Ars Voces: Kim Sessums – Listening with the Eye

Eudora Welty told me when I was doing her portrait bust and we were talking about where the creative muse comes from that she was just a listener. If you sit in a restaurant or go to a football game or sit in a mall and listen to a conversation, there are stories there, stories all around you. For me, those types of experiences lead to visual art; sometimes it’s portraying a particular individual, or it may be something about that individual that prompts me to carry it to an image.

The subject doesn’t always tell me that it’s a piece of sculpture or a watercolor. It’s more the emotion of it and how I’m going to get it out. But I usually start everything with loose sketches, on a napkin in a restaurant or on the back of a medical chart. Sometimes it’s a study in words; when I did the Civil War sculpture in Vicksburg, I probably wrote forty or fifty pages of text about what I thought that piece was about before I put anything into a form that someone could look at. It informed what the piece eventually became.

I grew up on a dirt road in Scott County and started studying physiology and human anatomy in college, which appealed to the artist inside me. I was already doing art. In 1976, when I was a senior in high school, a buddy of mine was working for a publishing company as a salesman. He had a big tabletop book of paintings and studies by an artist named Andrew Wyeth. It just set me on my ear. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. But it wasn’t how did he do that; my question was why did he do it and what was he trying to tell?

It took me a lifetime to work through the process of reading and studying and looking at the images, trying to figure out what he was doing and mostly learning that he was expressing emotional content through a visible image. Wyeth might have done a painting of a deer hanging by a chain from a limb at Keurner’s house, but really, for him, it was about Keurner fighting in World War I and using a rifle to kill people. Keurner had told him about shooting humans and seeing human blood spilled. So there were these different meanings to paintings that looked like one thing to somebody but something else to the artist.”

That really intrigued me because I’ve got a lot of stuff inside that I want to get out. There are some things that are appropriate to create, and other things that are a little bit hard to create. How do you communicate human loss? How do you communicate loneliness? How do you communicate trauma in childhood? How do you get those things out? Well, for me it came out in things like a portrait of Uncle Bennie sitting in a rocking chair that meant all sorts of personal things to me.

I was really surprised to find out that when other people saw my work, if it was good enough, it took them to somewhere in their own life. It prompted them to think of something completely different than what I was thinking, but they would look at it and were moved by it.

Andrew Bucci: Art, Food, and History

As incredulous as it may sound to us now, in the 1940s the Old Warren County Courthouse in Vicksburg was under threat of destruction from the very city itself.

The building is perched on the highest point in Vicksburg on land given by the family of the city’s founder, Newitt Vick. Construction began in the summer of 1858 on what was then to be a new Court House for Warren County. Contractors were the Weldon Brothers of Rodney, Mississippi, who used 100 highly skilled artisans to make the brick and erect the building, which was completed in 1860 for a cost of $100,000. During the War, the building dominated the city’s skyline and was the target of much Union shelling but suffered only one major hit. It was here on July 4, 1863 that the Stars and Bars were lowered and the Stars and Stripes were raised as General U.S. Grant reviewed his victorious army.

Enjoying an After-Dinner Pipe-Bucci

With the construction of a new Warren County Courthouse in 1939, the Old Courthouse stood practically vacant for years, and there was talk of its demolition. What was possibly planned to take its place on the highest point in the former Gibraltar of the Confederacy goes (perhaps mercifully) unrecorded. But a local activist, Mrs. Eva Whitaker Davis, realized the significance of the building and established the Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society for the purpose of preserving the structure. In 1947 she was elected president of the society and with the help of a few volunteers began cleaning the building and collecting artifacts.

On June 3, 1948 the museum opened its doors, where she continued to work on a volunteer basis for many years. Eva Davis was a local celebrity; she had a daily radio show, “Court Square”, which was a feature of WQBC in Vicksburg for many years. She put out two cookbooks, Court Square Recipes and Mississippi Mixin’s, both likely in the 1950s, though neither book is dated. A grateful public added the name Eva W. Davis Memorial to the Old Courthouse Museum several years before her death in 1974.

Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci
Fishing in the Mississippi-Bucci

Mississippi Mixin’s was illustrated by her fellow townsman and renowned Mississippi artist, Andrew Bucci. Sadly, Bucci’s art is reproduced in black and white, but the impact of the images is still powerful, perhaps even somewhat enhanced. Most of Bucci’s artwork in the book is comprised of small images for chapter headings, doubtless resized from larger works, but two large images are printed full-page (5.5×7). Again, dating these works has so far been unsuccessful and it is not known whether the original artwork still exists.

At least one image is by artist Suzanne Wilder, who was a student in the Mississippi Art Colony at Allison’s Wells, a popular resort in Way, Mississippi that was established in 1889. The Mississippi Art Colony was founded at Allison’s Wells in 1948, and Bucci along with noted Jackson artist Mildred Wolfe taught there until 1963, when the resort was destroyed by fire, then relocated to Utica, Mississippi.

