Visual arts have been a mark of the area now called Mississippi for at least six thousand years. Before the Egyptian pyramids were built, an artist in South Mississippi was carving river rock into forms representing animals of the region.
A vast amount of other archeological material has been recovered across the state—vessels decorated with abstract designs, carved stone, decorative ceramic pipes and discs, ceramics in the shape of animals—but extensive investigation needs to be undertaken before a clearer picture can emerge of Mississippi’s prehistoric past, its cultures, and the contributions of artists. Only a small fraction of the state has been thoroughly studied. The largest group of ceramics so far uncovered were made during the Mississippian era (AD 1000–1700) and came from the Yazoo River Basin.
By the time the French arrived to colonize the area in 1699, regional tribes—most notably the Biloxi, Natchez, Tunica, Choctaw, and Chickasaw—were producing decorative pottery with distinctive designs and colors. The Choctaw and Chickasaw were producing intricate basketry made of swamp cane dyed with natural substances. During the eighteenth century the Choctaw produced elaborate beadwork sashes and other wearable pieces, worked in silver, and created clothing styles based on European patterns with appliquéd color strips. At the same time, a few of the first European settlers created drawings, decorative maps, and watercolor sketches of the natives and terrain. Most early European settlers in Mississippi had little time to create art, however. The daily struggle of clearing and cultivating land or managing herds of cattle or fishing or building boats occupied the energy of the men, while the women were busy fulfilling household needs. As soon as towns became established, however, itinerant artists began arriving from the East and Midwest. Coming down the Mississippi and Tombigbee Rivers, they offered primarily portraiture in oil or pencil or silhouettes in paper. The area’s flora and fauna also attracted traveling artists intent on recording the new country and new species. One of the first professional artists to live in the state was John James Audubon, whose interest in birds brought him down the Mississippi River in 1820. In 1822 he brought his family from Kentucky to live in Natchez, where he taught drawing and dancing and tried to make a living with his painting. A close brush with yellow fever convinced him to move on, but Audubon documented a number of Mississippi’s birds and left portrait sketches and a beautiful cityscape of Natchez.
As the state prospered and expanded, more painters arrived and stayed for extended periods to complete multiple portraits in a community or family. Some of the earliest traveling portraitists in Mississippi were William Edward West, Matthew Jouett, James Reid Lambdin, and George Caleb Bingham. The first native artist was James Tooley Jr., who was born in Natchez in 1816 and earned a national reputation for portrait miniatures, including the portrait of his teacher in Philadelphia, Thomas Sully.
By the 1840s Mississippi began to attract artists who wanted to make their homes there. Thomas Cantwell Healey settled in Port Gibson, William Carroll Saunders and John Randolph Saunders took residence in Columbus, Louis Joseph Bahin moved to Natchez, and Charles Weigand came to Jackson. Still, itinerant artists continued to pour into the prospering state until the Civil War. In addition to painters, the state supported other creators of the visual arts. Edwin Lyon of Natchez was a professional sculptor working in wax, plaster, and marble. Louis Emile Gustave Profilet and George Macpherson of Natchez and Jacob Faser of Macon were prominent silversmiths.
The earliest woman artist to gain recognition was Fannie McMurtry of Natchez, a landscape painter who worked in the 1850s. From earliest settlement, a varied and extensive array of visual arts was created by women whose names were known only to their families. Homes were embellished with quilting, embroidery, and other textile arts; decorative fire boards and painted ceramics; and reverse paintings on glass, stencil, and tinsel paintings. Experienced slave artisans were assigned to create decorative wrought iron tracery and railings, while female slaves had to learn the patterns of European needlework.
A new form of visual art was introduced to Mississippi in 1842 when a traveling daguerreotype artist opened up shop in a Jackson hotel. The first resident photographer in Jackson was probably Erich von Seutter, who moved there prior to the Civil War. At the University of Mississippi, chemistry professor Edward Boynton experimented with photography before the Civil War forced him to leave for his home in Vermont. The first renowned photographer with a portrait studio was Henry Gurney, who opened a shop in Natchez the 1850s. In 1870 Gurney hired a young assistant, Henry C. Norman, who became Mississippi’s first art photographer. Norman and his brother, Earl, documented the life and people of Natchez with extraordinary sensitivity and skill. Upriver, H. J. Herrick and J. Mack Moore captured life in Vicksburg, while Aberdeen-based F. S. McKnight covered the northeastern corner of the state. John C. Coovert of Greenville worked in the Delta.
