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Artist ID: 2536

I have long been inspired with the idea of “holy objects” in the Blues, a secular version of the reliquaries and holy ephemera of the early church. And like those medieval objects, the pieces I have submitted for the Wiregrass Biennial are blues holy objects with humble origins, exploring the idea of animism; the belief that inanimate objects and places carry within them power and spiritual essence.
Specifically, these works were created from objects directly associated with the death of blues singer Robert Johnson. The wood on which the various mixed media is affixed was discarded during recent renovations of Little Zion Church on Money Rd., where Johnson is buried. This wood was part of the original church during the time of his burial. The rest of the material comes from the Star of the West plantation in Greenwood, MS where Johnson died in 1938 in a sharecropper shack owned by a man known as “Tush Hog.”

The largest piece in this series is entitled “Robert Johnson Greenwood Death Triptych” and reproduces the three known photographs of Johnson with metal from Star of the West plantation, wood from Little Zion church, bricks and cornerstone aggregate from the house where he died, objects found in the field where the house stood, and dirt from the house site and cemetery where he is buried. Instead of a faithful rendering of Johnson, the actual man, I chose to interpret the three images of Johnson through the myths surrounding him and his death: as holy savior of the blues, doomed genius, and demonic seller of his soul.

Robert Johnson is not only a much-fetishized legend of pre-WWII blues, his story has become an archetypal American myth, that of an unparalleled musical genius who died young after making a Faustian bargain. The fact that most of the myths surrounding Johnson have no basis in fact does little to quell their hold on the world’s imagination and its need for myth and stories equal to the power of his influential music.

The ephemera that makes up the piece, “Robert Johnson’s Mosaic #1” (and other parts of this body of work) was collected over numerous trips to the field on the Star of the West plantation that once contained the death house. The house was torn down long ago, and now all that remains of that landmark are bits of broken glass, brick, coal, housewares, rusty nails and other ephemera scattered and buried over an acre of heavily cultivated ground. This piece also contains house bricks, a rusty axe head from the field, and cemetery dirt.

The piece entitled “Robert Johnson Death Site w/skeleton” is a triptych panorama of 11x14 tintypes made with a 122 year old Century view camera, showing the field where the death house once stood. The complete deer skeleton was found on the edge of the field and was photographed in situ (bottom left), then cleaned and reassembled. The rusted metal that makes up the small deer skeleton was found in the field. The mason jar found in a nearby ditch contains dirt from the house site and branches from a nearby tree.

As with most rural, Southern musicians from the earliest days of recorded music, very little remains of material culture directly connected to Robert Johnson. There are no guitars, personal objects, nor hand-written lyrics. There are only 3 photographs, 29 recordings, and a diminishing number of crumbling landmarks associated with his presence.

This body of work is drawn from discarded detritus found at the actual sites of his death and burial. It is my hope that the re-contextualization of these humble items will carry with them an animating power in the tradition of medieval holy objects that mark the animistic origins of Western religion.

Robert Johnson is the central figure of the American blues myth, and these cast-off objects are as close as we are likely to get pieces of the true cross in that world.

Bill Steber was born and raised in middle Tennessee and his interest in art and photography began in elementary school as he used one of his father’s cameras on school trips and Boy Scout campouts. It was on one such campout at age 11 that Steber took an abstract photo that gave him what would be his first published photo.
After attaining degrees in Photography and English from Middle Tennessee State University, Steber spent the next 15 years making a name for his self in journalism, working as a staff photojournalist for the Tennessean in Nashville and winning dozens of regional and national photography awards, shooting everything from national politics to New York runway fashion to the Super Bowl.
But it was for work outside the newspaper that Steber is best known. In 1992, photographer Bill Steber first travelled through the Mississippi Delta, driving North on Hwy. 61 out of Natchez, along the fabled Blues Highway. He stopped in Leland, met Son Thomas and photographed him with one of his full-size folk art caskets.
The journey, Steber said, forever altered his life.
Through the “Stones in my Pathway” project, Steber found a way to combine his passions for photography and music by beginning an ambitious photographic survey of blues culture in Mississippi with an old Hasselblad camera and lots of black and white film. Since then, he has set out to document every living blues musician associated with Mississippi as well as most of the state’s juke joints, churches, river baptisms, hoodoo practitioners, traditional farming methods, folk traditions and every other cultural tradition that gave birth to or influenced the blues.
Steber won grants to support this work from The Maine Photographic Workshops and the Morrie Camhi award as well as being an Alicia Patterson Foundation fellow in 1998 that gave him a year-long sabbatical from the Tennessean to pursue the Blues project. In 2020 Steber won the South Arts award grant for the state of Tennessee. He has shown his work in galleries and museums around the world including a one-man show at the Saba Gallery in New York that was featured in the New Yorker magazine in 2000.
Currently, Steber is a freelance photographer, artist and musician living in Murfreesboro, TN. His editorial work is published in regional, national and international magazines. “Stones in my Pathway” is represented by art galleries around the country and Europe. He has plans to publish numerous books from the Mississippi Blues project, combining the still photos with extensive interviews, writings, audio and video collected in the field to create a comprehensive survey of Mississippi blues culture that represents an entire generation of the region’s history.
Since 2007 Steber has additionally been documenting 21st-century Southern culture through the use of 19th-century wetplate photography, including tintypes, ambrotypes and glass negatives. His latest work explores the subject of animism, seeking to find the spirit and power of place through soil and found objects acquired from historical sites, combined with photographs, or reproducing photographic images with mixed media.

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