Eden,” and yes, I was in the liquor store the other day and the line was long and I might not go back there ever, but everyone was hollering and joking and the guy in front of me had his cigarette smoking and hidden like a little school kid, and the man behind him on the phone asking, “well how is everyone?”
And carrying on the conversation in a true way, and all of this maybe isn’t Southern and is more Universal, but it seems like folks out here, from Louisiana to Mississippi, these folks have Survived through a Particular Kind of Loss and Struggle, and Violence, and Poverty. And the Appalachian south is so different from the Delta South. And they’re both so rich in incredible lore and song. Same goes for Cajun country. And I love the blues singers from Blind Willie Johnson up to the Piedmont Blues Boys, and the Carter Family down to Jimmie Rodgers, and Elvis and BB King, and Faulkner and Hurston and Memphis Minnie and Flannery O’Connor, and in the best of the south, we get to see the worst of it. But, they are the light and the dark and the Bill Taylor of the world. Everything I listen to, read, write, paint, talk about, is inspired by the south. The art I make is inspired by southern artists.
Coppage: Anything else you want to make sure you have the opportunity to say? How can folks find you as well as purchase your artwork?
Church Goin Mule: This has been really wonderful. I thoroughly enjoyed these questions! Thank you so much! I've been answering them here in Cleveland, Mississippi, with Wilbur at my feet, and the fall air coming down. Thank you for the thoughtful questions and the honest look at my work. Big fan of yours and looking forward to being a part of this big small town of the Mississippi Delta.
The Etsy shop will begin updating again at a regular pace in November - churchgoinmule.etsy.com, with shows/updates coming up with The Caron Gallery and megamegamega.net. Prints out at churchgoinmule.threadless.com, or t-shirts at Inkwell Print Co.
Church Goin Mule is a southern artist who was born and raised across the South, her kinfolk came from the mountains, though she lives in the swamp of Louisiana now.
Church Goin Mule's work is a memory jug, a death-vase mash of the collective southern past, pearls and rusted nails, song and story, lore and loss. The mule is our common ground, the creature that every man, woman and child of all origin knew, in a time before t-models and tractors. In a time of remarkable and perhaps increasing polarity, the mule is our grounding rod, pointing to not a better past, but a different one. The blues was born behind a plowing mule. Stories and poems, jokes and songs were prolific about the south's four legged machine. Like much of our history, it's been forgotten and framed to tell a different tale. That story is a well known one, of glory and triumph. Our true story, our true flag is the white one of surrender, and of hard work, poverty and loss. The mule was the first hybrid and he was always there, able to work harder, live longer, eat less. He stood beside moonshiners, levee builders, cotton farmers, timber-haulers, oil drillers, sugar cane men. He worked six days and brought his folks to church and town on the seventh.