You’ve seen Rod Moorhead’s work all over Oxford. It’s big, it’s bronze, it’s distinctive. You can’t miss it.
The giant cellist and violinist seeming to make music in front of the Gertrude Ford Center. A young James Meredith striding into history between the Lyceum and the Ole Miss library. The kindly robed figure with hands cupped together in supplication behind the Paris-Taylor Chapel.
Now, Moorhead’s sculpture is spreading across the South. He has crucifixes and Stations of the Cross in several Catholic churches in North Mississippi. His angel with open arms sits at the chapel at Mississippi State University in Starkville. In front of MSU’s library sits his bronze of a medieval scholar studying a text. An imposing 10-foot rough limestone carving of The Storytellers — William Faulkner, Eudora Welty and Richard Wright – sits before the Pinnacle building at Capitol and Lamar in downtown Jackson.
And now, he has put the finishing touches to another bronze, a faintly disturbing depiction of a solemn black winged angel holding a black baby. It was installed in November 2010 at Whitney Plantation not far from New Orleans as a memorial to the 2,200 infants who died in slavery on plantations in St. John the Baptist Parish.
Added to that in June was his Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Visual Arts Award for 2012.
All of this from a man whose first love is simple pottery, who majored in math and English and minored in philosophy, who owned an art gallery on the Square, who wanted to be a writer.
For decades, pottery was his life. At his mother’s urging, he took a pottery course at Ole Miss and was quickly seduced by the clay. It consumed his shaggy-haired youth as he worked in a constant frenzy, throwing everything from cute piggy banks to mugs, bowls, pitchers, simple little pots. He spent summers in Colorado, making a living by selling pottery from a craft shop and spent his winters back home in Oxford, where he tried to become an artist of the written word.
He took courses under the late author Willie Morris, who encouraged him and tried to help him sell his work, but to no avail.
One day, Moorhead confronted his teacher.
“I said, look Willie, I need to decide whether to write or try this art thing that I think I can be pretty good at. What do you think I should do? In classic Willie form, he said he didn’t know, which I took as sort of an answer for me.”
He stuck with the pottery.
Then one day he and his then wife Millie leased a vacant place on the Square that became Southside Gallery. It was owned at the time by former Congressman Jamie Whitten and managed by Will Hickman. Lawyers had wanted to lease it, but Hickman thought there were too many lawyers on the Square. He gave it to the Moorheads. With its paintings and photographs from the likes of Sally Mann, Bill Eggleston and Eudora Welty, its success helped establish a following for art in a town that had long been dominated by writers.
Mann had developed a sort of national notoriety for the nude photos of her children, an art form some claimed was pornography. One day, Moorhead was standing in the gallery when a policeman walked in and said he was on “official business.” There had been a complaint. He strolled through the gallery, looked at the photos and, much to Moorhead’s relief, found nothing offensive.
“It would have been interesting to see what would have happened,” Moorhead said. “Because I would not have taken them down.”
His career began to change again in 1992, when a friend, Jimbo Adams, approached him about sculpting a bronze statue behind the Ole Miss chapel as a memorial to his mother. It became the kindly robed figure, perhaps a monk, perhaps a priest, perhaps even a Buddhist, with hands cupped together in what some see as a prayerful gesture.
Students passing by the seven-foot figure would often pause to study it, as if searching for some hidden truth. In time, they began to pay homage with little gifts left in the cup created by its hands – flowers, oranges, apples. Even small amounts of change.
The university was worried that the eventual image might turn out too overtly religious. That didn’t stop Moorhead from asking an Irish priest, Mike O’Brien, the chaplain at Mississippi State, to pose for the bronze. They had become friends when another sculptor hired to fashion a crucifix for Father O’Brien’s parish church died before he could finish the job. Before his death, the sculptor had worried the priest by proposing to portray Jesus on the cross, naked. As the good father told Moorhead, “God has a way of taking care of these things.” Then he added, “Just kidding.”
The Ford Center sculpture, 17 feet high, severely taxed both Moorhead and the Memphis foundry he uses.
“Its sheer size was the problem,” he said. “The building was already designed and the 12 x 12 pedestal was sitting there. If the sculpture was to be successful, it had to in some sense help make the building work. I thought the way to do that was to create motion, to help soften the building.”
Using his math skills – “Art is all about patterns and math is all about patterns” – Moorhead put together 3-D models on his computer. He went through 15 ideas only to see each one rejected. Robert Khayat, the chancellor at the time, suggested he do a violinist and a cellist.
“My first reaction was sheer panic. How do you do music in sculpture?”
He finally decided that he would have to make music with the rhythms of the two bronze figures.