The Civil War and its aftermath disrupted the production of visual arts, but emancipation permitted the aesthetics of African American tradition to emerge. String quilts and other African techniques suppressed in the slave culture were recovered and showed up in textiles created primarily by African American women.
Out of the stymied atmosphere of poverty and Reconstruction, an exceptional artist began his career in his hometown. George Ohr opened Biloxi Art and Novelty Pottery in 1879 and showed his work at the 1885 World’s Exposition in New Orleans. At the 1904 St. Louis Exposition he won an award as the most original art potter and was cited in a national ceramics journal as “one of the most interesting potters in the United States.” Except for his “souvenir” pieces, his work did not sell well, however. In the Victorian era, Ohr’s inventive glazes were considered garish. Moreover, his delicate, thin-walled pots were twisted, dented, ruffled, and folded into exotic forms. When he closed his shop in 1909, he packed up several thousand pieces, and they remained stored until 1968, when they were sold on the New York market. Art pottery collectors enthusiastically paid thousands of dollars for Ohr’s pots, and art historians reevaluated his importance. Biloxi’s Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art, designed by Frank Gehry, opened in 2010.
Another Gulf Coast pottery destined to become nationally known opened in 1928 when Peter Anderson founded Shearwater Pottery in Ocean Springs. The workshops and showroom, rebuilt after Hurricane Katrina, are still largely staffed by talented family members under the leadership of Peter Anderson’s son, Jim. Pup and Lee McCarty founded an important Mississippi Delta pottery in 1954. The Merigold pottery is distinctive in its use of earth tones of nutmeg and jade. The colorful patterns and stylish pieces of the Gail Pittman Pottery of Madison have made it the state’s leading production pottery and exporter.
Mississippi has a wealth of outdoor sculpture, primarily created in the first half of the twentieth century to commemorate the loss of life in the Civil War. The largest collection of Civil War sculptures can be seen at the Vicksburg National Military Park, where some of the nation’s top sculptors are represented. More mundane Confederate monuments have been erected in the centers of some forty communities as well as in cemeteries wholly or partially devoted to that purpose. Major public pieces in the capital city of Jackson include Soldiers of World War I at the War Memorial Building and Belle Kinney’s elegant bronze memorial, Women of the Confederacy, at the new Capitol. Virtually every college and university campus has bronze or stone sculptures, and many cemeteries contain beautiful artwork, the most impressive of which is Malvina Hoffman’s sculpture, The Patriot, which marks LeRoy Percy’s grave in Greenville.
Stained glass, which became popular in nineteenth-century America through the technology of LaFarge and Tiffany, can be found throughout the state, primarily in religious structures and houses. Ventress Hall at the University of Mississippi features a secular Tiffany window depicting the organization of the University Greys, an infantry company of students who became part of the Confederate Army. Today the most esteemed artist and purveyor of stained glass windows and objets d’art is Andrew Young, who founded Pearl River Studio in Jackson in 1975 and whose work can be seen in homes, churches, and public buildings throughout the state.
Folk art in its purest sense of communal art passed down through generations has been mainly the province of the Choctaw Indians of Philadelphia and of African American quilters, woodcarvers, and textile artists. Visionary, self-taught, and outsider art are contemporary terms for painting and sculpture created by untutored but intuitive artists working outside a communal tradition. Mississippi has a plethora of such expressive artists working with materials ranging from conventional oil and watercolor to tempera paints and crayons, corrugated tin, clay laced with putty, sequins, bottles, and other found objects. The first folk artist to gain national attention was Theora Hamblett of Oxford, who had art training and worked with memory and vision painting. New York’s Museum of Modern Art purchased one of her “vision” paintings in 1954. Other well-known folk artists include Mary T. Smith, Earl Simmons, Luster Willis, Willie Barton, and James “Son” Thomas. The research of Vicksburg native William Ferris first brought folk art and outsider art to the attention of a wide audience in Mississippi. Roland Freeman did important documentation of African American quilting.
