Painting with light: Former Duplin County teacher captured life one frame at a time

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The photos are faded now, their images grown ghostlike and wan beneath years of haphazard care and the slow chemical breakdown of materials that once fixed them in time and space.
Yet, despite their obvious wear, a sense of place lingers in the images, amongst their captured light and shadow, as palpable as the smell of hickory-scented chimney smoke or the feel of rough-hewn lumber on a country church.
The photos serve as a visual last will and testament for Edgar James Wells, Jr., a Rose Hill-born WWII Army medic who returned home to teach English at both B.F. Grady and East Duplin high schools. During his teaching years, Wells was recognized with high school yearbook dedications, teacher-of-the-year nominations and other honors.
But Wells’s influence on the Duplin County community went far beyond his career in the classroom. A talented pianist, he played at numerous local weddings, funerals and church services.
And after retiring from teaching, he became something of a gentleman gypsy, a man who appeared to be everywhere and nowhere at once.
James Boney, a Teachey native who grew up with Wells, can still remember his friend knocking on his door at night, stories on his tongue and a camera in his hand.
“It was absolutely nothing, 11 or 12:00 at night to meet him on the road going or coming,” Boney remembers. “Or he would show up at our door at 9:30 or 10:00 at night and just come in and sit down and visit until whenever. But before you started talking about anything, he’d have to take your picture.”
After Wells passed away on July 28, 2015, Boney, who served as the administrator of his estate, got a first hand look at the thousands of photos Wells had taken and collected over the years.
“There were six of us in his will and what we did was we spent, I don’t know, like four weeks, three days a week, of nothing but going through his pictures. There’s a room at his home in Teachey and the whole wall was stacked up with packs of pictures,” says Boney.
The packs were distributed among Boney and the others named in the will according to the contents of the photos. Whoever could identify a family member or old home place took home a packet.
Boney guesses many of the photos date back to the 1960s.
“We didn’t find any old, old pictures,” he says. “Edgar moved like five or six times and I’m sure he took pictures back in his younger days as much as he did in his later days. But we didn’t find any from the ’30s or ’40s; that’s what I would have wanted to have found.”
Though the pictures that Boney and his wife, Norita, brought home represent only a handful of Wells’s photographic output, they show a man nearly obsessed with capturing the details of daily life: church dinners; artfully decayed buildings; blonde-haired children laughing on a newly-cut summer lawn;  a gas station attendant casually leaning on a gas pump.

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And according to Boney, hundreds and hundreds of flower photos.
“Every time he was at our house he had to go in the backyard and snap away at the flowers,” he remembers.
There’s nothing polished about the photos Boney brought home. But their power will be familiar to anyone who’s ever discovered a  box of yellowed snapshots in a thrift store or family attic. It’s the power of memory, of faces and landscapes that linger on the edge of dreams, of a time when the world seemed lit with a different, gentler sun.
They aren’t the work of a photographer schooled in composition or overly concerned with the fine details of exposure. No, it’s clear that Edgar Wells picked up his camera, aimed it and fired the shutter for the  simplest, and most profound, reason imaginable — for the pure pleasure of the thing.
“He mostly used the little throwaway cameras in his later days,” Boney remembers. “We found some older 35mm cameras also and a Polaroid, probably a dozen cameras or so in his belongings. And tube after tube of film cartridges; he didn’t throw anything away.”
In his final years, Wells moved back and forth between the Murray House in Kenansville and the Country Squire Inn in Warsaw. But he also kept a house in Teachey to store his belongings, including the photos.
“There were several houses, nice houses, that he just stored stuff in,” explains Boney. “He went in and they were… his friends.”
According to Boney, Wells took great pains to have his photos cropped and printed to the standards of his own eccentric eye.
“He would get the pictures printed and he would outline them with Post-it Notes, and he would highlight the portion that he wanted to see better and he would take those back and have them re-printed to that portion. He might have 10 made, and once he looked at them and got them like he wanted them, that was pretty much it, they went over in his box.”
Though the Boneys were able to identify many of the people and places captured in the photos  they brought home, some remain a mystery.
“This one was taken in the Teachey Presbyterian churchyard in the 1930s,” Boney says, holding up a faded black and white image of children crouched in a circle. “We don’t know who anyone is in there.”

