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Allocating Southern-Gothic Symbolism into Design Media

by Mark Daniel Compton

Thesis Committee: Wayne Dyer (Chair), David Dixon, Ralph Slatton



I created the term Neo-Raconteur to convey my interest in medium theory to support the artistic custom of revealing cultural conventions for allocation into artistic genres. The term evolved from the French word "Raconteur," meaning: somebody who tells stories or anecdotes in an interesting or entertaining way. In the past a Raconteur's anecdotes were verbally volleyed, ever voluble, yet quip. Neo-Raconteurs may decide not to speak at all-choosing their anecdotal expression to manifest itself through singular or multiple means, manners, or methods of design and technology as well as or involving more traditional techniques of extraction to convey the narrative. I demonstrate how it applies to my work in time-based-media within the realms of Southern Gothic symbolism – which rely on the supernatural, physical geographic settings, instances of the grotesque and irony along with visual and/or psychological shadow(s) of foreboding caused by tradition or hidden truths, occasionally both.



It could be argued that neoexpressionist express their own anecdotes by way of painting their inner experiences onto canvas or some other palette. Though I paint, I'm not singularly devoted to painting as my way of expressing my inner emotions or thoughts; and though neoexpressionist reveal a story in their work, it is more of a snapshot of an emotional outburst that hints at the panicle or story's end while seldom revealing a tales beginning. The story is thus incomplete or fully revealed, forcing the audience to contemplate and create their own tale, which maybe the artist's intent when using this medium. This is not limited to neo-expressionism-for example the Mona Lisa has inspired many to create their own inner tales as to the subject's smile. The difference is the singular art piece allows the audience to tell the tale, whereas a singular work by a neo-raconteur does not relinquish the tale, there is a beginning, middle, and end, which can be closed or open-ended. This is why the cinematic art forms lend themselves more easily to the neo-raconteur, but it is not exclusively the only art and design form on their pallet that can or could be used by him or her.


As a devil's advocate in love with the symbolism, especially visual literation, symbols of grammar, as well as the language of metaphoric symbolism within literature and cinematic prose, I deem it an achievement if my audience laughs nervously when I expose an unexpected truth. Laughing in the face of tragedy is like laughing in the face(s) of god(s), especially if the laughter breaks through suppression due to the political reality enforced by contemporary mythology. Yet in the end I just want to make people think and question convention; I do not care what conclusion or whom the audience questions, no one can control that. Nor do I want the moral of the story to be misconstrued as dogmatic or gospel, just bear it in mind, and think about it. If I've added my own special, often-quirky take on what is misconstrued as the ordinary and transformed it into the extraordinary, the work is successful. If I've introduced someone to a new reality or way of thinking about humanity and our process of living, I feel I have succeeded. Reflective, I believe in genetic fate-ancestors, where does it lead?



As I mentioned earlier about my search, I, like many artist, am drawn to the custom of revealing the conventions of culture. In my case, I am Southern, a born and raised South Carolinian to be more exact. I am one of the last generations to have known individuals who knew the world before radio and television entered the fray and began the process of creating a nationally uniting cultural influence. Independent in their minds, these were individuals who were born during Reconstruction by parents who where participants in the U.S. Civil War. Of course I have a child’s perspective of these people, but as a child it and they seemed magical. Their Southern voices moved in waves, light white to dark black, rising and falling like the sea, elongating vowels until they crashed into a consonant before rolling in repeating reductive waves out onto the sand till sentence end. These old wrinkly faces with white hair sat amongst their selves and spoke of an evil Mr. Lincoln, (I do not ever remember them referring to him as President) and how he destroyed the South and that he was the reason why we were once the richest state and are now such a poor state. I met these people because my grandparents would take me to funerals; I liked them, funerals that is. Being a child and having no attachment to most of those dead, funerals were where I observed mass behavior outside of family and church, which in most cases weddings and funerals in the South are an expansion because of the concepts of God and Spirit. I contend that God and Spirit were the beginning exercises to my imagination. It is just natural to create images of Beings we cannot see, hear, smell or touch. This said, touching dead bodies was not the only reason I enjoyed going to funerals as a child, it was also what seemed to me to be a party that would always follow. Only at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas was such food and sweets rolled out, and be that I was with my “Grandma” (Minnie Ruth Berry Compton) or “Papa” (Norman Newton Compton, Sr. called jokingly “Comrade” by his old Army buddies or “Bootsie” by his side of his family) or if I were with both, we would be around where the food was gathered. I would listen to folks with sparkling eyes and white hair and in the case of my grandfather, no hair at all, talk and tell tales of the individuals who had just passed or other friends and relatives who were long gone, but somehow the dead sealed a bond between those gathered with memories that brought on laughter and/or tears.