Mainstream visual arts, however, have focused on traditional painting and printmaking. Some of the state’s best-known twentieth-century artists include Walter Anderson, Marie Hull, William Hollingsworth, John McCrady, Dusti Bongé, Karl Wolfe, Mildred Wolfe, Caroline Compton, Lawrence Jones, Mary Katherine Loyocano, Malcolm Norwood, William Dunlap, Lynn Green Root, Mary Ann Ross, Ke Francis, Wyatt Waters, Marshall Bouldin III, Sammy Britt, Glennray Tutor, Emmitt Thames, Alan Flattman, George Thurmond, Bebe Wolfe, John Gaddis, Elizabeth Johnson, and Mary Ann Ross. In other media were Ethel Mohamed (needlework); Elizabeth Robinson, Susan Ford, and Andrew Young (glass); Fletcher Cox (wood); Bill Beckwith, Kim Sessums, and Sam Gore (bronze); George Berry and Sulton Rogers (woodcarving); Obie Clark, Emmett Collier, and Springwood Pottery (ceramics); and Elayne Goodman (constructions).
The twentieth century brought national fame to two Mississippi photographers. Before Eudora Welty became a writer, she was an avid photographer. Her images of life in Mississippi during the Depression era earned her a reputation as one of America’s most perceptive photographers. Mississippi’s major contemporary photographer is William Eggleston, called the Father of Color Photography. Eggleston emphasized color relationships and composition almost abstract in its realization. Today, among the outstanding photographers at work in the state are Lyle Bongé, Maude Schuyler Clay, Langdon Clay, Jane Rule Burdine, Kim Rushing, Kay Holloway, Gretchen Haien, Jack Spencer, Robert Hubbard, David Rae Morris, Birney Imes III, and Eyd Kazery.
In twenty-first-century Mississippi, many visual artists make their living as painters, printmakers, ceramists, glassmakers, sculptors, woodcarvers, fabric artists, and furniture makers. Some of the best-known artists working today include Randy Hayes, Charles Carraway, Ellen Langford, Lea Barton, Jere H. Allen, Ron Dale, Duncan Baird, Collier Parker, Richard Kelso, Jason Bouldin, Baxter Knowlton, Ron Lindsey, Joseph Pearson, Martha Ferris, Norma Bordeaux, Sandy McNeal, Anthony Difatta, Cleta Ellington, Kathleen Vernell (ceramics), Billy and Marianne Wynn (glass), and Mary Ott Davidson (bronze).
Mississippi has taken giant steps to provide venues for the visual arts. The Lauren Rogers Museum in Laurel, established in 1923, is the state’s oldest art museum. The Gulf Coast Art Association, started in 1926, provided juried shows that traveled to communities along the coast and to Mobile but had no permanent gallery. The Mississippi Art Association in Jackson obtained its first gallery in 1926 (now the Jackson Municipal Art Gallery) and in 1978 spearheaded the creation of the Mississippi Museum of Art, now in its second home. The Mississippi Museum of Art has, in effect, created a statewide museum network with its Affiliates program, which includes most of Mississippi’s visual arts venues. Among the other venues for visual arts are the Ethel Wright Mohamed Stitchery Museum in Belzoni, the George Ohr Arts and Culture Center in Biloxi, the Smith Robertson Museum in Jackson, and the Cedars in Jackson as well as university museums and commercial art galleries and artists’ studio galleries across the state. The Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi, established in 1973, opened a new facility near the Natchez Trace in Ridgeland in 2007. It houses the organization’s administrative offices, but its main function is to exhibit and market members’ work.
Art festivals also showcase the work of Mississippi visual artists. Some of the most prominent are the annual Chimneyville Crafts Festival in Jackson, sponsored by the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi; the GumTree Festival in Tupelo; the Peter Anderson Memorial Arts, Crafts, and Foods Festival in Ocean Springs; the George Ohr Fall Festival of Arts in Biloxi; and events at the Mississippi Museum of Art, which has a permanent exhibition and programs featuring Mississippi art. The annual Choctaw Indian Fair features art and crafts by the Mississippi Band of Choctaws, who continue their basketry, beadwork, and dress traditions.
Visual artists are honored each year through the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters awards and frequently through the Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts. With the support of the Mississippi Arts Commission and state and local governments as well as an increased interest in promoting visual arts in the school systems, the future is promising for visual arts in Mississippi.
- Patti Carr Black, Art in Mississippi: 1720–1980 (1998)
- Patti Carr Black, The Mississippi Story, ed. Robin C. Dietrick (2007)