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The Mystery of Lurleen

July 15, 2016

I’m a new curator at CMA and that means getting to know the collection and finding out what stories I can tell with it. In other words, I’m a kid in a candy store right now, and I just discovered a strange piece of vintage candy that has been lingering in storage since the 1970s—and I think it’s still fresh. It does all the things artwork is supposed to do, even though it feels like it shouldn’t. 

The museum is always refining its collection, trying to maintain space in storage while acquiring quality objects that fill collection gaps and build a stronger 21st-century art collection. We have a working list of objects that seem suspiciously out of place and deserve further research, either because we don’t collect that type of material or the quality just isn’t up to our current standards. In looking at that list, my curiosity was piqued by a mixed media collage titled I Dreamed I Ran for Governor. Our database described it as a “collage study of Lurleen Wallace.” I asked our assistant Noelle Rice (who knows the collection like the back of her hand) to come and look at it with me and we found it tucked behind a painting and stored way up high—out of sight and out of mind. 

Alice Hendrickson, I Dreamed I Ran for Governor, c. 1970

When we pulled it down to look at it, I wasn’t surprised it was on the “questionable” list. It doesn’t present itself as fine art at all. It looks more like a decoupage project on a large poster-sized square of Masonite that you might perhaps even find at the thrift store. Yet, it is also visually fresh and well thought-out, dense with information provided by an overlapping web of period newspaper photos, cartoons, stickers, and political handbills. 

Its title (and its most attention-grabbing image of a woman in her bra waving at the viewer) recalls the long-running Maidenform bra campaign from the 1950s and ‘60s. The ads always featured a woman doing something extraordinary and the tagline would read: “I dreamed I [whatever that thing was] in my Maidenform bra.” It had the makings of a boldly feminist campaign but the ads were, more often than not, a banal excuse to show a woman looking lovely in her bra. Meanwhile, the CMA’s ephemera-loaded collage has bright pops of red and hot pink at intervals to keep your eye traveling over its surface. When it travels it leaps from face to face, and it’s usually the face of Lurleen Wallace. 

Lurleen Wallace (1926–1968) was the first female governor of Alabama, and wife of governor George Wallace. In 1942, she was 16 years old, poor, and working at a dime store when she met her charismatic future husband. After they married he began military combat training, and in the following years she realized that she and her their children came second to her husband’s political aims—the young family once had to take up residence in a converted chicken coop because he had neglected to secure housing for them on a military base. She was often the sole earner for the family while George campaigned for the Alabama state legislature, and he eventually became a state circuit judge. In 1958 he ran as a liberal Democrat who expressly wanted to help the poor of all races. Wallace lost his run for the governorship in 1958 and fell into depression and, it seems, openly committed infidelity. Lurleen left him and filed for divorce but George coaxed her back—divorce would kill a political dream in that era. They reconciled and in 1961 she gave birth to their fourth child. (More on that later.)

George, the former liberal Democrat, had seen in the nervous electorate where he could amass new and wide support as an anti-establishment candidate, and so he embodied a new cause. He ran on a platform of rabid anti-desegregation and states’ rights, and his fear-based tactics were winning. He announced at his nationally broadcast 1963 inauguration speech: "Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. And segregation forever." 

Lurleen was thrust uncomfortably into the limelight as first lady, but she also finally had help with her children and a nice home in which to live. Then the unthinkable happened. In 1965, she was diagnosed with uterine cancer and learned that her doctor had seen suspicious tissue while delivering her child by caesarian four years earlier. He had discussed it with her husband rather than with her, as was standard procedure at the time, but George decided not to worry Lurleen. As a result, nothing was done to examine her further at that early stage and she now had to submit to painful treatment for a late diagnosis. 