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Another mystery photo shows a group of somberly dressed men flanked by horse-drawn carriages outside what appears to be a country store.
“Edgar’s mother was from Monroe, and this may be from there,” Boney surmises. “It may just be something he saw that he liked and had a picture made of a picture. We just don’t know.”

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Wells’s photos have inspired Boney’s own creative pursuits. Though many of the houses seen in his friend’s photos no longer exist, Boney has made miniature replicas of a handful that he remembers from childhood.
“That’s my little hobby. This was my dad’s grocery store back in the ’50s and it was right where the Teachey Post Office is today,” he says, pointing to a model perched in the shed behind his home. “I’m trying to build the houses that are no longer here.”
Even in the final days of his life, Wells kept a camera at his side, the Boneys remember.
“When he was in the nursing home and people came in he wanted a picture. He got to the point where he couldn’t press the button on the camera,” says Norita.
“Then I would have to go get them developed for him,” her husband laughs..
Until the very end, Wells remained involved with the lives of his former students, says Norita.
“He would go to their homes and meet their parents. He’d come and talk about somebody he knew and then he’d talk about their grandma or their aunts and uncles, their whole family. His memory was sharp.”
And along with his photos, Wells left James and Norita one final, appropriately unique gift — a new addition to the backyard  flowers he once loved to preserve on film.
“When he went in the nursing home I had to help move his stuff out of the Country Squire,” recalls James.
“There were two bags of daffodil bulbs that he had bought that were still in a shopping bag. And here they are. So that’s Edgar’s daffodil corner.”

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New Bern’s silent sanctuary

Growing up in New Bern during the late 1970s and early ’80s, I always thought of Cedar Grove Cemetery as the center of my riverfront hometown. For reasons having little to do with geography, the roughly two and half acre plot of land seemed to represent an unofficial demarcation point between New Bern’s fascinatingly derelict historic district and the newer city of Winn-Dixie grocery stores, mall arcades, and auto dealerships.

Behind its walls embedded with shells, mollusks, and other river invertebrates was a world older even than the city’s towering Masonic Temple and Harvey Mansion (though not quite as old as Tryon Palace). The Spanish moss draped cedar trees that gave the cemetery its name and the archaically alien mausoleums stood in even starker contrast to a modern society that seemed increasingly infatuated with surface gleam, entertainment and “that new car smell.”grave12

If I had known even a portion of Ceder Grove’s history back then, I would have had even more reason to be enchanted with the burying ground. Established in 1800, the cemetery was owned by Christ Episcopal Church until 1853, when it was transferred to the City of New Bern. According to local historians, it’s almost certain that the cemetery was established in response to the yellow fever epidemics of 1798-99. During the epidemic “so many persons succumbed that at night trenches were dug in the Christ Episcopal church yard in a line near the adjoining property to the northwest… and the bodies were buried there indiscriminately,” reads one contemporaneous account.

After 1802 the cemetery became the major New Bern burial ground. The grave markers and cemetery records read like a “Who’s Who” of 19th and 20th century North Carolina’s most influential citizens: William Gaston, congressman, writer, state supreme court justice, and author of the North Carolina state song; William Williams, a portrait artist who painted from life the only Masonic portrait of George Washington; Moses Griffin, who established a free school and served the state throughout his life; John Stanly, lawyer, politician and public servant; and Mary Bayard Clarke, 19th century New Bern poet and writer.

With a good map a visitor might even locate the grave of perhaps New Bern’s most famous son, Caleb Bradham, who concocted his Pepsi-Cola formula in a local drugstore in 1893.

