WILMINGTON (RNS) William McNeill remembers two things about sitting in the pew at Singletary United Methodist Church in Dublin, N.C. as a boy.
He can still hear the choir singing the old gospel hymn “Bringing in the Sheaves,” which the young McNeill thought was actually “Bringing in the Sheeps.” The other is closely tied in his memory: his mother’s hand-held fan, painted with a Sunday school primer painting of Jesus the good shepherd, surrounded by air-brushed children and lambs.
The paper fans with wooden handles that were in every church, tire store and tobacco warehouse of his 1950s youth “resurrect sweet memories of a vanished world, a warmer world before air conditioning,” McNeill said.
Those early church experiences ignited a passion—McNeill calls it 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.
His collection now includes about 400 secular, religious, woven, pop culture and instructional fans that date 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 the museum’s executive director, Anne Brennan. “The fans are the launching pad for his storytelling.”
For many years, McNeill has woven his fans into musical presentations sponsored by the North Carolina Humanities Council at senior centers and churches, telling stories about his upbringing and then playing rollicking gospel hymns and other piano tunes.
“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 farm. He stood on his front porch fanning his Aunt Susie with one of his mother’s fans that depicted Jesus ascending to heaven.
Next he quietly sits at his piano and launches into a lively 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, a reflection 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 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 pregnant journey to Bethlehem on a donkey all the way 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.”