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LEGENDS | Culture & Arts from the Cradle of American Music

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Painted Melody

with Sanders McNeal

 

By Julian Rankin

 

The elephants are on the levee, the locals would say, when the pickers and night owls gathered clandestinely on the levee in Greenville, Mississippi, burning fires in trash barrels and playing the bottleneck blues. This was the early 1950s, and an 11-year-old Sanders McNeal – the celebrated Mississippi artist better known as Sandy – snuck up through the shadows on the outskirts of the flames under the big dark Delta sky to bathe in the seductive waves of the music. The light pitter-pattered on the faces of the musicians. She most remembered their eyes, shut tight, trance-like. They swayed in the night, possessed by spirits. “It’d almost break your heart,” Sandy said, to witness such raw reportage, a music birthed from the very earthen plane on which they stood. Growing up with the authenticity of the Delta blues – pioneered by some who were only semi-literate or not at all – Sandy became enchanted by universal languages that transcended words: melody, composition, improvisatory brushstroke, oil and pigment. 

 

“The blues singer became a spokesman for the black community,” writes folklorist William Ferris in his influential 1978 book, “Blues From the Delta.” From the beginning, these musicians gave voice to the marginalized and downtrodden. Though Sandy was inherently removed from the roots of this black tradition, her exposure to it taught her about the artist’s role as observer and recorder of Southern life. She connected with the songs’ aspirational qualities that made revelry out of troubled Mississippi circumstance. Sandy’s subject matter would become the people, places and roughage of her home state. She focused her academic art training on this fertile environment, lifting humble Mississippi in classical reverence. Sandy loves landscapes, and she likens her Mississippi inspiration to walking through a field of wildflowers in untended bloom. “You don’t know which smell to take in first, and which flower to look at, and which insect and which bird. You’re bombarded by all these incredible sounds, smells, tastes, sights.” 

 

As a developing art form, the blues was largely self-taught and passed down. Blues musicians acquired the craft through any accessible means and mined their own experiences for stories: lost love, locomotives, barroom romances, toil in the field. The late Mississippi blues musician Son Thomas adapted one tune from a poem he recalled from his first-grade reader about cowboys and the West and buffalos and rumbling trains. The lyrics stuck with him and evolved through time. Similarly, Sandy McNeal found early art inspiration in the illustrated pages of household volumes. “I defaced a lot of my mother’s books,” says Sandy, “by ripping out what I wanted and asking, ‘Why does this affect me?’ I knew all my life I wanted to be a painter.” She was thought dumb as a child because she didn’t like to read. She preferred pictures, that was all. Through her mother’s vivid evening poetry recitations, which gave her brilliant nightmares, she came to appreciate the written word as well. Words, like music, could paint you a picture, too. From that early age, Sandy devoted her life to art so that she might revisit that night on the levee, a pure distillation of Mississippi expression. 

 

“The best thing for an artist is to not have any money and the best thing for an artist is to have a home,” Sandy says. The closer one gets to the bottom, to the ground floor of the story, the purer the story becomes. One of Sandy’s early works depicts church-goers walking home from the sanctuary. They pass a mimosa tree. Cotton fields stretch for miles into the distance. The austere vista is accented by an intruding propane tank.

 

It’s well known that the blues came from hardship and absence, folks orphaned of economic mobility, social standing and self-worth, as well as simpler things, like food on the table, swaddling for the babe. That age-old pursuit of the love of a good woman, echoed through the genre from its earliest beginnings, is that desperate human need to find solace on earth – however temporary – from loitering sorrow. Sandy McNeal’s proverbial lover was Mississippi; in every sketch and painting, she courted it, tried to communicate it, in portraits of musicians, quick sketches of men on trial, and evocative landscapes of mysterious rural coordinates. Like those who huddled together on porch fronts to hear the bluesman play, Sandy searched for feelings of home. 

Son Thomas first played the blues on a one-strand guitar on the wall of his house, made of a broom wire, nails and a rock between the wall and wire. Slide the rock up, he’d get a low tone. For a high tone, he’d slide it down. And with a bottle for a slide, and intuition in his hands, he had all he needed to make music. In painting, Sandy explains, once you master the art of altering temperature through degrees of warm and cool pigment, you unlock the simple medium’s own exponential possibilities. Using four colors, Sandy made 27 colors; from further combinations, 49; then 100; and so on. These simple building blocks, in blues and painting and in all art forms, leave space for the artist’s own individual genius. Or, as Sandy puts it, even though you’ve heard a thousand covers, “have you ever heard anybody do ‘The Thrill is Gone’ like B.B. King?” 

 

“Even though blues music was played and sung before 1900,” writes William Ferris, it likely developed as a genre in the aftermath of the Civil War when black musicians were free to move and travel. Urban centers provided a broader audience and created opportunity for artists, many of whom had honed their crafts on Delta plantations or Hill Country porches far beyond the reach of city lights. Jackson, Mississippi, has been an important crossroads for the blues and artistic exchange.  Everyone came through Jackson, including Sandy McNeal. Like a troubadour with a guitar on her back, Sandy brought her passion with her to the city. She collaborated and taught and learned alongside painters and sculptors and photographers and playwrights from all over the state and region. She could have moved on to a bigger metropolis – and she did travel to New York and Paris and Rome – but she chose to put her roots in Jackson. 

 

Sandy graduated from Mississippi University for Women (MUW) in Columbus in 1971 before moving to the Jackson area. She opened her first downtown studio and gallery in 1976 – after stints working at University of Mississippi Medical Center (she couldn’t stand the blood) and as a bank teller (not her brand of creativity) – in a building across from the Old Capitol that she describes as next to the old Lamps Galore, Tucker Feed and Seed, and Indian Cycle. The building had a huge skylight, 20 feet up, and Sandy could walk out onto its edge and look over the city. One evening in the late ‘70s, she and the other artists at the gallery threw a party. They asked Son Thomas to play the blues. 