I was dressed like a little show pony, never the same clothes twice at such events, but always dressed sharp in a tie, with short hair combed and washed behind the ears neat and clean. (I believe this is why I have a degree in Fashion Design and Illustration and also why I feel just as comfortable in a suit and tie as I do in jeans and t-shirt.) My grandmother kept a memory book of black and white photographs with splashes of color in which my early life was visually detailed; photographs are a said benefit to being the oldest grandchild.


The luckiest day of my life was the day they decided to integrate the public school system in my home state; I am the first class to go from first to twelfth grade in South Carolina in integrated schools. No Senator Thurmond, the water tasted no different drinking after a black person than a white person, but of course you had dipped into that well and knew that already. (Yes, I talk to dead people; I would not be Southern Gothic otherwise.) Because of this forced integration on the heels of "Evil Mr. Lincoln Class 101" as a child I could see that black and white, male and female, young and old had the ability to be good and evil. Exposure to the wide breadth of humanity and its varying cultures was an experience that propelled me into thinking and more importantly questioning so called truths and/or conventions. My tendency to be on the outside looking in began its development because of my family's and church's insular belief systems. As a boy I was taught that my loyalties should follow thusly in order of importance as written on a Sunday school blackboard: To God, (meaning the Trinity), my soul, (meaning the Church), my family, (Mother first), my state, (South Carolina), the South, (in order of succession), my friends (schoolmates, teams), and then my country (USA). My Papa corrected this list and placed country before friends.


Being a Southern Gothic artist goes beyond what some refer to as grotesque cultural exposure, it involves the ecological environment just as much as observations of socioeconomic customs. Beyond the Agrarian culture predominate on my grandmother's side of the family, my grandfather's family (a matriarchal line of Jewish pig farmers, funny but true) was linked more to the water; during the first five years of my life, starting at two months, whenever my grandfather was fishing, I was with him. Placed on his lap and behind the wheel of his truck as a lad, I would steer the wheel that lead through live oaks overflowing with Spanish moss and the farming lands of my grandmother's people; fields of black soil sprigged with green in the spring, followed by high green crops of every sort in the summer, white cotton in the fall, until green turns to brown in the winter, and wild yellow dogs scour the fields for their meals of rodent gleaners. We would arrive at Potato Creek Landing on Lake Santee to fish early morning to setting sun, stump hopping in a small bass boat for "crappie" (fresh water perch) summer though the winter and along the lake's edges and coves in the spring fishing for blue gill or brim. Seasonal skies reflected on fluid black glass with wildlife everywhere: insects, birds, turtles, and snakes moved through the black cypress waters, making the only sounds other than a fish being pulled out of the water (followed by a note of its size), an occasional boat zooming across the lake to its next stump, its wakes slapping other boats, partially sunk trees, and shore alike, or the even rarer roar of fighter jets from Shaw Air Force Base shooting low across the lake making their maneuvers before flying out of view. Finally boredom would get the best of me and my urticant curiosities flowed in questions to my grandfather that were answered in regional histories and family lore.


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