Ars Voces: Euphus Ruth – The Mind’s Eye

This is a scanned copy of an 11×14″ red glass ambrotype I made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in Calhoun County in April of 2012. I had been staying in Bruce at my parent’s and decided to go up to Poplar Springs where my great-grandparents (Starling Monroe and Nancy Ruth) are buried..

When I go somewhere to photograph I sort of have something in mind but it has to feel right or speak to me for me to actually make a wet collodion photograph. I may shoot some snapshots on film or take some documentary shots of things I am recording over time but for the plates it has to be that feeling; that feeling of time and place, of past and present of connection. After walking around the cemetery for a long while, reading the gravestones and making a few snapshots with a hand-held camera I decided I would not set up the wet collodion. I got in the car to back out of the cemetery entrance for some reason instead of driving through. That is when I saw this image. It hit me: there it was the old fence I had noticed and not noticed my entire life of visiting there. I could see my relatives’ gravestones in the background but what grabbed me was the fence, the plants, the foliage: that feeling.

I pulled back in and proceeded to set up the portable darkbox, get the chemicals ready and mount the camera on the tripod. In about 30 minutes I was looking through the camera’s ground glass at this image. In another 15 minutes I was washing the chemicals from the glass and feeling good about the plate. In 2014 the cemetery caretakers in their infinite wisdom of cleaning up have totally removed the fence and cleaned the bank off, forever destroying some of the visual reminders of 50 plus years of visiting this cemetery.

Nothing lasts forever; that is one of the reasons I photograph. This plate is not for sale.

11′ X 14″ red glass ambrotype made at Poplar Springs Cemetery in the Reid Community near Bruce, Ms., (Calhoun County) in April of 2012.

Eudora’s Mosquito

Welty illustrated the cover for this musical piece written by her English teacher at Jackson Junior-Senior High School:

“O Mos-qui-ta, Mos-qui-ta,
you bi-ta my feet-a!”

(“Mosquito”, by Flo Field Hampton, arranged by Harry L. Alford. Crystal Springs, Mississippi: Flo Field Hampton Publishing Co., c. 1926, Special Collections, University of Mississippi.)

Ars Voces: Anthony DiFatta – A Precarious Balance

I call myself a painter; I paint, so I’m a painter. A teacher of mine, William Baggett, said, “Too many students call themselves artists, and they’re not artists; they’re students.” That stuck with me. I’m still learning, so I’m a student too, and I never want to get past that.

At USM, Jim Meade became my mentor. Meade steered us towards the formality of composition. He would talk about the Golden Mean, the Golden Rectangle, the Fibonacci sequence, and how all those tied into aesthetics. We would draw forms and divide them up, explore the geometry of formats just to get us geared into recognizing that this is the way things can be arranged so that your brain knows it’s there, even though it’s not drawn out. It was so boring! I often thought to myself, ‘What am I doing? I came here to become a good artist and to find something that nobody’s ever done before and become famous; that’s why I’m here!’ But it ended up becoming a completely different experience.

The first class I took I failed. The teacher said that I could render things okay, but that I didn’t know anything about drawing. At that point I realized that I either had to dump all my preconceived ideas about art and begin learning, or I’d have to find something else to do, and there was nothing else I wanted to do. I’d just gotten out of the military, I was 24, one of the “old guys” in the class. And these young kids were, well, drawing circles around me. I had to humble myself, tell myself that I had to learn, and if I want to discard it, I’d discard it. So we did gesture drawing, weight drawing, blind contour, taking the works of Renaissance painters, placing tracing paper on top and finding how they lined up their compositions, learning from masters of their art. When we were given more freedom to start making decisions, form was so ingrained it was natural. We didn’t even have to think about it. Then Jim came up with a great phrase, which I attribute to him because I’ve never heard anyone else use it except myself, but he called it cultivated intuition. You cultivate a visual idea so much that it becomes intuitive.

Meade would also tell me not to worry about coming out with my own style. He told me that style is either going to happen or it’s not; it’s going to be you coming out. He would tell me, “Miles Davis didn’t get a trumpet and start writing his own music and improvising; he learned the notes, he played the scales, he did the boring stuff over and over and over. Once he got good at the boring stuff, then he played other people’s music. Then, when he became proficient in other people’s music, people he admired, he took all those things and was able to push it further out than it had ever been pushed before.” That made complete sense to me. I wasn’t in college to make paintings, I wasn’t studying art to make paintings; I was studying to learn how to paint, the paintings would come later.

Visual strength is seeing something that connects deeper than ‘Wow, that’s a pretty horse in that painting.’ Or ‘That painting looks just like a photograph.’ It might be a great painting that looks just like a photograph, or it might be a shitty painting that looks like a photograph; but the fact that it looks like a photograph is irrelevant. It could simply consist of a few squiggly lines in the right place and it would be charged. Dali’s work is cool and interesting and psychological, but it relies so heavily on the subject matter being shocking that it’s a matter of diminishing returns: the more often you see his work it doesn’t grab you like it did the first time. I’m not sure if what he was doing defeated his purpose visually. Van Gogh’s Chair is powerful on both levels. I think good art engages with precariousness in balance between the linear composition and the color; you want unity, but you don’t want so much unity that it’s boring. You have to have some contrast. I guess I’ve allowed for this chaos and order by allowing all the chaos and accidental stuff to happen at first, so I’ve got to put it together. I don’t want to take away that spontaneity, but I want it to eventually look like a flat piece of art with everything fitting within the frame.

