Saturday, a week ago, while waiting on coffee in one of those scruffy, only-in-New-Orleans kind of places, I leafed through the current issue of Gambit, a local weekly newspaper, and there was Elayne Goodman.
About the coffee shop, Zotz, an online reviewer wrote: “Psychedelic swamp funk interior. The walls either grow on you or get to you. Not much middle ground there. …”
Which made it a fitting place to read about the current exhibition in town featuring Southern homegrown artists. Gambit’s cover story, “In the vernacular: A major new show at the Ogden Museum spotlights outsider and self-taught art,” featured a photo of Elayne’s, 1990 “Altar to Elvis.”
The altar’s story has many twists and turns. Over the years it has attained almost mythic status.
An editor for “Rolling Stone” learned of the altar when it was displayed in the window of a New York gallery representing Goodman at the time. After a photograph of the altar appeared in the magazine, a collector from Italy and actor Nicholas Cage, whose character in the 1990 David Lynch film, “Wild at Heart” had an Elvis fixation, expressed interest.
Cage balked at the $2,000 cross-country shipping charges the gallery was demanding (Later when Elayne learned of this, she said, “I would have put it in a U-Haul and set it up for him [if I’d known].”) Cage’s loss is the gain of the Ogden Museum of Southern Art where the altar is part of the permanent collection.
About Elayne’s work, Ogden curator Bradley Sumrall, said, “This is ‘make-do’ art at its best, utilizing the materials at hand to create ecstatic compositions that speak to place, time and culture. They are always inspired, sometimes poetic, and often just downright funny.”
Very seldom is Elayne’s work not downright funny. The genius of it is a $35 whirligig you buy at Kentuck or the Rosenzweig gift shop will exhibit the same wit and creativity as a piece on display at a major museum.
Friday afternoon at art building on the Mississippi University for Women campus Elayne’s commission to honor the building’s namesake, long time professor and her dear friend, the late and widely loved Eugenia Summer, was on display.
The piece, a five-foot tall totem adorned with buttons, Eugenia’s collection of egg cups and brightly painted plaques with funny tidbits about Summer, who was a distinct character.
As president of the student body she convinced The W president to allow a jukebox in the Goose. She considered this the greatest accomplishment of her life!
Early in her life she won an award for one of her art works. She used the money to buy a red wool coat.
Her art works were shown in over 60 juried exhibitions throughout the United States. Eleanor Roosevelt owned one.
She didn’t like Elvis. She did like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles!
When she attended the Mississippi Picnic in Central Park, she took sardines and crackers for lunch.
When I called Elayne Saturday morning to praise the piece, she told me about an earlier commission.
Eugenia, who died in 2016, asked her friend to make a cover for her casket. Summer was only 5 feet 2 inches tall and Elayne planned accordingly.
“I made this thing,” said Elayne, “and she went out and picked out this ornate casket, and the cover was too short.” The funeral home put Elayne’s cover over the casket after it was rolled out of the Catholic Church.
This came just after, at Eugenia’s request, the entire congregation sang “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.”
“We promised we would,” said Elayne. “A whole church full of people (sang it). It was boisterous.”