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Sunday Morning News

Artist Conjures up Images of Old South

Aired January 16, 2000 - 9:45 a.m. ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Well, as the old Steve Miller song goes, Time keeps on slippin', slippin', slippin' into the future. Yes, the high-tech 21st century is here, but not everyone is flying like an eagle through the revolution.

As proof of that, CNN's Larry Woods traveled across America to the backwoods of Alabama.


LARRY WOODS, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The big rigs hauling pulp wood to nearby factories roar through Possum Bend, Alabama, with hurried indifference. They dash right by the hamlet's half-century-old grocery store, past an occasional pooch napping in the rich south Alabama soil.

Inside the store, a vendor refills the machines with a variety of soft drinks, and new manager Larry Coulston (ph) chats with the local salesman making a pitch to keep the shelves fully supplied. "Stock it and hope they will come," says Coulston. "Be ready if they do."

(on camera): But Possum Bend is not necessarily one of those little spots by the road where you'd be inclined to stop. But maybe you should. You see, there's a lot of history here, and an old-timer who's helped to shape it.

(voice-over): That would be 90-year-old William Payton Harris (ph), backwoods philosopher, country squire, all-around handyman, and artist. He paints almost daily in a cluttered makeshift studio behind the small grocery store he's owned for 50 years, but now leases to Larry Coulston.

Harris went off to college in 1927 to refine his talent but gave up and came back to Wilcox County.

WILLIAM PAYTON HARRIS: Well, I took one year at Auburn in applied art, and it wasn't worth a continental damn. It didn't do me a bit of good.

WOODS: His time at the easel, as he and his son, Billy, both agree, also helps him cope with the recent loss of his wife, Lois. They were married 60 years.

(on camera): What's the best piece of work you've ever done? HARRIS: I have no idea. I really don't.

WOODS: How do people find out about your art?

HARRIS: I don't know whether they've found out yet or not.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE) the light in here?

WOODS (voice-over): For art lovers who have stopped by the Possum Bend gallery to view Squire Harris's craftsmanship, there has been surprise and delight. Given his rustic tools, dilapidated workspace, and paucity of formal training, the eye acknowledges the old man's hand and heart have done their very best. And his brush has conspired with days of his youth to recall the old South and things gone with the wind.

HARRIS: I don't know why, but I (UNINTELLIGIBLE) inspired (UNINTELLIGIBLE) subject (UNINTELLIGIBLE) my life than the old South. I can remember all that kind of experience, it stays with you.

WOODS: So does the character in the face of a long-ago friend, and the mystery of the forest, untamed, majestic, and elusive.

(on camera): The texture of this is really good, Mr. Harris. You can almost feel the skin here.

HARRIS: I appreciate that a lot (ph). (UNINTELLIGIBLE) can do with that old wood (ph), see that (ph)?

WOODS (voice-over): Even his work of decades gone by, canvases forgotten, extol his versatility.

(on camera): That's really quite a departure from (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

HARRIS: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) extreme, there's no doubt about it.

WOODS: You don't remember when you did this, though.

HARRIS: No. Fifteen, 20 years ago (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

WOODS (voice-over): Harris's workshop, where he makes frames for his paintings, has that look of antiquity too.

(on camera): You bought this when you were in your teens?


WOODS: You can't get parts for it any more, though.

HARRIS: Oh, my God, no.

WOODS: All right.

(voice-over): In the autumn of his years, William Harris finds no time to ponder what might have been. It's today and tomorrow that consumes him -- that, and knowing he's lived a good life.

HARRIS: I'm a firm believer in what you put out (UNINTELLIGIBLE) come back. Either way, (UNINTELLIGIBLE), you know, and I always try to do the right thing as long as I can.

WOODS: Coulston, who once worked after school for Harris at the grocery store he now runs, says the old man is widely respected.

LARRY COULSTON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) doesn't matter about Curly (ph), you know, yes. He treat everybody fair and treat everybody the same.

WOODS (on camera): Has he always been that way?

COULSTON: Oh, yes, ever since I known him.

WOODS (voice-over): And as Billy Harris sees it, his father's ripe old age is a byproduct of both his strong reputation and weakness for fishing.

BILLY HARRIS, WILLIAM HARRIS'S SON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) come in, said, William, when have you been fishing? And he said, Well, I haven't been since last week. He says, You want to go? He said, Yes. So he run the customers out and shut the store and go fishing.

If you have a job like that, don't you think it might prolong your years in life?

WOODS: Sitting on the front porch of a Southern mansion that's still in the family, built in 1856, by the way, Harris says while his art is gratifying and time-consuming, the cornerstone of his life was the marriage he shared with his beloved Lois.