Every art professor in the world would probably cringe to hear someone say this, but art is something that you hang on your wall and you look at every day. If people didn’t have art hanging on their walls, then artists wouldn’t exist. I have a painting by Ellen Langford that see every day, and every time I look at it, it re-engages me. And I notice something different about it; either I’ll look at it formally, at the composition, the way she treats the negative space between the trees and around the house, or I’ll look at the expressions on the faces and see the animals in there. There’s a lot going on, but at the same time it’s simple; it’s got this juxtaposition, this push/pull, so what jumps out at me most often is what’s farthest  away. Arnheim talks about this in his book, about flattening the space by making what’s farthest away in the painting come forward.

Even in my non-representational pieces, I’m very much concerned with the negative space and the picture plane. If everything doesn’t look like it belongs there, if everything doesn’t relate to that flat surface, then it doesn’t work. I try to put a sort of weird overlapping depth in there, but it also has to be flattened. So you’re tricking the minds of your viewers with this push/pull going on; it’s a visual element I use to re-engage the viewer. When people say ‘This artist is so talented,’ it’s almost an insult to the hard work it takes to be decent at something. That’s also what’s exciting about it. My work has continued to change and evolve, and I still learn things. They can refer to me as an artist when I’m good.

Anthony DiFatta, self-portrait

Ars Voces: Wyatt Waters – Reflections in Another Eye

I started painting when I was 2 years old; my kindergarten teacher taught me to read and to paint the story. She was really interested in art, and when I started school, she taught me private lessons. She’s probably the reason I started painting. My dad fought in WWII, so his values reflected that: had to work, had to study. I can’t do just a little bit of something; I have to do a lot of it. I can’t do it for an hour and a half a day. If I don’t have a good immersion in it, it just isn’t going to happen. I went to Mississippi College, and we didn’t have aesthetics, but we had a creative writing class. It was so fun to be in that class: theme variations, tension, restraint; the big things. That was really my only aesthetics class, that and going to the truck stop to drink coffee after we’d dropped our dates off. You had to get your dates in by 10 p.m. back then.

I’m a dinosaur; I paint outside. I usually start to paint things based on what I call The Great Out Here, the reflected and atmospheric lights that are in the world. The more I paint, the more I look at something, the more it gets on my retina and creates an after-image when I look away from it. You know how a flash bulb goes off and you can still “see” this thing floating in your vision? Well, it’s that sort of thing. It’s why I work on location, because it happens when I’m working on location, and it doesn’t happen for me in the studio, at least not in the same way. I carry a mirror with me. When I don’t know what to do, I look in the mirror, and the mirror tells me what it looks like to other people. It gives me some objectivity on what I’m seeing. And that probably is the trickiest thing that I use. Painting is considered kind of trick, you know, techniques and all that. I used to be pretty technique-y, but that takes the left-hand side of the brain and puts it on the right-hand side. When you’re writing something, and you come back to it the next day, it’s the same effect; you see how other people see it. When you’re close to it, you can’t tell what to do, so I use a mirror progressively as the painting develops. Like penicillin, I use it when I need it.

It’s also tied in to the idea that the real experience is a lost thing. We’re almost a virtual society now, and in a virtual kind of world, it becomes important for me to make a case for the real experience, or at least to be out there saying that here it is. So that’s what I do, paint on location, and let the real experience of being in front of something affect me, to let that to be my influence. Invariably, though, when you’re working outside, all sorts of things are going to happen and you’re going to get into the zone, that hypnotic place, and you begin painting expressively. I try to let that happen; I don’t know how to make it happen, but when I paint, it seems to happen on its own. I’ve always loved how watercolor doesn’t do what you want it to do. It’s the only medium I can think of that moves while you’re painting; it drips and runs. It’s like dancing; It isn’t what you make it do, it’s taking advantage of what it’s doing in the first place. It’s like riding a horse. The horse knows something about the field; you don’t drive a horse, you listen to the horse.

I went to Paris, and here I was in one of the great centers of the art world, and I got really homesick. I figured out that the things I want to paint are all here. I didn’t think it would be that way, but all the things I want to do are here.

Anthony DiFatta

The Dixie Limited: A Review

With The Dixie Limited, M. Thomas Inge fills a crucial academic niche in work on the Faulkner canon. Arranged chronologically from over the last eight decades in a collection of essays, articles, reviews, letters, and interviews by Faulkner’s contemporaries and their successors.

