The Storyteller of LaGrange College: An Interview with John Lawrence

Alexis Westrick

John Lawrence’s office is nestled on the second floor of the Lamar Dodd Art Center, and I say “nestled” because it feels like the perfect place to sit with a cup of tea and watch the rain. Various photographs that he has taken in Italy, France, and Greece decorate the walls, and the soft lighting casts a warm glow on the shelves of books, photos, and knick-knacks. A rocking chair draped with a knit blanket serves as a guest chair. This is where I sat while Lawrence spun his life into a captivating tale.

Lawrence has worked at LaGrange College since 1970. He has served as the Fuller E. Callaway Professor of Art and Design. He is also the gallery director for the Lamar Dodd Art Center and teaches American Experience and various photography classes.

Before he came to LaGrange, Lawrence had already accumulated a number of adventures for his animated classroom anecdotes. As a young man he left his hometown in Mississippi and travelled west as a migrant worker, going as far as Washington state. He spent time working in lettuce fields and pecan groves. He expressed immense gratitude for this experience, saying, “It helped me get out of a rut. And it opened my eyes to what it was like getting out of the South.”

Lawrence studied at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, and eventually decided he wanted to go to art school. He looked at schools up north and eventually worked his way back down to Atlanta. He enrolled in the Atlanta College of Art, and even worked at the HIGH Museum during the summer as a receptionist.

“I loved Atlanta in the sixties,” he said with a sly smile. The vibrancy and artistic energy of Atlanta made it the perfect place for him to explore his artistic identity. Lawrence actually studied sculpture in school, and he did not start making photographs until the seventies. Rather than studying in the traditional classroom, he trained as a photographer in various workshops — a couple in Maine and one in Carmel, California directed by the famous photographer Ansel Adams.

When I asked Lawrence about his first camera, I could see the nostalgia in his face. “For my birthday, my wife gave me a camera that she had inherited from her father. German made, beautiful, with three lenses.” Lawrence’s wife passed away several years ago. While most people would not have seen anything extraordinary, just a dingy old camera collecting dust on his office shelf, his eyes were bright, and he smiled fondly as he remembered this first camera and the woman who gave it to him.

After earning his Master of Fine Arts degree from the Atlanta College of Art, he attended Tulane University for further graduate education. While in New Orleans, Lawrence was renting an apartment, and to his amazement, the garage came equipped with a state-of-the-art facility for developing photographic film.

“The landlady’s son had actually converted the garage into a darkroom,” he explained. “It had everything! There were chemicals, photo paper, lights. It was even air-conditioned!” It was here that Lawrence really began to venture into the photographic medium.

Even though he was not yet marketing himself as a photographer, Lawrence was hired to photograph the 1967 World Championship Tobacco Spitting Contest in Raleigh, Mississippi. Lawrence still enjoys showing these photographs to his students, and he even displayed them earlier this year in his exhibit “Looking Back: A Retrospective” at the LaGrange Art Museum. Following this project, he did a piece for Delta Sky Magazine after he had traveled around Georgia taking photographs and interviewing people. He explained that these trips led him into documentary photography.

He has created various series of photographs which he terms “documentary.” For example, in 1984, Lawrence visited the Church of Saint Francis in Italy where he said he was “spellbound” by the sermon and the story of Saint Francis. Renouncing his family name and wealth, Saint Francis chose to give up all of his worldly possessions and to live in service of others. What belongings he had, he sold and donated the profits to the poor and the church, and he encouraged others to live a life of asceticism.

“Most people thought he was a crazy man. I just thought that was amazing!” Lawrence exclaimed with a laugh. “But I didn’t know he was an aristocrat; he was a playboy!” Lawrence started visiting small towns in Italy where Saint Francis had travelled, and he took photographs that he hoped would capture what the holy man might have seen. One of these photographs is hanging on the wall in his office. The viewpoint is low to the ground and looks through a large stone archway towards a church. “I like to think this is what he would have seen,” he said, leaning back to look at it with his arms crossed.

Photography is a rapidly evolving medium, and while he started with film, Lawrence has had to adapt his teaching style to emerging digital photography in the early 1980s and applications such as Photoshop and Lightroom. “Photography is a more democratic process now. Photoshop has opened up a whole new plethora of ways to express oneself. It’s bad because everyone thinks they’re a genius.”

He discussed how a lot of what is produced in today’s market is “trite,” such as commercials and television. Lawrence even refuses to go see movies with special effects. “It’s so pervasive; it’s a real problem. Everyone is addicted to this instantaneousness.”

While Lawrence views the over saturation of special effects in advertisements and the digitization of photography as dangerous, he is willing to admit that there is still a lot of “good” photography being produced. Digital photography has made the art of producing photographs much more accessible to people. When before you had to have a fully equipped darkroom, now all you need is a camera, a printer, and the willingness to go find your image.

Lawrence has done a series of photographs focusing on Greek shrines, some of which were produced digitally. These small, sculptural works of art decorate the sides of the roads all over Greece. Lawrence frequently visits a mountain village just outside of Sparta, where an old friend lets him stay in his ancestral home. This small town is remote and devoid of tourists. “It’s like a time capsule.” Lawrence says. “It’s like visiting Greece in the 1800s.”

When he is home in LaGrange, Lawrence focuses his time on his classes and his role at the Lamar Dodd Art Center. As the director, he is responsible for maintaining the collection as well as bringing in new additions. Despite its small size, LaGrange College has accumulated an impressive collection of five thousand works. Four hundred of these are on loan to buildings across campus and around town, including the Montgomery Museum of Art, WellStar West Georgia Medical Center, and the LaGrange Museum of Art.

“Our mission is different from most colleges,” Lawrence explained. “It’s not to please the community, but to show our students an avant-garde, pedagogical collection. Hopefully, it might inspire students in their own work.”

When it comes to his work and what various tools or cameras that he uses, Lawrence claims to be quite flexible. “I have no commitment to any one particular medium. I think that’s a mistake. The best way to sum this up: you wouldn’t ask Rembrandt what brushes or paint to use. Medium isn’t important as long as you convey something important.”

Lawrence plans to retire at the end of this semester after a half a century at LaGrange College. During his time here he has told countless stories, both visually and orally, and he has left students with their own photographic stories and many memories. Hopefully, Lawrence’s adventures will not end here, but will continue to flourish as he heads into retirement. His photography will still be present at the college and in the surrounding community, and with his venturesome personality he will surely find more to share.

Alexis Westrick is an Art and English double major from Newnan, Georgia. She plans to graduate in the Spring of 2021.

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