Written by Julian Rankin
The ingredients of a place are the people who call it home. They are often mismatched, thrown together like scraps and dry goods from a barren cupboard or picked haphazardly from the aisles of a small town grocer, cooked down into something worth coming back for. Jackson is no different. It has its share of the saccharine sweet, the condensed-milk-variety of 1970s Ole Miss Tri-Delts, like my mother, quick to converse with any old body, departing their company with hugs and kisses whether stranger or no. The farm to table is represented well here; I smell hay sometimes in the middle of downtown – maybe a fanciful nostalgia for country living or maybe because the fair has just pulled out. And Jackson has a good bit of hambone in it. The places here have their unique character, too, and none more so than The Wolfe Studio compound just across the way from Lemuria. The city and the suburbs have grown up around it, but when you cross that imaginary boundary and pull up the gravel road for the first time, as I did not long after I moved here, it looks and feels not unlike it did when Mildred and Karl Wolfe began it and when William Hollingsworth painted it.
And when the ingredients of a place are preserved, they are jarred most often in the forms of art and literature. Mildred Wolfe, for example, lives on not only in the generations of Wolfe’s that carry forth her artistic legacy, but in the work she left behind, like the Four Freedoms murals that now hang here at the Mississippi Museum of Art, a recent donation by the family who commissioned them.
If one had done some of that hungry-hungry-hippos-grab-this-grab-that shopping in B.M. Stevens Company store in Richton, Mississippi back in the late 1950s, the murals might have caught the eye then, too, where they hung just above the produce section. They were commissioned by the owner, Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Sr. The giant Masonite boards were provided to Mrs. Wolfe as canvasses from the Stevens’ timber company, and they hung in the store until the 1980s. The inspiration for their creation came from President Roosevelt 1941 message to Congress where he articulated the four “essential human freedoms” – freedom of speech and expression, of worship, from want, from fear. That was eleven months before the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
“We sell hardware, silks, satins, fertilizer, and feed. Used to sell coffins but we gave that up,” said Stevens in the article “Richton Grocer Buys Mrs. Wolfe’s Murals” written by Jane Reid-Petty for The State Times in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1959.
Wolfe described each panel of the Four Freedoms for Jane Reid-Petty’s article: “I painted a newsboy, because freedom of speech is something forever young, forever being fought for and renewed,” she said about the first panel. In Freedom of Religion, praying figures are rendered as in a stained glass window. A frail, elderly woman with hands folded in Freedom from Want is “touched with the thin sunlight of afternoon.” In the finished Freedom from Fear panel, Wolfe used a composition of a woman protecting two children as she looks with terror at an airplane dropping a bomb. The artist said, “I think the fear of a mother for her children must be a climax to all fears, possibly more powerful than any other.”
On Tuesday at the Museum, as part of the Unburied Treasures: Cover to Cover humanities series, descendants of both the artist and the donors come together to talk about the past and about the artworks that continue to keep their stories intertwined. The perhaps unlikely relationship formed between artist and collector all those years ago still has resonance. As part of the Museum’s permanent collection, the works of art now have a lasting place.
Tuesday, October 21, 2014
Mississippi Museum of Art, Trustmark Grand Hall
5:30 PM cash bar; 6 PM program
This humanities series is comprised one-hour programs at the Mississippi Museum of Art in downtown Jackson. This month’s featured artwork is Mildred Wolfe’s Four Freedoms, 1959. oil on Masonite. Gift of Daisy McLaurin Stevens Thoms, Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Jr., Henry Nicholson Stevens, William Forrest Stevens. The featured book is Mildred Nungester Wolfe, edited by Elizabeth Wolfe (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2005). Commissioned by Arlean and Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Sr. of Richton, Mississippi, the Four Freedoms by Mildred Nungester Wolfe was inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” speech to Congress on January 6, 1941. Elizabeth Wolfe, daughter of Mildred Nungester Wolfe and curator of her mother’s artistic legacy, speaks of her memories of the artist. David Thoms, grandson of Arlean and Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Sr. talks about his grandparents’ commissioning of the paintings. Arlean Mecklin Stevens, whose grandparents commissioned the Four Freedoms and who is an English instructor at Pearl River Community College, reads two texts that are telling of freedom as described by Roosevelt, now, then, and as depicted in the life of Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Sr. Ensemble Polonaise discusses and performs a selection of classical music appropriate to the artworks. Funding is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities through the Mississippi Humanities Council. Cost: Free to the public