In his introduction Inge refers to a paper presented by Thomas L. McHaney at the 1979 Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference at the University of Mississippi, “Watching for the Dixie Limited: Faulkner’s Impact upon the Creative Writer,” later published in Fifty Years of Yoknapatawpha (University Press of Mississippi: 1980), edited by Dr. Doreen Fowler and Ann Abadie. McHaney stated that “writers seem to have more in common with one another than with their own native literary establishments.” He continues to say that “the literary establishment, especially in the sense that it constitutes the best-seller and the major book-reviewing media, did not have as much to do with him . . . as did the other creative writers in English. His impact on them was immediate and sustained . . .” Inge’s thesis echoes—and subsequently amplifies—this assessment: “The novel has certainly not been the same since Faulkner, that much seems clear, and the intent here is to document some of the reasons by surveying the exact nature of what Faulkner has meant to his colleagues both in the United States and abroad.”

The title references a famous quote by Flannery O’Connor that first appeared in a paper she read in 1960 at Wesleyan College in Macon, Georgia. The subject of the speech, “Some Aspects of the Grotesque in Fiction,” notes a tendency to the grotesque in the “Southern situation” as well as the “prevalence of good Southern writers.” She then states, “The presence alone of Faulkner in our midst makes a great difference in what the writer can and cannot permit himself to do. Nobody wants his mule and wagon stalled on the same track the Dixie Limited is roaring down.” Inge notes that O’Connor took heed of her own advice, and developed an original vision and distinctive style of spiritual and gothic austerity. Eudora Welty also cultivated her own talents in Faulkner’s looming shadow. “It was like living near a big mountain, something majestic—it made me happy to know it was there, all that work of his life,” she wrote. “But it wasn’t a helping or hindering presence.” She also said—with characteristic modesty—that “[Faulkner] wrote about a much vaster world than anything I ever contemplated in my own work.” She was not intimidated by Faulkner; she learned from him.

We often lose sight of Faulkner’s earlier works, situated as they are behind the towering edifices of his Yoknapatawpha novels, but he attracted the attention of other writers at the beginning of his career. The Fugitive poet and future Agrarian Donald Davidson found Soldiers’ Pay (1926) the product of “an artist in language, a sort of poet turned into prose,” and considered Mosquitoes (1927) grotesque, too heavily influenced by Joyce, yet admirable “for the skill of the performance.” Lillian Hellman read the manuscript of Mosquitoes (for publisher Boni & Liveright) and in an enthusiastic review for the New York Herald Tribune likewise found Faulkner at his worst under the influence of Joyce in overwritten passages, but the novel demonstrated to her a genius “found in the writings of only a few men.”

Following the publication of The Sound and the Fury (1929), As I Lay Dying (1930), Sanctuary (1931), Light in August (1932) and Absalom, Absalom! (1936), nobody with an eye to the landscape of American literature could ignore the emergence of William Faulkner as a dominant if not to say dominating presence. Sherwood Anderson, writing in an essay for The American Mercury in 1930—sixteen years after the editor, H. L. Mencken, published his searing denunciation of the state of southern literature, “The Sahara of the Bozart” in the New York Evening Mail—set the stage for the century’s most celebrated literary rivalry by saying, “The two most notable young writers who have come on in America since the war, it seems to me, are William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway.” This comparison became even more unavoidable as the two barreled down, traveled the same track, or —in a perhaps more apt Hemingwayesque metaphor—faced off in the same ring.

As the century wore on, more and more writers, playwrights, and poets found it contingent upon them to weigh in on Faulkner’s looming stature. His impact in Britain was impressive, though mixed, with Rebecca West and George Orwell, who, as a champion of lucid style, condemning The Hamlet in 1940 as “fatiguing” and “certainly not worth a second reading to understand it.” Somewhat predictably, considering Faulkner’s own indebtedness to Proust in both style and theme, his reception in France was both spectacular and profound. Sartre declared in 1946 that Faulkner had “evoked a revolution” through his innovations in perspective, tonal monologues, and changing the “chronological order of the story” in behalf of “a more subtle order, half logical, half intuitive.” In a letter to Malcolm Cowley, Sartre wrote, “Pour la jeune France, Faulkner c’est un dieu.”

Inge delineates Faulkner’s deep impression on the literature of South America, saying, “By liberating these writers, and many others, from the traditional themes and methods of narration, and paving the way for new techniques in dealing with time and history and modern tragedy, Faulkner helped generate what may be the most vital writing in the world at the century’s end,” even going so far as to say, “It is indeed arguable that [Gabriel García] Márquez’s 1967 masterpiece, Cien años de soledad (One Hundred Years of Solitude), could not have been possible without Faulkner’s fiction to serve as inspiration and master instruction.” Inge also describes Faulkner’s global impact with contributions from writers in South Africa, Japan, and China.

