Seeing Reynolds Price Through His Art Collection


Arts & Culture

All photographs by Alex Harris.


Reynolds Price’s enthusiasms could not be contained to one form: he wrote novels and stories, poems and plays, memoirs, essays, and songs; made translations; and taught creative writing and literature at Duke University for fifty-two years. If that weren’t enough, Price also collected art. Confined to a wheelchair for the last twenty-seven years of his life, he created a salon-like refuge in his Durham, North Carolina, house in which every wall, bookshelf, and piece of furniture reflected his eclectic passions and preoccupations, paid homage to his influences, and illuminated his interior life.

After Price’s death in 2011, his family asked the photographer Alex Harris to document the art and objects as a living collection before it was disassembled. During the winter and early spring of that year, Harris took more than seven hundred photographs of every corner, wall, and nook. A selection of the images are on view through November 5 at the Rubenstein Photography Gallery at Duke University and have just been published in Dream of House: The Passions and Preoccupations of Reynolds Price, edited by Harris and the writer and photographer Margaret Sartor.

Below, Harris and Sartor, both longtime friend of Price’s, present photographs and excerpts from Price’s writings to evoke the experience of the writer himself taking us on a guided tour of his home. 


The act of seeing was at the very heart of the language of the old, traditional South as spoken by Reynolds Price’s parents, Elizabeth and Will Price, and by their relatives and friends. Of his childhood Reynolds wrote, “I was mesmerized by the visible world as deeply as any snake-spied bird.” Through much of his North Carolina childhood and adolescence—before he turned seriously to writing—Reynolds pursued drawing and painting with fervor, making careful copies of the faces of ancient heroes from his favorite books, later sketching modern faces from Life and Look magazines. He continued to draw throughout his life, and drawing may have saved his life. During the first five months after the surgery to remove a cancerous tumor on his spine, when he couldn’t write and could barely focus enough to read, Reynolds drew the face of Jesus repeatedly and rendered a vision of Jesus healing him from cancer. The drawings filled six spiral notebooks.

Reynolds died in January of 2011. When I showed up with my camera at his house a few weeks later, I felt as if I had been training for that moment my entire working life. For more than forty years, in locations as disparate as the American South, Inuit villages in Alaska, Havana streets, and Hispanic towns in northern New Mexico, I learned to make portraits without the actual presence of people.

Reynolds arranged his art in a floor-to-ceiling display, a style that originated with seventeenth-century French Royal Academy exhibitions and later migrated to the Louvre. I could not imagine a French curator of that era working with more diverse art than Reynolds had in his North Carolina home, or taking more meticulous care than Reynolds did to place works precisely where they would resonate with other pieces.

Reynolds said that, for him, writing began with a visual experience. Each story, novel, or poem started with a single scene: a brief, imagined film clip unspooling through projector light and developing into a story on the screen of his brain. That unfolding scene often began years before he started to write, with an object or image Reynolds was drawn to and had collected and carefully placed on a wall, table or floor.

Friends who visited Reynolds knew about the distinctive visual world he created in his home. Though his collections had begun long before, when Reynolds was confined to a wheelchair in 1984, they took on fresh importance: books, including multiple copies of Dante’s Divine Comedy, which Reynolds purchased, or was given over the years, and a closed bookcase of his own first editions arranged in chronological order; paintings, particularly the landscapes of North Carolina and the South that provided the settings for his novels and stories; a number of sketches and formal oil portraits of Reynolds himself; two etchings—of Abraham and Issac—by Rembrandt, each of which inspired an essay, and more etchings by William Blake; Greek marble busts and sculptures; wooden, ceramic, and plaster masks from many cultures, including death masks of Blake, John Keats, and Marlon Brando; a large assemblage of photographs, including two printed as gifts by and from my wife, Margaret, and two from me; numerous icons; and a wide variety of miscellanea, such as a saber-toothed tiger’s skull.

Reynolds purchased his modest deckhouse in 1965, a brick-and-wood structure set within a pine and hardwood forest and perched above a small pond visited annually around Christmas by a lone great blue heron. He lived in a state he, at times, called “a much befriended solitude.” He never married or had a long-term partner, though he was assisted each year of his last twenty-five years by a different live-in Duke graduate, often a student from one of his seminars. He wrote about love in many forms but didn’t discuss his own homosexuality publicly until after his memoir, Ardent Spirits, was published in 2009. Reynolds told Margaret and me that there were, at most, two marriages he had witnessed in his life that he truly envied. I sometimes wondered if he genuinely believed this or if he was just convincing himself that living alone was preferable to conjugal life. So many of the characters whose lives unfold on the pages of Reynolds’s novels and stories struggle with the tension between a desire for love and companionship and the autonomy of an independent life. Though Reynolds proclaimed he craved his solitude “like a deer craves salt licks,” it is not a stretch to imagine him torn between these two ways of living. I say this not to provide psychological analysis of my old friend but as part of my effort to understand his home, the world he created for himself through the photographs, paintings, statues, and objects he collected and arranged, his constant companions in a solitary life.

