Somebody isn't being entirely honest, but who? Can you trust the witnesses? Were the newspapers lying? Are they lying still?
"The Truth Is a Burden" — an exhibition documenting the so-called life of J. Donald Barton, an unknown Memphis artist and filmmaker — is a show full of twists and surprises that will leave viewers wondering what to believe."There've been times when I've questioned my sanity," says curator Eileen Townsend, both in regard to the undertaking and the curious things she's discovered along the way.
Townsend, a Flyer contributor, claims to have first encountered Barton in the Memphis Public Library while looking through old newspaper clippings preserved on microfiche.
"I came upon this obituary," she says. "It caught my eye because it said that in addition to growing up in Memphis and working at the Hershey Factory, he was an amateur filmmaker. And so I started looking."
The story Townsend tells about a young creative type at the periphery of the Antenna Club's fertile art and music scene is typical to a point. Barton went to Hollywood to be a movie star but failed and came home to Memphis in defeat.
"So he started making short films," says Townsend, who acquired several of the artist's journals. "Nobody really liked what he was doing," she adds. "Then he had this dream about the apocalypse and how it was going to happen in Memphis in 2015. And he woke up knowing that this was the movie he had to make."
Barton never made that film. He and his girlfriend had just begun to storyboard when the artist was killed in a mysterious motorcycle wreck on the old Harahan Bridge.
"I've noticed so many strange things," Townsend says. "There are details in [Barton's] plans about Memphis geography that would have been hard to predict in the early '80s, like the presence of a pyramid, for example."
"The Truth Is a Burden" collects Barton's journals, newspaper clippings, storyboards, and samples of his short films.