In addition to the two above-mentioned, Dixie Limited includes a generous portion of women writers: Kay Boyle, Dorothy Parker, Elizabeth Spencer, Lee Smith, and others. Excruciatingly appropriate on several levels are selections from black writers: Ralph Ellison, Chester Gaines, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison, and Faulkner’s fellow Mississippian Richard Wright. Faulkner’s impact—and lack thereof—on political and social issues features prominently in Baldwin’s essay, “Faulkner and Desegregation,” and it’s also the theme of perhaps the most endearing essay in the collection, Roark Bradford’s “The Private World of William Faulkner” (1984).

Faulkner’s critics are not ignored. In addition to Orwell, you’ll find disparaging statements—in varying degrees and often at different stages in their own careers—from Ellen Glasgow, Booth Tarkington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Thomas Wolfe, Katherine Ann Porter, John Barth, Truman Capote, John Steinbeck, and Vladimir Nabokov, as well as a generous helping of bile from Hemingway. Inge includes “one of the most damning assessments perhaps ever written about Faulkner” from Irish short story writer Sean O’Faolain, who concluded in a1953 address at Princeton University, that Faulkner demonstrated “More genius than talent.”  You’ll find most of these in Inge’s remarkable introduction, which deserves reading and re-reading for only for those includes these poison pen remarks, but also for and also paeons from the likes of Katherine Anne Porter, Carson McCullers, William Styron, Shelby Foote, and Walker Percy, along with illuminating observations from Richard Ford and John Grisham.

Though The Dixie Limited is an academic work, it is important for the lay scholar as well, particularly those of us who grew up in the same milieu as that of the man many consider the most important writer of the Twentieth Century. Our proximity to Faulkner seems to have bred in us a complacent acceptance of his stature. This book provides us with perspectives for a more balanced appreciation of a literary figure of global stature who just happened to have been born in the wilds of North Mississippi.

 

Armand Coullet: Mississippi Impresario

On Saturday, March 17, 1951, the stage of Jackson’s Civic Auditorium supported a cast of players the likes of which never had nor never since has tread the boards in the capital city. As the very Devil himself, Charles Laughton led Agnes Moorehead, Charles Boyer and Sir Cecil Hardwicke in a surprisingly successful enactment of Shaw’s “Don Juan in Hell”. The review in Sunday’s Clarion-Ledger (“‘Don Juan in Hell’ a Big Hit Here”) states that the Jackson audience was thrilled with “Agnes Moorehead’s amazing transformation from a woman of 77 at death to a lady of 27 in Hell”, adding that “Laughton stated categorically that he is not ‘the beefy bird of comic strip fame.’”  One year later, a Time magazine article stated that the production’s tour had amassed gross profits of over $1M.

The Jackson performance was engaged by a man who recognized not so much a shy hunger in the city as an earnest yearning not only for literature, but for music, for lights, for the engaged delight of people in a body; the laughter, the suspense, the applause: the man, Armand Coullet, provided Mississippi’s capitol with over three decades of dazzling entertainment.

According to Jackson historian Harry Brown, “About a decade after H. L. Mencken declared the South ‘The Sahara of the Bozart’, Armand Coullet arrived on the Jackson scene to do something about it. He quickly established himself as the city’s resident Frenchman, a position he proudly made the most of and which of course carried a certain primacy in cultural affairs. Mr. Coullet was actually from Algiers. but that was certainly close enough to the Riviera for Jackson society of the day. Eventually he became the town’s foremost impresario, bringing notable entertainers and productions not only to Jackson but to other cities in the region. The Coullets—his wife Magnolia was an accomplished vocalist as well as being Chair of Foreign Languages at Millsaps, and his son ‘Tink’ went on to the Broadway stage and beyond—were welcome in the very highest social circles, and Armand was a highly valued addition to any gathering. He naturally had an approving and charming eye for the ladies, but of course all with courtly decorum.”

Camille Saint-Saëns

Armand Coullet was born in 1899 to a well-to-do French family that had relocated to Algeria shortly after France conquered the North African country in the early 19th century. His father was a French civil servant. He attended public schools in Algiers, graduating from the French Government School of Topography. He also graduated from the Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts with the Premier Prix in violin, conducting and orchestration. Advanced study in conducting and orchestration was completed with composer and conductor Camille Saint-Saëns, and and was later assistant to Saint-Saëns as concert master of the North African Symphony Orchestra.

He continued his violin studies in France at the Conservatoire de Paris; when Armand completed his musical training, his father and mother, Eugene and Marguerite, presented him with a fine violin made in 1667 by Francesco Ruggieri, who served as an apprentice in the workshops of Stradivarius. Coullet played first violin in the Opera House in Algiers for two years and directed his orchestra in the city’s leading hotels. He also served three years in a field artillery unit of the French Army during World War I.

Coullet came to the United States in 1924. In an interview fifty years later, he recalled, “The only thing I had was my violin and $27, but I had the world by the tail. When I got off the boat, there was an agent standing there who sked me in French if I played the violin. He gave me a job right there on the spot with the Boston Little Symphony.”