HARRIS: God give me some delightful years, I never -- Had their ups and downs, but we were (UNINTELLIGIBLE), we were blessed.

WOODS: And he was blessed with longevity too, the secret of which, he says, is rather simple.

HARRIS: I think lots of it is activity and able to, you know, do it. I mean, interest, interest. If you lose interest, you're going down the bad road.

WOODS: Strange how a little old country store was the nexus for a rewarding career and a heap of lasting memories.

HARRIS: Now, I would think, judging my own work, something that I'm more fond of than anything, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the back of that store between bars of soap and boxes of snuff.

WOODS: Next time you're down south Alabama way, ask for the man from Possum Bend. Hopefully he'll be where he's always been.

Larry Woods, Across America, in Wilcox County, Alabama.

(END VIDEOTAPE) PHILLIPS: Ohh! And you're saying when he's not painting, he's in his Chevette with his dogs, driving around town?

WOODS: Oh, yes, yes, he's got an old Chevette. He may have the last Chevette in the United States, certainly in Alabama. He calls those dogs in the back seat, and they know exactly when to get in. He opens the door, doesn't have to say a thing.

I said, "Mr. Harris, that's a good-looking set of dogs there. What are their names?" He says, "Oh, hell, I don't know." I mean, he's just an amazing man. You know, he is really -- he personifies the Ever-Ready (ph) Bunny. I mean, 90 years old, so spry and energetic. But, you know, I think he's got the secret.

I remember at the University of Florida, when I was in college, a professor once made the remark, If you're exciting at 16, you'll be exciting at 76. And, I mean, Mr. Harris has found out a way to be exciting all his life. And he certainly is. He...

PHILLIPS: And he's 90.

WOODS: He's 90, yes, and he's still going, just like that (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

PHILLIPS: I loved his little sayings. I want to know what a "continental damn" is.

WOODS: I don't know. Listen, he -- that's something that's, I think, peculiar to Wilcox, Alabama, and a lot of other things. I know Billy was talking to him -- I mean, was bragging about him there for a little bit. And he'd reach over and he'd say, "Now, don't go decorating me," you know, so that's another one now.

Continental damn, I don't know. Auburn University. By the way, he was a roommate of a fellow named Shug Jurden (ph), if that name means anything to you. That's the great football coach at Auburn, a name revered in football circles and the state. So he...

PHILLIPS: Did he do a painting of him?

WOODS: No, they were just young fellows. This was in the '20s, you got to remember, yes.

PHILLIPS: So Possum Bend, what does that mean?

WOODS: Possum Bend, the paddle boats used to come up the Alabama River and stop at a place called, I believe, Buford's Landing. And then the river made a giant arc, a big curve. It went over to Ellis Landing. And for the people that didn't want to take that long, long ride, they would get off at Buford's landing, and they would walk across, you know, the countryside there.

And they reported -- tradition has it that there was just a tremendous number of possums throughout that whole area. Hence, Possum Bend.

PHILLIPS: Let's talk about his store, the small store, sort of the cornerstone of his life.

WOODS: It is, it always has been. He actually -- he built that store out of driftwood and other things that he got from the Alabama River. He built that store in the '40s. And, you know, he worked there for a long time. That store is not unlike thousands of other stores across the country where, in hard times, the owner gave credit to folks. You know, these were working folks, and an awful lot of them were black families that, you know, that needed the credit.

And I said, "Well, that's very commendable to you." And, you know, this tells the character of the man to me, I think. He looked up to me and he says, "I never padded the books." And, I mean, he was serious about that. You know, I mean, he said...

PHILLIPS: Honest man.

WOODS: ... "I never padded the books." And I believed him.

Families that left south Alabama, Alabama, went to the North, always come back to see him. And they bring their children. And he puts the families that come back to see him in his family album. I just thought that was really remarkable. He takes time out to put those -- you know, those young kids that grew up there, now they've got children of their own, you know, and...

PHILLIPS: Anyone who visits him, he just puts their picture in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE)?

WOODS: Yes, well, he takes a great deal of pride. As Larry Coulston said, he's got a good relationship with minorities, with everybody in that community, because with Mr. Harris, what you see is what you get, you know. And he paints every day. He's out there dabbling. You call him right now, he's in that store, I guarantee you.

PHILLIPS: All right, let's call him up.

WOODS: Yes, we will, we'll get him.

PHILLIPS: Larry Woods, thank you so much.

WOODS: All right.


And also, if you want to drop Larry a line, you can write to Across America With Larry Woods at One CNN Center, P.O. Box 105366, Atlanta, Georgia 30348. He always loves your ideas.


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