 

The partygoers were antsy. They didn’t think Thomas would show. He was late. They’d put out a big bag of peanuts and tapped the keg. Around ten o’clock, he finally walked in, alone. He sat down in a chair, deftly tuned his guitar and played until two in the morning like a man possessed. Sandy watched from afar in deference, like she’d done that night on the levee. When he was done, he left with little more than a farewell nod. “He was a man of few words,” Sandy says. “He spoke through his music. He went for it. And it was magic. You don’t have many of those moments in your life.”

In 1986, Sandy moved her studio into the space above Hal and Mal’s, the landmark Jackson music venue and restaurant. From there, she could hear the evening concerts. The sounds carried up from the main stage and through the walls of the old warehouse as she mixed spirits and oils on her palette. In this way, she attended hundreds of concerts and heard musicians of all varieties. During that period, Hal and Mal’s hosted the likes of Mac McAnally, Emmylou Harris, Steve Forbert, The Neville Brothers, Warren Zevon, and Blues Traveler. Sandy rubbed shoulders and collaborated with the building’s other creative tenants, like painter Richard Kelso, playwright and actor John Maxwell and author Willie Morris, who took up residence at the bar for daily viewings of the O.J. Simpson trial. Donald Sutherland, who was in town shooting “A Time to Kill,” sat for a portrait session. This creative cross-pollination fed Sandy. In 1994, three decades after the crime, Sandy sketched the trial of Byron De La Beckwith, convicted for killing the Civil Rights leader Medgar Evers.  It was a reminder of the dark and persistent history that that made Mississippi art and blues so heavy, powerful and important.  

 

Sandy would remain at Hal and Mal’s until 1996 when she moved again to another former Jackson industrial space, the old Dickies building on President Street where they’d manufactured the clothing line. Needles from that work were buried in the floor boards. Over the years, they worked themselves back up through the floor like resurfacing splinters. The space was bathed in light, perfect for a painter. It set the stage for one of her most accomplished periods to date, where she finally found what she was looking for. 

 

“The Rehearsal,” commissioned by arts patron Melody Maxey to commemorate Jackson’s Jubilee Jam, is one of the artist’s iconic paintings. It is a fitting title. In many ways, Sandy had been rehearsing for this 1997 painting her entire life. It was a perfect joining of art and music, but also the outgrowth of all the expectant context and memory that came before. The painting is of Russell Thomas, Mississippi jazz saxophonist, who played alongside B.B. King, Little Milton and Dizzie Gillespie, and who has taught generations of artists in the music department at Jackson State University. He is depicted mid-note against the backdrop of weathered downtown Jackson concrete. “I wanted him to be as if he were painted on the wall,” the artist says, “and the wall was painted on him.” 

 

Thomas is frozen in time, but if you stare long enough and listen with the right ears, he’ll burst to life and pick up the music where he last left off. “To me, it’s one of the most soul-lifting things that can happen is for you to walk up on a musician on the street,” says Sandy. “Be it in the subway at New York or down here on a cotton-field road or the sidewalk of Jackson. You walk up and all the sudden, you’re part of art. You’re part of what art can do for a community. For a people. For a nation. And it takes the bad away for a little bit.”

 

Russell Thomas played for Sandy during their sessions, and the live performance became as much a part of the finished painting as the paint itself. It was as though the sax piped out smoke rings of ethereal emotion that settled on and embedded in the canvas. When she was done, Sandy stood back and looked at the painting. She had captured the melody that connects art to music, literature to math, ourselves to one another. 

 

“Even if you’ve never been in a place that some of the downtrodden musicians were, you become one with their music,” reflects Sandy, thinking back to the levee, where she stood on the hillside as a young Mississippian and saw, in the light of the flames, her own future.

 

“Where else could I have been born where I’d be more blessed with the music around me than what I’ve heard in the Delta. It’s followed me everywhere. It comes out differently in artists [than it does in musicians], but it has the same root. It’s that spirit. That soul. It’s what binds us all together in our differences.”

 

This year, after making and supporting Mississippi art for more than 35 years from within the city limits of Jackson, Sandy McNeal is relocating her studio and gallery to small town Flora, 20 miles away. She’s moving out, but not moving on. The city means too much to her to ever really leave. Her transition is only an evolution. Like an itinerant cartographer, Sandy will always search for new lands. She’s staked her claim in a storefront that was, until recently, an H & R Block, along Flora’s main drag – which as far as main drags go, is about as long and wide as the stump of a hand-rolled cigarette. Her work already has a home here, like on the walls of The Flora Butcher, where the pigs in her painting, “Sow and Son,” root around without the least bit of irony. Her art has always showed us glimpses of how the sausage is made, inviting us to embrace all the discarded and wonderful and troublesome things that compose Mississippi identity: dirt and mud and rust; twist-your-ankle cracks in the sidewalk where they shouldn’t be; ragged, crumbling brick facades in the urban scene, pleasing in their decay; the blank places and empty lots and lost memory where those brick facades stood before folks knocked them down and paved them over for development; fields – endless fields – of cotton or soybeans or nothing but chaff that beg to be plowed and picked and plodded; the people, murderers and musicians and movie stars alike, as close to home as if they were our neighbors (and sometimes they have been). Something that will never leave her, in addition to her love of this place, is the song. When Sandy readies herself for a night of painting, she loads up a handful of her thousand CDs. Then she hits play. Tinsley Ellis and the Heartfixers, then B.B. King, Sarah Vaughan, and Eddie Cotton’s “Live at the Alamo Theatre,” for a start. She’ll only stop painting when the music stops. And maybe not even then.

 

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