At Reynolds art sale, the finds are personal

by Jordan Green

Barbara Sprinkle Moser beamed as she held up a framed woodcutprint.

“Look at this,” she enthused. “It’s called ‘Tobacco Warehouse.’”

Her sights had been set on a framed Ansel Adams photography poster,but hadn’t moved fast enough. She watched a man from Clemmons admireit, and later confirmed he had taken it. But this! Here was somethingtangibly connected with her family’s past. She admired the dim forms ofgrowers in billed caps hovering over heaps of tobacco leaves on the auctionfloor. She turned it over and mined the tags for information, gleaningthat the artist was Patricia Walach Keough, the print fifth in a series of23, the piece framed by Village Smith Galleries and purchased by RJReynolds Tobacco Co. in 1980.

Moser was one of hundreds of area residents who streamed throughthe doors to the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in Winston-Salem onFeb. 10 to peruse art pieces from the RJ Reynolds Tobacco Co. collection,lining up around the block waiting for the center to open at 10 a.m.They could spend anywhere from $15 on an ashtray to $15,000 for anoriginal of Toko Shinoda’s 1977 painting “Cherishing,” a gift from thechairman of Mitsubishi Corp. to the chairman of Reynolds at the time.

A kind of frenzy had set in by mid-afternoon, with visitors weighingthe risk of setting aside a coveted piece against making their decision toohastily and forfeiting something better. But mostly they admired eachother’s finds and cheered each other’s good fortune.

Here was “Laundorama w/ San Francisco Night Sky” a stunning portrayalof a white woman and a black woman carrying baskets of laundry,awash in vivid color. “That’s beautiful. Are you buying it?” a womanasked a reporter who laid it against the bin to better appraise it. Anotherman lamented, “I wish I’d pulled that out.”Perhaps no one was more thrilled than Moser with her “Tobacco Warehouse”woodcut print.“Both of my parents worked in the factory for Reynolds,” she said.

“I never worked in the factory, but I worked on a tobacco farm that myfriends’ family owned.”Stella Surratt drew near, gravitating to Moser’s story.

“My father grew tobacco in eastern North Carolina,” Surratt volunteered.The two women were soon discussing the finer points of handling theharvested leaves.“I knew how to tie it and sling it over,” Surratt said.“That old gum, it used to get on your fingers,” Moser recalled.

“At theend of the day the one who had the most gum we said was the hardestworker.”“You could make a ball out of it,” Surratt agreed.Surratt’s father owned land in the Tarboro area. As a young woman,she earned money by working the tobacco crop raised by her father’s tenants.

Her husband, John Surratt, served as mayor of Winston-Salem from1961 to 1963 and continues to practice law.There were totems of an economy and culture gradually fadingfrom prominence: the Shinoda piece passed between two multinationalcorporate leaders, a photo of a fearsome looking drag harrow upturned atthe edge of a field of lush green tobacco foregrounding Pilot Mountain, apainting of a buyer dressed in a green jacket and tie fingering dried leavesfrom a bin on the auction floor.

His smooth skin set him apart from anygrower or laborer.“One thing I learned from working in tobacco is that I didn’t wantto work in tobacco,” Moser said. “I worked for Wachovia for 30years.”