Arkansas Sketchbook

“Woman Plucking A Chicken”

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THERE’S A PAINTING, TOO, FROM THAT DAY. White-bodied chickens plucked and slung from sparse branches. Live and as-yet feathered chickens running strut-legged across the grounds, scratching in the dirt, weaving through the grass—a scene depicted in watercolor or maybe oil. In many ways, that work is a reflection of the photo above, a tableau that plays so well into and affirms what’s expected of the Ozarks. Because here is the steam rising; here is the crumpled apron likely stained; here are the moments during which rural life is carried out in its natural surrounding—life as both image and idea captured in full.

And really, in most every respect, the photo and painting are faithful to the scenery as it played out. It was a scene that took place at a considerable remove from the beaten path. There was a trailer and an outhouse plunked in a tree-ringed clearing. There was a woman who sold wooden spoons at the Fayetteville farmers’ market—which is how Beverly Conley came to know her—engaged in plucking some 25 roosters.

But as Beverly recalls this moment from her home in Kalamazoo, Michigan, as she looks on the painting that now hangs on her wall, it’s not the surface-evident characteristics that strike a chord in memory. What she remembers is a family that defied every one of the expectations that she, a San Francisco-born peripatetic photographer, had taken with her to the Ozarks. She remembers the husband, a former Spanish professor who, the day she met him, was atop a beautiful American saddle-bred horse and had donned the starchiest looking shirt she’d ever seen on anybody. She remembers the children, seven of them, all off-the-charts brilliant, who’d gone on to matriculate at the likes of Williams College and Yale.

She remembers the woman, an exceptionally talented artist who’d gotten her training in Ireland—and who, upon finishing with the birds, had set up her easel and painted the image that Beverly describes as she talks over the phone. And perhaps more importantly, as she speaks about this family, whose members proved to be a wonderful entry point into the rural Ozarks—and whom she still considers friends to this day—it’s always in terms of family. About a place she once called home. 

Beverly Conley: Photographic Journeys (which includes work from her series Life in the Ozarks: an Arkansas Portrait and Oklahoma’s Cherokee Country) is on view at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum from March 13 to June 26. A closing reception with the artist is scheduled for June 10.