“A friend told me about Brahm’s Double Concerto and I got a version and listened to it again and again and again. I watched DVDs of violinists and cellists. Their whole bodies were shown making the music, even though it was coming out of their fingers.”
And today, the faces and the bodies of the cellist and violinist appear to be totally devoted to the making of their music.
If you look closely at the cellist, you may find his face resembles Khayat as he looked when he played football for the Ole Miss Rebels. Yes, he posed for it, but told Moorhead not to make it a recreation of his face. The resemblance slipped in anyway.
That didn’t keep Khayat, who had also loved the robed figure by the chapel, from calling Moorhead with another offer.
“He said, ‘I need you to do a portrait of James Meredith for me. How much do you charge? He wasn’t very tall.’ ”
The result, of course, was the monument of Meredith walking toward an arched entryway to break the color barrier at Ole Miss.
He was given only five days to complete a mock-up of the Meredith sculpture. The architect handed him a representation of the arch and its dimensions. Moorhead saw problems with putting a life-size Meredith under the arch. He would fill it up too much.
“It took me about 20 seconds to suggest that Meredith not be under the arch, but marching toward it,” he said. It also fit with Meredith’s “march against fear” and with the South’s history of civil rights marches.
“When I looked at a picture of Meredith next to a picture of the sculpture, I felt really good. I knew I got it right.”
If the Ford Center project was big, so was his limestone sculpture of The Storytellers.
He worked with 12 tons of limestone – big, square blocks. It took four blocks to make each of the three storytellers. “I never saw them all together until we installed it,” he said.
There they were on a dreary, rainy day in Jackson, moving the blocks into place with a giant crane, his wife Younok mixing epoxy and Moorhead slapping it on the pieces to seal them together.
“I worked at it seven hours a day, seven days a week for six months and barely made the deadline,” he said. “But these writers emerging from these blocks of stone are really the closest I’ve come to doing public art and doing what I want at the same time. I discovered I really like carving. It comes pretty naturally.”
The Storytellers shows a triumvirate of great Mississippi writers, “but it was about Richard Wright for me,” he said. “Native Son is a killer story, a real Greek tragedy. You have to do Faulkner and in Jackson you have to do Welty, but I was doing Richard Wright.”
Moorhead’s black angel came about because someone snapped a photo of another of his angels being carried by a crane to its resting place at Mississippi State. The photo made its way into the New Orleans Times-Picayune, where a lawyer named John Cummings saw it.
He hunted Moorhead down and eventually hired him for a project on the Whitney Plantation on the west bank of the Mississippi River not far from New Orleans. It is an old French plantation from the late 1790s, before Louisiana belonged to the United States.
There, Cummings found that St. John the Baptist Parish priests had kept records of births and deaths of the babies of slaves from Senegal who worked area plantations. He found records of 2,200 slave children who had died there before their second birthday. He felt he had to tell their story.
Now he is restoring the plantation, but Moorhead says Cummings plans to let tourists spent only about five minutes in the big house, then spend the rest of their tour in the slave quarters out back, where the angel holding the baby is placed as part of a memorial.
The angel is bare breasted. “I had intended to clothe it, but realized it was better as it was,” Moorhead said. “It makes that angel very maternal, not sexual at all.”
Like his other bronzes, the angel makes you tarry. You want to touch it, examine again and again the expression on her face, search for subtleties, for buried messages.
Which is exactly what Rod Moorhead wants.
“You want to create something they can come back and look at day after day after day and still keep looking because there is something about it you don’t get. It’s a sort of mystery,” he said.
Sort of like why Moorhead, even while splashing his big, public art where thousands of people can see it, still longs for those little clay pots.
“I really enjoy making them,” he said. “I don’t have to please anyone but myself.”
But not for a living.
Once at the Crosstie Art Festival in Cleveland, Moorhead was breaking down his booth and chatting with an old potter who had been doing this for decades. He had an instant epiphany, “You know,” he said to a friend, “I don’t want to be doing this when I am 50.”
It is, he points out, “a hard way to make a living.” Even if you have enough talent to create good pottery, you have to be a good enough businessman to sell it.
“So I do both public art and small clay pieces that I just want to do. And if they sell, fine.”
Public art, he says, “is not the romantic 20th Century notion of expressing yourself. No one cares. You have a responsibility to do what the buyer wants, but don’t pander.”
That independent streak can be seen at his home and studio, hidden deep in the woods off Old Sardis Road, down a narrow, winding asphalt driveway. There, the black angel sat in front of his home and a separate studio. Throughout the woods and the house, there are pieces of his art – people, angels, paintings.
A wood stove heats the rustic home, built in the 1970s. And yes, he built it himself with some help from his father, former School of Education Dean Sylvester Moorhead.
“I love carpentry,” he says.
It is any wonder?