As concert master of the Boston Little Symphony Orchestra, Coullet traveled with the Chautauqua Tours, and for the next several years, he conducted his own orchestra in various New England resorts and spent a year as first violinist in the Roxy Theatre Orchestra in New York City. He first came south with various road shows and located at Palm, Beach, Florida with his own orchestra. He opened and directed the Academy of Music in West Palm Beach, with a faculty of 12 and an enrollment of 140 students. While in Palm Beach, Coullet regularly heard residents’ complaints about the town’s lack of theatrical offerings. Together with a local theater owner and three partners, Coullet contacted New York producer Lee Shubert and convinced him to send a touring company of “George White’s Scandals” to Palm Beach. The show was a hit and Coullet was bitten by the promoting bug. The itch would last the rest of his life

The devastating 1928 Okeechobee hurricane that practically destroyed West Palm Beach ended Coullet’s career there, and he went back to New York. While there, Hazel Chisholm, who was then working for Jackson radio station WJDX, called him to come to the city. When he arrived in the Jackson, he gave his two weeks’ notice his first day at the station. “I saw the town and thought, ‘Oh, my God,” Coullet recalled fifty years later. “It was so primitive. They had streetcars being pulled down Capitol Street by mules. I knew the town had potential, but potential was for the future. I wanted to leave immediately.”

But he was persuaded to stay, crediting his decision to the kindness of his employers. It was 1928, and in those days radio stations provided their own music. Coullet conducted a 14-piece orchestra for WJDX. He originated special instrumental and vocal programs in classical, semi-classical and popular music. He also met a young lady, Magnolia Simpson, from Madison, Mississippi, who was later to become Mrs. Coullet. Magnolia, Mrs. Sarah. B McLean, and Coullet broadcast every Sunday afternoon from the old Century Theatre the highly successful “Rice Dream House” program, sponsored by Rice Furniture.

Fellow musician and ofttimes traveling companion Muller Adkisson remembers, “During the Depression Armand played violin in the WPA orchestra and he said that’s what kept them going, what put food on their table. He had married Magnolia at some point in there. She taught both voice and Latin at Millsaps College. Later she taught German. WJDX’s original studio was in the Lamar Life building in one of the upper stories under the clock tower. Later when the Heidelberg Hotel added the upper six stories to their 12-story building, they added two stories that weren’t accessible by the elevator. WJDX moved there.”

In 1935, Coullet was instrumental in organizing the Jackson Symphony Orchestra and in 1937 he originated the All-Star Series (now a part of the Jackson Music Association). Coullet also found a theatrical vacuum in Jackson similar to the one in West Palm Beach so he again contacted Schubert, who persuaded New York agencies to place Jackson on their lists; it was a natural stop between Memphis and New Orleans, he reasoned with them.

“Because of union rules traveling shows could only travel so many miles a day,” Adkisson said, “so Armand was often able to bargain them down, get shows here, even though Jackson audiences weren’t that big and couldn’t afford the big shows. But often because of the rules somebody would call him up and say, ‘We have to have a show in Jackson, what can you pay us?’ And he got a lot of good shows here that way.”

His first Broadway production in Jackson was “Blossom Time” in 1935. Coullet later said, “(Being an impresario) might sound romantic and fascinating to some people, but it is hard work and full of worry.” After swinging the deal to bring “Blossom Time” he said he got the stage hand bill and it scared him so much he almost backed out.

Many names headlined his shows through the years: Tallulah Bankhead, Helen Hayes, Ethel Barrymore, Nelson Eddy, Jeanette McDonald, Bette Davis, Grace Moore, the Don Cossack Chorus, Bob Hope, Marion Anderson, Eva Le Gallienne, Joseph Szgeti, Fritz Kreisler, Richard Crooks, Albert Spalding, San Carlo Opra Company, NBC Opera Company, James Melton, Gladys Swarthout, Signumd Romberg, Nadine Conner and Guy Lombardo. His encounters with famous performers were brief, and he said, “you’d have to see them more than I do to feel that you know them.”

For over three decades, Armand Collet Associates sponsored shows in 15 cities and 12 states and across the South from El Paso to Birmingham, but beginning in the mid-1980s, Coullet limited himself to the presentation of Broadway theatre in Jackson and only a few other Southern cities. Included have been: “Hello, Dolly!”, “Fiddler on the Roof”, “Man of La Mancha”, “Zorba”, “My Fair Lady” (which ran for seven weeks), “Mame”, “Cabaret”, “1776”,  “Your Own Thing”, “I Do, I Do”, “George M” and a sneak appearance by Mantovani and his Orchestra. Coullet said he considered bringing the Beatles to Memphis in 1966 the crowning glory of his career, but his role in the Fab Four’s appearance at the Mid-South Coliseum can’t be substantiated.

“The big ones carry me,” Coullet once said, referring to smash hits such as “My Fair Lady” and “Hello, Dolly,” but he had his share of bombs. His biggest bust as a promoter was “Cabaret,” here. Coullet considered Grace Moore and Liberace his most glamorous stars. Liberace sold out twice.

