The fan man: William McNeill’s Remembrances of Sweat and Sweet Jesus

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By Amanda Greene
Religion News Wilmington

Sitting in his pew next to his mother at Singletary United Methodist Church in Dublin, N.C., William McNeill made an early connection between the church fan pulling warm air toward her face and the hymns they sang each Sunday.

When the choir sang “bringing in the sheaves,” young McNeill misheard and thought they were singing “bringing in the sheeps” instead.

From that day to this he connects the gospel hymn with the image on his mother’s fan – a Sunday school primer painting of Jesus surrounded by air-brushed children and lambs as the good shepherd.

The paper fans with wooden paddle handles that were in every church, tire store and tobacco warehouse when he was growing up in the 1950s “resurrect sweet memories of a vanished world, a warmer world before air conditioning,” McNeill said.

Those early church experiences ignited a passion – what McNeill calls a “gentle madness” – for collecting paper fans, many of which are on display at the Cameron Art Museum in the show “William McNeill: My Life as a Handheld Church Fan, a Rhapsody on Sweat, Sweet Tea, and Salvation” through Jan. 15, 2012. His collection now includes about 400 secular, religious, woven, pop culture and instructional fans that date back from the 19th century to the 1970s.

In some communities, “the church fans were the first introduction to art imagery for a lot of people in the same way stained glass serves in churches to tell stories,” said Cameron executive director Anne Brennan. “The fans are the launching pad for his storytelling.”

For many years, McNeill has woven his fans into musical presentations for the N.C. Humanities Council at senior centers and churches, telling stories about his upbringing and then playing rollicking gospel hymns and other piano tunes that further color the fans’ images.

“I see them as an invitation for an excursion through a nostalgic past, a world of two- and three-digit telephone numbers,” McNeill said.

In a video of his performance, McNeill tells a story about one summer when he was five on his family’s Bladen County farm. He stood on his front porch fanning his Aunt Susie with one of his mother’s fans that showed Jesus floating in front of his disciples during his ascension.

Next he quietly sits at his piano and launches into a quick, gospel rendition of “I’ll Fly Away.” A later story about his father’s signed baseball paddle fan leads to a “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” sing along.

His fans are historic documents themselves, speaking of idealized American life. McNeill has an entire collection of instructional fans guiding 1950s children to look before crossing the street, saying “Stop a minute, save a life.” One advertisement fan for a drug store shows a young boy holding a lollipop. The ad text: “You get the best at the drug store—drugs-n-everything.”

His religious fans show images from every part of Jesus’ life from Mary’s journey on a donkey to Jesus’ ascension.

Some of the fans are scribbled, spotted or have fuzzed edges from so much hot afternoon fanning. That’s all part of the charm for McNeill.

“It’s the paint loss, the paper loss, the tears and sweat stains he has reverence for,” Brennan added. “That God in every one for him is transferred to the fans.”

McNeill is nervous his vast collection of religious fans will paint him as “religious or a goody, goody two shoes, which I’m certainly not,” he said of his complicated faith relationship to his fans. “Many people will dismiss the religious imagery as kitsch, and I just hate that because religious art can bring comfort and solace to people of faith.”

The artist admits his faith has changed from those early days of adoration next to his mother in the pew.

“I would label myself as an aesthetic Christian. It is the poetry of the liturgy, the music, the poetry of the King James Version and the Book of Common Prayer, hymns ancient and modern,” McNeill said. “It’s a nostalgic journey for a sense of community which has been lost—church suppers and the word fellowship that you used to hear and you don’t anymore.”

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One response to “The fan man: William McNeill’s Remembrances of Sweat and Sweet Jesus

  1. Pingback: Belief Bytes: Friday’s Religion News Roundup | Religion News Wilmington

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