                                                                                    —Alex Harris

Detail of a painting by Will Wilson.

I think I’ve been for whatever reasons—most of them obviously utterly unrecoverable—a solitary all my life. I was an only child; I was eight years old when my brother was born. We lived either in the country or very much on the edges of small towns so that I had very few playmates and had, from my earliest times, to invent my own forms of entertainment, which took the forms of reading and painting and the invention of imaginary games, which I played with myself. For whatever reasons, I like to live alone. Well, I need—I wouldn’t say like, although I certainly wouldn’t claim that I was unhappy living alone. If I were unhappy living alone, I’d do something about it; wouldn’t I? (Conversations with Reynolds Price)


I’m the son of brave magnanimous parents who’d have offered both legs in hostage for mine, if they’d been living when mine were required. I’m the brother of a laughing openhanded man with whom I’ve never exchanged an angry adult word nor wanted to. I’m the cousin of a woman who, with her husband, offered to see me through to the grave. I’m the neighbor of a couple who offered to share my life, however long I lasted. I’m the ward of a line of responsible assistants who’ve moved into my home and life at twelve-month intervals, taken charge of both the house and me and insured a safe and favorable atmosphere for ongoing work. I’m the friend of many more spacious and lively souls than I’ve earned. I’ve had, and still have, more love—in body and mind—than I dreamed of in my lone boyhood. (A Whole New Life)


I’ve lived in the same house for twenty-odd years now which is very unusual in America. I’ve lived at the same crossroads for thirty-some years. I’ve taught in the same university for almost thirty years. I live within sixty miles of my birthplace. I’ve taken pains in my life—I’ve made conscious choices to try to stay as still as I could, so that I could have that kind of position from which to gauge movement. Movement can only be gauged in stasis. (unpublished interview)


In the founding text of our civilization—the Hebrew-Christian Bible—a spot is sacred forever-after if God or an angel has deigned to touch it … For most of us, the chance of hallowing a place is through human means; the site of intense and/or prolonged human feeling becomes special for us. (“Homeless. Home.”)


Prayer has always been a very important part of my daily life. It’s so much part of my daily life I don’t even think of it as prayer. It just seems like the same thing as making the coffee and answering the phone and doing the work. I don’t have elaborate, ceremonial ways that I do it. I am not a churchgoing person. But I think I’m an intensely religious person. (The Writer’s Faith: 2005 Calendar)


My work then is what all honorable work is—the attempt to control chaos. It has freed me till now from physical want, from prolonged dependence on my fellows, and occasionally from myself. It has freed me for the attempt to understand, if not control, disorder in myself and in those I love. It has even freed me at times to participate in the richest, most dangerous mystery of all—the love of what otherwise I should have feared and fled, a few human beings. (“Finding Work”)


A need to tell and hear stories is essential to the species Homo sapiens—second in necessity apparently after nourishment and before love and shelter. Millions survive without love or home, almost none in silence; the opposite of silence leads quickly to narrative, and the sound of the story is the dominant sound of our lives, from the small accounts of our days’ events to the vast incommunicable constructs of psychopaths. (A Palpable God)


The pictures are images of household gods, I suppose. Images of what I have loved and love and worship—worship in the sense of offering my life and work to them. The pictures are of members of my family—some of whom I never knew, who died before I was born—and of friends who have caused my life and my work. They are here, and here in such numbers, for the sake of my present and future work, not for the sake of nostalgia, not as souvenirs of a lifeless past. That is an aspect of my own work, as it is of almost every artist’s work, which is little understood by people who are not themselves artists—the extent to which any work of art, especially verbal art, is a private communication between the artist and a small audience, often as small as one. (Conversations with Reynolds Price)


Why do living creatures copy their worlds? Why have we, since the caves at least, tried so consistently to copy, not only the visible world but the unseen world—God or the gods, the black hole we now call evil and the ring of light that circumscribes it? The simplest answer is that all such copies are a copy of the commonest action on the face of the Earth. The whole organic nature is involved in the steady physical effort to reproduce itself. (Clear Pictures)


Farewell with Photographs

Time is mainly pictures,
After a while is only pictures.

Five years, for instance—all but two thousand days—
Will resolve to a few dozen pictures in time:
Of which, if ten give long-range pleasure to their veterans,
Thanks are due.

Thanks then for time—
Deep-cut pictures,
Mainly delight.

(The Collected Poems)


… How does a newborn child learn the three indispensable human skills he is born without? How does he learn to live, love, and die? How do we learn to depend emotionally and spiritually on others and to trust them with our lives? How do we learn the few but vital ways to honor other creatures and delight in their presence? And how do we learn to bear, use, and transmit that knowledge through the span of a life and then to relinquish it? (Clear Pictures)