“Armand always said how surprising it was to think of the large number of elderly women who came to Liberace’s performances,” Adkisson said. “It was a matter of sex appeal, or what they thought was sex appeal, since of course he was gay. Anyway, Liberace would invite the women in the audience to come backstage after the performances, and he’d wink and mug, and say, ‘Oh, what is your name, darling?’ and the woman would say like ‘Mary’ or something and Liberace would go, ‘Oh, my dear Mary!’ or something. Armand said the first time Liberace appeared in a city he might make a little money for his appearance, might even lose a little, but Liberace would come back two years later and the promoter would make a big profit. That was Liberace’s modus operandi, that he could tour successfully all over the country because he felt a responsibility to the local promoter. Armand had Liberace here three times with sold-out houses. The little old ladies would like up and Liberace would take an hour or more to schmooze with them.”

Even after decades living in Mississippi, Coullet retained his French accent. “It’s the one thing I’m stuck with and can’t lose,” he once said. “I’m not trying to lose it. It’s my natural way of speaking. You must realize that when I first came to this country, the only words of English I knew were ‘yes’ and ‘no’. I had to learn English by myself. I would read the newspapers and, when I found a word I didn’t know, I would write it on a little piece of paper and tack it on the wall. I’d see the word every day until I learned it, then I’d take it down. By that time, there would be 10 or more new ones.” Muller Adkisson recalls that when Coullet promoted shows in New Orleans and south Louisiana, he would give the promotional commercial in English, and then he would give it in French. “Of course people flocked to the shows because they loved hearing the promotions in their everyday speech. ”

In his last published interview, in May, 1977, the 79-year old Coullet, preparing for an upcoming season which was to include the touring company of the Broadway production of Welty’s “The Robber Bridegroom” as well as “My Fair Lady” and “Same Time Next Year”, said, “In this business you can’t slow down. If you slow down, you’re dead. It took me 40 years to build up the following I have. There’s no retirement for an impresario. I’ll be retired when they put me in a pine box. Sure, I’ve slowed down a little with age, but not so you can tell. You can’t kill a good Frenchman.”

Coullet died New Year’s Eve, 1983.

Coullet (r) with Nelson Eddy

Sambo Mockbee: Legacy, Community, and the Empowerment of Myth

When the American Institute of Architects awarded Samuel (Sambo) Mockbee the AIA Gold Medal in 2003, he joined an elite company of architects (including Thomas Jefferson) who received the award posthumously. “The AIA does not like to confer a gold medal on people who are no longer living,” says architect Tom Howorth. “It’s an award for those who have the potential to continue contributing to the field of architecture. The fact that it was conferred on Sambo confirms he is continuing to shape the architectural landscape.”

The Cook House, near Oxford, Mississippi (photo by Undine Proh)

Sambo Mockbee died in 2001. Hailed as a visionary with designs such as the Barton House in Madison, the Cook House in Oxford and the Magee Church of Christ to name a very few, Mockbee set an even higher benchmark when he and D.K. Ruth co-founded the Rural Studio at Auburn University. There in the heart of Alabama’s Black Belt, the studio continues to be a place where students learn the social responsibilities of architecture by creating homes and buildings with a spirit for poor communities.

“Sambo’s mission was to see about people,” Jackie Mockbee says. Jackie married Sambo in 1970. “We had two blind dates, we really did,” Jackie says. “The first was at a homecoming for Sambo when he was at Fort Benning. I’m sure he didn’t remember me; I just remember having fun watching everyone there. Two years later, my cousin called me and said they were going to a party and said there’s this guy that we all know who needs a date. They started telling me who he was, and. I said, ‘Wait a minute; I’ve had a date with him before.’ They asked me if I had fun, and I told them that we really didn’t get to know one another. That night, Sambo asked me if I went to MSCW, if I was a Baptist and if I’d marry him. I said, ‘Yes, yes and no.’ That was in August. We were married that December.” The Mockbees had four children, but Jackie remembers that at their home in Canton, “We had kids everywhere.” Jackie says. “They ran all around the neighborhood, but always ended up in our yard. Sambo was like the Pied Piper; he always had something going on, he was always the coach, and when he hit that door, the kids came running.”

“He was a gregarious, affable, lovable teddy-bear of a guy,” says Malcolm White, a long-time friend. “Once you became his friend, you were his friend for life. He loved collecting eclectic personalities. He was an engaging conversationalist and could sit up literally all night and carry on about Van Gogh or the Civil War or American history or Western civilization or anything else you might be interested in.”

Magee Church of Christ (photo by L. David Fox)“He believed in legacy, he believed in creating things that would last,” Malcolm says. “He wrote a check out of an account that didn’t have a nickel in it for the first float that I ever purchased, the very same trailer that the Sweet Potato Queens use today.”

