Monday, November 14, 2016
Pope Store Museum
My sister Bunny dreams of buying an old house in the country, so Mom and I often accompany her on house-hunting expeditions. On Veterans Day, the three of us spent the morning visiting a very special house near Cairo, Georgia, the former home of folk artist Laura Pope Forrester. The property has been on the market for a while now and includes a two-story wooden house (built around 1890) and six acres with woods, a creek, a pecan orchard, and some of Mrs. Pope's whimsical, one-of-a-kind sculptures.
Mrs. Pope was a self-taught sculptor and painter active from around the turn of the century until her death in 1953. She was extremely prolific, turning her rural home and garden into a wonderland peopled by hundreds of life-size figures that she fashioned from concrete and painted with natural dyes made from flowers and berries. Mrs. Pope's statues depicted figures from history and literature, including Martha Berry, founder of Berry College, and Scarlett O'Hara.
For a while, Mrs. Pope ran her house as a museum, I think, charging folks admission to come in and see her work. The inside of the house was apparently as magical as the outside, the rooms filled with statues and the walls decorated with hand-painted murals.
After Mrs. Pope died, her son held onto the house for about 20 years. But in the 1970s, he sold the property to a local man and the artist's work met a tragic fate. One night the new owner, drunk and convinced the house was haunted, went around with a hammer and smashed almost every single statue. Just about all that's left now are the dozen or so figures Mrs. Pope built into her home's elaborate front gate.
When Bun and Mom and I arrived at the Pope House, the morning sun was dazzling. The house sat at the end of a country road, surrounded by golden woods and white cotton fields. With its wild and fabulous gate, it really stuck out, and I felt a little shocked to see it even though we'd been looking for it—because here was this flight of fancy in the middle of the mundane world.
The gateway was fascinating. The figures built into it were sweet-faced and expressive. A lot of folk art is kind of clumsy and primitive, but Mrs. Pope's work is elegant. Refined. Pretty. The figures had the most graceful hands, and they were so realistic, so human-looking. Each had a distinct personality, though they all seemed kindly; pretty much all of them were smiling. Mrs. Pope must have had a very gentle spirit, because her statues sure seemed to.
Bunny and I had been reading and talking about the Pope House for months, but Mom had never heard of the place until that very day. Well, as soon as Mom saw the gate, she became an instant fan of Mrs. Pope. She got out her own little camera and was right there with Bunny and me, standing in the road, blocking traffic, taking pictures and exclaiming.
“Well, this is just perfect!” she said several times.
She was charmed by each character in the wall. “Oh, isn't she pretty?” she said, pointing to a lady in what looked like a wedding veil.
“And look at her, with the crown,” Bunny said.
“Does that little lady have bird wings," I asked, gesturing to another figure, "or are those just fancy sleeves?"
I was happily surprised at how much Mom liked the house. She seemed completely enchanted by it. I might have thought maybe Mom would think the house was “crazy” with its homemade sculptures. But she didn't. She loved it.
She kept saying she thought it was the perfect house for Bunny and that Bunny would be the perfect caretaker for Mrs. Pope's remaining treasures.
We let ourselves in the gate and went up the front walk, and while we waited for the realtor to arrive we explored the big yard. It was sheltered by grand old pecan trees whose intricate bare branches seemed to be painted on the blue sky. On one side of the house, two tree-sized sasanquas bloomed, the flowers pale pink and apple blossom-like. The old plants were loaded with flowers, and bees were visiting.
Ancient cedars lined the road and made the front yard very shady. Cast-iron plants grew in dark clumps beneath the cedars, and boxwoods surrounded the downstairs porch.
The best part: There was a tire swing in one of the cedars, one that grew farther back from the road. I just love a country yard with a tire swing!
The yard was so inviting and comfortable, spacious and sprawling, the kind of yard where you could play games and raise chickens and grow a vegetable garden.
“Gosh, this is so neat," I said. "I can picture us having all kinds of great family celebrations here. We could have Thanksgiving here! You could get a picnic table, Bunny, and we could have Thanksgiving dinner outside under the pecan trees!”
“And instead of going to the beach house at Christmas, we could go to Bun's house!” Mom added.
Peach trees stood in the very back of the back yard, and clumps of surprise lilies grew here and there, and Bun and I, as we were exploring, kept coming upon unexpected sculptures. There was a sweet nurse . . . and an urn . . . and a grotto . . . and a homemade birdbath encrusted with seashells. When I encountered the nurse, standing by herself near a Spanish bayonet, I called, “Oh, my gosh, Bunny, come look what I found!” I felt like an archaeologist making amazing discoveries.
The house was white with dark green trim, with some special touches added by Mrs. Pope. All around the upper and lower porches, she had created a sort of latticework using old sewing machine parts painted white. The effect was surprisingly lovely, both porches seeming veiled in lace.
The realtor arrived and let us inside. The interior of the house was very interesting. It was all higgledy-piggledy. All the rooms were on slightly different levels, it seemed, and the floors were slanted, and the arrangement of rooms made absolutely no sense. There were dead ends and so many doors. Lots of additions had been made over the years.
In some rooms you could still see remnants of Mrs. Pope's old murals. One featured a mysterious woman dressed all in white. I guess I could see why that crazy, destructive drunk who broke up all the statues might have thought the house was haunted. But my guess is the house would be haunted by friendly ghosts—because all of Mrs. Pope's statues and portraits had such kind faces.
I hope Bunny buys the Pope House, but if she doesn't, I hope somebody similar does, somebody who has fallen in love with Mrs. Pope's creations and wants to protect them.