Cedar Grove Cemetery also bears witness to the region’s brief but lethal engagement in the Civil War. At the cemetery’s mid-point a bronze Confederate soldier rises 18 feet above its granite column, parade rifle at rest, a canon ball propped by his right foot and a sword slung at his side. The monument sits above a vault where approximately 67 Confederate soldiers are interred. A Latin inscription at the statue’s feet reads, “Dulce Et Decorum Est Pro Patria Mori,” (“It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country.”)

But for all its famous dead and memorials to history’s murderous advance, Cedar Grove Cemetery may be more well known among tourists for its looming black entrance arch than its celebrity occupants. Built from the same “shell stone” as the cemetery’s wall, legend has it that if the arch “weeps” or “bleeds” its sticky, rust colored ooze on a pallbearer passing beneath, the unlucky individual will soon be the guest of honor at his or her own funeral procession.

Inscribed over the arch gates is a hymn composed by Francis Lister Hawks, grandson of Tryon Palace architect John Hawks:

“Still hallowed be this spot where lies

Each dear loved one in earth’s embrace

Our God their treasured dust doth prize

Man should protect their resting place.”

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In 1972, Cedar Grove Cemetery was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Today, three and a half decades after I first toured its grounds as a young boy, the cemetery is part of a downtown that has seen massive revitalization, as the city long ago embraced its heritage and earmarked funds to preserve its historical structures.

For me, the cemetery now feels more than ever like a sanctuary, from the renovated old homes and parks that draw the tourists and from the big box stores that have invaded New Bern’s business district. An island, for the living and the dead, carved from an older and stranger world. I drive past its walls sometimes just to remind myself that it’s still there, and that I am too.

 

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Abandoned

Hwy 903 outside of Magnolia

Hwy 903 outside of Magnolia


I’ve always been drawn to the abandoned, the old places and solitary remains of the past that inhabit the modern day landscape like forlorn phantoms. Isolated in their decay, somehow grand and echoing with the hopes, follies, lusts and fears of those who once dwelt there, they now murmur endlessly for those willing to look and listen: This is what it comes to in the end, for everyone and everything (flesh, brick, wood, and steel).

Maybe it’s the Irish blood or a childhood spent traipsing through the woods and back roads of southeastern North Carolina, but my fascination with these discarded structures has remained. Like some addled archeologist rooting around in the remains of a civilization yet to pass from history, I’ve rarely turned down the opportunity to walk, climb, or crawl my way into the near past by way of the weather-rotted porches, insect-infested door frames, and fractured windows of these uncared-for artifacts.

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Within their walls, the ones left standing and the ones that have vanished, there is the same sense of excitement and unease that must have accompanied those early explorers of ancient tombs: the impression that, as you take in the exquisite disrepair and strangeness, something is looking back as well. Left to their own devices and the vagaries of time and decay, once insignificant items take on new meaning, like objects arranged in a precisely choreographed art installation: a light switch meticulously covered in cobwebs; a ceramic portrait of a young woman propped on a water stained couch framed by broken glass and leaves; the exposed innards of a rusting gas pump splayed in chaotic yet subtle asymmetry.

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Those remains throw into bold relief the most obvious element at play in many of these miskept architectures: the works of Nature reclaiming the works of humankind. Allowed to remain indefinitely, there comes a time when the wild and the fabricated seem to merge in perfect balance, as vines trace themselves over windowpanes like fine calligraphy, mold works its way into the very grain and grit of floorboards and ceiling tiles, and limbs enfold roofs and penetrate eaves.

Potters Hill, Weston Rd off Hwy 41.

Potters Hill, Weston Rd off Hwy 41.


In the end, I suspect what truly draws me back time and again is the simple sense of peace found in these spaces, the perception that, whatever their past, here are realms where humans have vanished, and though their garbage and memories may remain, their noise and fitful energy have been expelled.