“In the early 80s, Sambo had an office on North Street on a stretch of property that’s now parking lots,” Malcolm says. “On Friday afternoons, Sambo would gather people and would serve Heinekens, which he loved, and sausages or peanuts, whatever he had on hand. Sambo began to explain to us that he had this big idea that he was closing in on, this notion that was going to involve all of us,” Malcolm says. “He wanted to empower rural people of little means in the same way that wealthy people could empower him to design beautiful, elaborate offices. He wanted to incorporate not just architecture and design, but philanthropy and entertainment and recreation, all the components that build community. Basically what he was talking about became the Rural Studio.”

Former partner Coleman Coker first met Mockbee in Corinth. “I think in 1980 or 1981, and we hit it off, just sitting around and talking. Neither one of us had much work at the time,” Coleman says. “He was making a lot of collages, I was painting, and that’s where we found a commonality in translating the world as we saw it through our constructions and paintings into architectural compositions. We never were successful going out and marketing ourselves, particularly to corporate clients,” Coleman says. “Most of the work we were proudest of involved small residences for people looking for something different, looking for something that had a relationship to place, to locale. Most of those buildings were reflections of the clients, an extension of their personalities, and as we got more built, more people would see them and give us a call.”

“We didn’t sit around talking about the work of other architects; we’d talk about literature—Welty and Faulkner—looking for roots, connections to place, and we found that so much more directly through Southern writers,” Coleman says. “There’s no long tradition of Southern architecture outside of the classical, which comes from Europe, and we weren’t looking for that. We were trying to build on what was just beneath the surface here in the Deep South, whether it was black culture or the culture of the landed gentry, whatever mythology could be unearthed.” Mythology, Coleman admits, is “difficult to talk about.”

“Sambo, through the paintings that he did, was building a whole mythological world,” Coleman says. “Characters would repeat themselves throughout the paintings, and they started telling a narrative. It’s easier to render a narrative through literature, even through painting, than it is through architecture, yet you strive to expound those roots and reprocess them through design. Our concern with social responsibility in professional ethics fell in trying to reach out to a group that was estranged otherwise,” Coleman says. “We were trying to design in context with this locale, the locale in a social sense, when the abject poverty in much of Mississippi was virtually ignored by the great majority of designers and the great majority of people who could afford architects.”

“Eutaw: Children of Eutaw Pose Before their Ancient Cabin” (Mural, photo by L. David Fox)

In 1993, Mockbee and D.K. Ruth founded the Rural Studio. “Prior to the Rural Studio there were a few notable construction-focused, hands-on learning opportunities in architecture schools in the country, notably at Yale,” says Tom Howorth, also a former partner. “But there was nothing on the scale, level of commitment and pedagogical continuity that runs through the Rural Studio. Now there are those sorts of programs across the country. So much of what we do is picked from catalogues that the work of putting buildings together becomes a matter of picking the systems that exist and putting them together in a way that you solve the client’s problem,” Tom says. “That wasn’t what Sambo was interested in; he was interested in creating from scratch. He challenged students to think originally.”

Daughter Carol Mockbee recalls that “Papa (Sambo) first started talking about the Subrosa Pantheon in 1999. In the summer of 2001, they started digging in the Alabama clay. D.K.’s mother had died, as well as two young professors at Auburn, and that was probably when they came to the decision to build a memorial space for the Rural Studio, a place to remember and meditate and reflect. So they started digging out the site for the Pantheon in Newbern. By August, they’d poured the first slab. Papa got really sick that fall and passed away in December.”

“The project was suspended for two years,” Carol says. “After I graduated from Auburn in interior design I applied to the Rural Studio as an outreach student to finish the Pantheon. I knew the idea, knew my father’s mythology behind it, and knew that he loved the project. Had I known then what I know now, I don’t think I would have touched it. But, luckily, I was ignorant, young and energetic. For the first few months, I worked on other projects. I had to find my own way, find my role and boundaries. Everyone was skeptical; one engineer at Auburn said, ‘You know, if you were my daughter, I would not let you do this.’ I left that meeting thinking that I am Sambo Mockbee’s daughter and he wouldn’t want me to be doing anything else. I completed it on August 27, 2005. I was so preoccupied with my last pour three days before that I had no idea Katrina was coming.”

“Every June 21, you can go into the Pantheon and stand at different points, align yourself with stars and planets, then sit on a bench next to someone, lean away from them, whisper into a pipe on your side, and the secret travels back to them.”

Samuel Mockbee (photo courtesy AIA)

Last Train Through Vardaman

This is a recording of Raymond Bailey performing “The Last Train through Vardaman” that Barbara Yancy made sometime in 1975-76. I lost the first part of Raymond’s narrative because the tape was so old and broke at both ends during recording, but I did hear it on the first playback. Raymond begins with saying, “This is ‘The Last Train through Vardaman.’ I remember we were loading the train that day, and my brother said, ‘Pile it high, boys, because this is the last train through Vardaman!’ So, we loaded her up (and away she went!)” I have him doing a couple of other songs, including ‘Nellie Gray’ and a version of ‘Casey Jones’ that I’ve never heard. The locomotive is the OH&CC Number 9 at Okolona. Listen to Raymond here.