ART HUNT: LULA

LULA:  THE FREEDOM TO DREAM & CREATE

For me, the freedom and space of the Mississippi Delta perpetuates and incubates creativity.  

The Mississippi Delta skies seem infinite, canvasing small towns connected mainly by two narrow laned highways:  61 and 49.  As Eudora Welty wrote in Delta Wedding, “And then, as if a hand reached along the green ridge and all of a sudden pulled down ... the hill and every tree in the world and left cotton fields, the Delta began ... The land was perfectly flat and level but it shimmered like the wing of a lighted dragonfly.”  This landscape, so particular it cannot be mistaken or defied, is the visual cornerstone of most photographs I exhibit, curate, and broker.  

 Maude Schuyler Clay, Pink House (near Tunica, Mississippi off Highway 61),      c-print, 11 x 14 inches, signed; private collection

Maude Schuyler Clay, Pink House (near Tunica, Mississippi off Highway 61),      c-print, 11 x 14 inches, signed; private collection

Lula was a place of freedom for me to dream and create as a child—far away from the rigid methodological schedules set by my mother and instrumented by my maid, Ms. Virginia. Set near Moon Lake, a subset of the great Mississippi River, Lula is a small, rural town my first best friend Natalie and I explored mostly on bikes, barefoot, with no respect to rusting stop signs, some hung upside down.  Natalie, who had long, dark hair always tied in ribbons cut angular at the end to prevent fringing, would sit countless and patient hours with me as we wrote and drew stories at the kitchen table.  Her help Mae-Mae would then craft and bind the 8 x 10 sheets of paper with rainbow yarn then place the "books" in the china cabinet as preciously as a piece of 18th century heirloom crystal.  Natalie's dog Bingo, a black lab with grey whiskers, always by our side, licking our toes.  

Lula seemed a million worlds away, although mapped out, it is a stone’s throw from Clarksdale.  While driving  backroads through the Delta, I once asked Natalie’s mother, whom we dubbed “Mama Joan” how far Lulu was from home.  A tiny thing, she had propped me on two Clarksdale phone books in the middle, front seat; Natalie positioned on the front right.  "Well, child, perfect timing for my permanent to set if I am driving nine five miles an hour,” she said with a big jovial smile then slapped the steering wheel.  If one were to go by Johnny boat via the Mississippi River which connects the towns, “a short hour’s troll,” fishermen would claim.  

Mama Joan always drove so fast (often with license revoked due to so many speeding tickets) that the trees blurred and the swamp setting seemed even more neon.  The state trooper would just wave her by and flash his flight lights twice, as a warning and as a hello.  “I send him a Christmas card every year,” she bragged, “with cash.”  

 Kathleen Robbins, Belle Chase Plantation from the Flatland Series, archival pigment print, 30 x 30 inches, signed, private collection 

Kathleen Robbins, Belle Chase Plantation from the Flatland Series, archival pigment print, 30 x 30 inches, signed, private collection 

Lula was the antithesis of my mother’s rigid world, with early morning risings, tasks around the house, and superbly ironed clothes (dresses, socks and underwear inclusive).  There in Lula, our mothers Joan and Jacque were less than concerned about us, and perhaps child services these days would issue warrants.  Natalie and I rose languidly on Saturdays and approached the day with patience and wonder, her father Mr. Michael having already pumped air in our bike tires.  Breakfast was all things chocolate from the town “totsum” (store) owned by Chinese immigrants Mr. and Mrs. Lee.  Mrs. Lee always greeted us with a large smile that seemed disproportionate to her small, delicate frame.  Her beautiful hands recorded our purchases “on account” with exquisitely and carefully applied Chinese Sanskrit.  “Are you drawing broken trees?” I once asked incredulously.  Natalie and I would wave farewell to Mrs. Lee then the field hands breaking for a game of cards under a sign that read, “No Loitering.” 

Freedom in Lula also translated to Natalie’s father’s farm.  When our mothers did not want to fuss with us, particularly on Saturdays, and the help dictated we had to get out of the house, we would jump in the large silver diesel run truck with Mr. Michael and head just outside Lula.  There, he would crank the large-scaled Impala and Cadillac out in the fields, prop us up on pillows or phone books and we would drive for hours as far as the next town over, Hollywood.  (Hollywood later became immortalized for its eponymous restaurant in Marc Cohn's song "Walking in Memphis".)  If we ran out of gas, Mr. Michael would bring us more in a red tin can from the diesel tank more typically used for combines and tractors.  

Perhaps these childhood experiences of freedom and joy among the consistent Delta settings are why I hold the photographic oeuvre by Mississippi-born photographer Kathleen Robbins so dear to my heart and RJG inventory.  For example, “Dad’s Cadillac,” in a square format depicts a white Cadillac parked in a barren cotton field, with an austere white-boarded church in the background.  Raindrops on the windshield and the barren, grey Delta skies indicate winter.  Without sap or nostalgia, Robbins depicts the Flatlands as they were, are, and will forever be.  

 Kathleen Robbins, Belle Chase Plantation from the Flatland Series, archival pigment print, 30 x 30 inches, signed, private collection

Kathleen Robbins, Belle Chase Plantation from the Flatland Series, archival pigment print, 30 x 30 inches, signed, private collection

To this day, when I am feeling creatively limited and have the burning desire to break through, there is nothing more cathartic and enrgizing than a good road trip under the watch and magnitude of a large, empty Mississippi sky—a cotton field in view.  Lula—its indelible and sweet memories—flickering as cinematically as a band of fireflies on a hot summer night.   

By, Rebekah Jacob:  Owner & Founder of the Rebekah Jacob Gallery & Vedado Gallery

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WILLIAM EGGLESTON: THE MISSISSIPPI DELTA, IN COLOR