Fables of the Reconstruction

The narrative thread is sewn through a fabric of dreams and allegory in the singular art of Ke Francis. During the past 30-plus years, this multimedia artist-educator has rendered his stories through an arsenal of media, ranging from painting, printmaking and sculpture to photography and installations. Francis’ work has been featured in more than 40 solo and group exhibits and is in the public and corporate collections of more than two dozen organizations, ranging from The National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.), the High Museum (Atlanta) and the J.P. Getty Museum & Library (Los Angeles). In 1979, Francis and his wife Mary created Hoopsnake Press, which has published 75 editions since its inception. Since 1996, Francis has been the chair of University of Central Florida’s art department in Orlando.

Madison “Ke” Francis was born in 1945 in Memphis, Tenn., and grew up in Tupelo, Miss. That sleepy town produced not one but two notable rockabilly singers, most famously Elvis Presley and the lesser-known but still worthy Jumpin’ Gene Simmons (he of the 1964 novelty hit “Haunted House”), but it’s a place not known for its visual artists. The teenaged Francis soaked up the funky vernacular that helped fire up his own evolving creative energies.

The Francis household didn’t own a television until Ke was 13, which meant he absorbed much of his sense of storytelling and propensity for imagined realities firsthand. After dinner, his family would gather on the porch, where his dad would play the fiddle while his grandfather joined in on harmonica and guitar. “I think that music and folk art were my closest connections to any art,” Francis said. “All the neighbors would come over, and people would be drinking bourbon and telling really great and outrageous stories. I believe that experience was really pivotal, especially with inspiring my own creative writing.”

Both his grandfather and uncle created art in their free time, yet while the family encouraged his talents, they also urged him to focus on more sensible aspirations. “There was always this sense of the rational versus the intuitive. [Laughs.]” Francis eventually left Tupelo and earned a Bachelor of Fine Art in sculpture from the Cleveland Institute of Art. In the early ’70s, Francis and his wife Mary had a daughter and returned to Tupelo, where they built a compound that included their home, workspaces, a woodshop and a ceramics studio, on a 32-acre piece of lakeside property. It was during this time that the couple began publishing their own books, and Francis honed his skills as a visual polymath, creating colorful ruminations in varying media that, in hindsight, seem to weave a grand and connected fable.

Francis’ work taps into a kind of dusty Gnosticism played out on the unforgiving waters and tornado-ravaged flatlands of the Mississippi hill country, as humans and animals are flung together in the aftermath of natural disasters, carried along on a raging sea of color, text, crosshatching and recurring archetypes. One curious signifier that appears in much of his work (hoopsnakepress.com) is that of the tuning fork. “That concept intrigued me due to the idea that there might be a wavelength inside the art; if you hit one tuning fork, across the room, a similar tuning fork will begin to sound.” Francis wondered if some invisible vibration or frequency was formed from the coherence in his own work. “I was building different things like sculpture, painting and woodcut prints, so the idea that if I had a sculpture sitting in the room, the painting on the wall would begin to ‘hum’ in some kind of harmony.”

Another theme is that of a quiet sense of loneliness, as creatures drift along on rafts and rooftops in floodwaters, yet cannot seem to come together for a solution, regardless of how dire their shared condition might be. “They are all on the same small little piece of floating debris, hoping to live, but are disconnected.”

Francis’ show, opening this week at Florida Mining Gallery, features 25 to 35 pieces that seem to touch on everything from biological survival to a kind of homespun eschatology. Yet for all these apparent visions of catastrophe and collective anguish, Francis sees a kind of universal hope that’s forever born from the brutal and apparently senseless experiences that occur in the aftermath of natural disasters. It is an optimism that touches on the mystical.

“In the aftermath of these kinds of events, people are immediately made aware of their insignificance in the whole scheme of things,” Francis said, describing a kind of involuntary paradigm shift when many survivors realize that the greatest relationships we have are not with things, but with each other. “I like to think that what happens is like a survival of the spirit, a clarifying of priorities, that happens in those moments. The spiritual world is separated from the material world in a beautiful and interesting way, and something new is revealed.”

Dan Brow