Hank Richardson on Mama Carrie

Mentor, hero and why...

I grew up in a small South Carolina city tucked between the black-watered Edisto River and a wide stretch of cotton patches. The rural locale of my roots, its culture bent largely by an agrarian society, set the tone for my future even as it set the tone for my childhood. The South, after all, is its own entity, powerful and connecting, populated with farmers, doctors, lawyers, honorable soldiers and ardent politicians, a land of rich and intricate history. It's a place where, as Faulkner said, “The past is not dead. It isn't even past.”

Emblematic of the South, the sheer embodiment of it, was Carrie Gordon Richardson, my grandmother. Mama Carrie, as she was affectionately known, was a teacher, a writer, a historian, an artist, the mother of nine, and the grandmother of twelve. Every Saturday morning, I pedaled my bike over to her big house in the middle of town. It was a home with all the character and warmth of Charleston houses, with their narrow fronts, long, deep porches, and idiosyncrasies. There she kept all the tools of the mind: books and scrapbooks (I could always find something new that was old), historic novels, magazines, and every manner of art supplies.

I couldn't wait to find her newly arrived copy of The Saturday Evening Post, with its Norman Rockwell covers, or House and Garden, with its shampoo ads on the back, those Breck Girls painted by Ralph William Williams. Sometimes, when her house was inundated with family or visitors, the writers and artists who frequented my grandmother's, I would climb out and escape to the rooftop, where I'd study Williams's work, wondering how he got their beautiful hair to look so perfect. Or I would peruse John Canaday's Metropolitan Museum Seminars in Art, discovering David, Mona Lisa, or El Greco for the first time. Or I'd read Zane Gray novels. Other times, just the two of us, Mama Carrie and I would paint with oils on the verandah for hours, and she would tell me stories about Scotland or about my ancestors, descendants of the Revolutionary War and times, subjects of endless fascination for her.

I remember my very first painting, done when I was six even, under the influence of my grandmother. Riffling through an old trunk on her porch, I'd found a copy of James Earl Fraser's The End of the Trail, the lone figure on his weary horse, that memorial of submission and defeat. Then one day, not long after I'd begun second grade, I looked up from my drawing of a red-winged blackbird and saw that it was better than anyone else's in the class, a revelation. Several years later, I had the opportunity to compete to design the logo for Thackston Junior High, a school-wide competition, and my logo won. The prize was $5.00. I had found my calling.

This was the South Proper, though, where young men who were privileged enough to go to college went to law school or medical school, where art and culture were appreciated and enjoyed, but where expectations were such that one didn't dare to actually be an artist. I believe it would have been nearly impossible, too, if it hadn't been for my grandmother, who was so very much of society yet constantly challenging it. As busy as she was, and with so many commitments, still she offered first an interest in me, then an influencing direction that modified the Code, allowing me the prospect of concerning myself not only with the way the world looks but a way to establish its manner—a way to become an artist, a designer in all of this.

But the most important thing Mama Carrie gave me was an inherited curiosity and permission to explore. By virtue of that, she also gave me the opportunity to see, and to interpret what I saw in order to affirm my own integrity--to find a voice that was my own, and to share it. I've worked with many brilliant designers and artists in my life, and I've learned invaluable things from them, but it was my grandmother, my first and best mentor, who helped me find that voice. And is this not the most important mission of each of us—each of us with a unique cultural and familial legacy? Aren't we finally our best selves when we find and follow our passion?

Hank Richardson
Portfolio Center
Atlanta, GA