Meanwhile, because a law prevented consecutive terms of governorship, George couldn’t run for reelection. He desperately wanted to maintain the office as a stepping stone to a 1968 presidential run. Finding a solution, he asked Lurleen to run and she acquiesced, announcing her bid in February 1966. It was openly a “2-for-1” offer that would allow the relatable Lurleen to hold office while continuing all of her husband’s programs (he would have an office across the hall). 

Initially she was well enough to govern and transformed from shy and demure to really beginning to fill the role with ability. Her own areas of political interest included mental health and state parks initiatives. Then her cancer returned after only five months in office. While she underwent surgery and radiation treatments, George continued campaigning for president. Lurleen died in office on May 7, 1968, at the young age of 41. George arrived in time to say goodbye.

This brings me back to this mysterious CMA “artwork” and the sordid history it drags out of the shadows. Suddenly I (and anyone who saw it) turned into hungry eagle-eyed detectives, looking closely at all the details and pointing out little moments others hadn’t yet seen: “By George She Did It;” “Tippecanoe and Tyler, too!” “Keep the Wallace Team on the Job!”; “Confederate States of America” and a circle filled with an acid-test style font that reads: “Old Hogwash, Premium Swill, Bottled in Bondage.” There is a cartoon of a woman with a bouffant marching heatedly into her polling place with “U.S. Housewives” written across her oversized handbag. The whole thing is dense with gendered and racialized symbols—including the supercharged confederate flag— intertwined in Lurleen’s own personal history as she grew from coerced to capable. (Who knows where she might have gone on her own terms once her confidence grew in her own instincts?)

While not exactly one-to-one parallels, the images in I Dreamed I Ran for Governor speak to our time on so many levels, and some so bizarre we might have considered them unique. I couldn’t stop looking, thinking, talking, and wondering. It all came from this strange object that the museum acquired in 1973 (and that I believe I was meant to find in 2016). 

I went through the object’s records for information and original context. It had been included in an exhibition called Tidewater 12 that the CMA held from February 20 - March 19, 1972. By cross-referencing the work’s history with American history, I realized the exhibition closed the same month a deranged young man named Arthur Bremer began keeping a diary of plans to assassinate either Richard Nixon or George Wallace. He shot and wounded Wallace in May, which might partially explain why the work slipped into a tabooed obscurity.

The artist’s name is Alice Hendrickson and she had lived in Norfolk, Virginia, in the early 1970s. I tried to locate her and even emailed an artist by the same name, but she wasn’t the same Alice Hendrickson that made the mysterious, and undated, work. Mr. and Mrs. Clyde Sisson gifted the work to the museum in 1973. The CMA’s first and longstanding director John Craft wrote the Sissons a personal letter of thanks that said:

“Alice put a fantastic amount of work into the compilation of the material which she used in this collage to effect that humorous (…and, maybe, some day historical) story of the governmental procedures in our neighboring state. It represents a “first-of-its-kind” social documentation in our collections. One would like to be a bug on the wall approximately one hundred years from now to experience the art historians’ reaction at that time.” [May 25, 1973]

So the question remains: Is it art? And is it museum quality? British artist Richard Hamilton made the groundbreaking, and incredibly low-fi collage Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? (1956) and suddenly pop art was born. Andy Warhol further changed aesthetics by making basic the new luxury. Artists were increasingly interested in politics and identity, and used advertising and everyday “low” art to slice popular culture and re-present it for deeper consideration rather than the unexamined pablum it was meant to be. Yet there is something about Hendrickson’s work that feels infinitely more ordered but less ambitious. Is it that she is female? It’s a question worth asking. 

As a curator, I have to deal with many issues of meaning and value, craftsmanship, and historical reputation versus undervalued gems that fell out of history. It’s easy when someone is already famous to ascribe importance to their works. It’s braver to start from scratch. Sometimes really beautiful objects have little of substance to say and works that are physically off-putting can tell incredible stories. In this case, I have to ask where the artistry lies. Is it in Alice Hendrickson’s collage, in Lurleen Wallace’s life, or both? 

Catherine Walworth