The most prevalent sculptural forms found in Mississippi are among and around the state’s cemeteries, courthouses, and national battlefields. Marble works that commemorate the Civil War can be located in nearly every county or town, especially Vicksburg. However, whether commemorating the Union or the Confederacy, none are known to have been rendered by native Mississippians. In fact, because southerners were hesitant about being involved with federal land, the first monuments erected in Vicksburg
National Cemetery following the Civil War honored fallen Union soldiers. All Confederate markers and monuments were erected following World War I. Although no Mississippians were involved, some of the greatest sculptors of the time are represented by works throughout the state.
A second form of sculpture found in all corners of Mississippi is known commonly as folk art. Native Mississippians have produced folk art for generations and continue to do so today, as evidenced by the work of such artists as Bovina’s Earl Simmons. These artists often are physically isolated and therefore use any sort of discarded item in the immediate vicinity for artistic purposes.
In 1980 the Mississippi State Historical Museum in Jackson hosted Made by Hand: Mississippi Folk Art, an exhibition featuring the works of many leading folk artists, including Luster Willis from the Terry area and George Williams from Amite County. Also featured was musician and sculptor James “Son Ford” Thomas. By far the most mysterious of Mississippi folk artists, Thomas was known for creating sculptures and blues songs inspired by his dreams. Although Thomas’s subjects range from animal forms to life-size busts, his red clay skulls with shells for eyes and corn for teeth are his most interesting works.
One of the more celebrated Mississippi sculptors was Richmond Barthé. Born in Bay St. Louis in 1908, Barthé was already exhibiting art in New Orleans by the age of twelve. Barthé eventually studied at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he received two Rosenwald Fellowships that allowed him to go to New York and take part in the Harlem Renaissance. Throughout his career Barthé designed coins and erected bronze monuments, including the nine-foot eagle over the Social Security Building in Washington, D.C., and a statue of Toussaint-Louverture.
Mississippi is also home to many active and prolific contemporary sculptors who work in a variety of media and styles. Sam Gore is renowned for creating clay busts of Christ for church audiences all over Mississippi and beyond. His tenure as a professor in the Mississippi College Art Department has given him far-reaching influence. In addition to working in a number of styles, including Dada, surrealism, and realism based on the figure, William Beckwith of Greenville is also credited with establishing the state’s first commercial foundry and has taught at the University of Mississippi. Cleveland’s Floyd Shaman, a native of Wyoming, founded the art department of Delta State University in 1970 and creates humorous yet satirical figurative work in laminated wood. Rod Moorehead, originally from California, was raised in Oxford and earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Mississippi. After living in Colorado for several years, Moorehead returned to Oxford and became a noted figurative ceramic sculptor.
Two expatriate artists who have gained national and international fame, Sam Gilliam and William Dunlap, bridge the gap between painting and sculpture. Dunlap often employs found objects associated with life in the South into his realistic canvases, yielding a product that is both two- and three-dimensional. Dunlap’s imagery reflects aspects of life in Mississippi in quite a literal manner, while Gilliam’s work is process oriented and nonrepresentational. Gilliam, certainly Mississippi’s leading African American artist, has been exhibiting nationally and internationally since the mid-1950s. Although many regard Tupelo native Gilliam as a painter, his enormous soaked and stained canvases are unsupported by any type of frame, creating a draped three-dimensional look. Gilliam also works on multilayered wood constructs with intensely colored hues.
- Romare Bearden and Harry Henderson, A History of African American Artists: From 1792 to the Present (1993)
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi, 1720–1980 (1998)
- William Dunlap website, www.williamdunlap.com
- Lauren Rogers Museum of Art, Handbook of the Collections (2003)
- Jane Livingston and John Beardsley, Black Folk Art in America (1982)