Thursday, October 22, 2020

Bonnie Brown: Q&A with Local Artist William N. Beckwith

William N. Beckwith.

If you have ever “sat” down with William Faulkner on the Oxford Square, or “touched” Elvis’ hand in Tupelo, you know of sculptor/artist Bill Beckwith’s immense talent.  If you’ve journeyed to Taylor, Mississippi, you have had a glimpse into the artist colony where Beckwith is the centerpiece of a village of talented artists.     

Brown:  I know you are a Delta boy and hail from Greenville.   What is special about this Delta town where you grew up?  

Beckwith:  Greenville was the literary hub of the Delta, writers were abundant, published writers. From William Alexander Percy to Ellen Douglas to Shelby Foote and the Hodding Carter family. The history was rich. William Faulkner and the sculptor Malvina Hoffman visited there.  Most, if not all of the writers and leaders were more progressive, liberal, fair and open-minded than many other people in the state. I think this encouraged critical thinking.  I was able to meet and interact with many of these writers as a teenager.  It was only later that I fully appreciated them.  Some of my high school friends are now published writers, as is my brother, David.

Greenville also had Lake Ferguson, pre-casino, which was where we as a family spent every weekend. The Yacht Club and The Marina were like second homes. An African-American man named Willie worked at The Yacht Club and taught a whole lot of us kids how to bream fish, etc. and looked out for us as his own. We thought of him as a pal, hero, and a surrogate father.  In high school, we hit the water on Friday afternoon with fishing gear, .22 rifles and sleeping bags in our fishing boats. We ate what we could shoot or catch: fish, birds, rabbits, snakes, you name it, cooked on open fires. We stayed out all weekend. We never ran lights at night on our boats, always hid in the willow trees from the Safety Patrol and never got caught. We explored sunken ships, caught every kind of fish and turtle, snake, coon, armadillo, possum, explored Archer Island, and lived like Indians. We explored Number Nine Canal from one end to the other. Later in Boy Scout Troop 44, we expanded our boundaries and sophistication in camping, but basically it remained primitive.  Most, if not all, of Troop 44 achieved Eagle Scout. 

Brown:  Please talk about your childhood.  What’s your earliest memory?

Beckwith:  My earliest memory would probably be of jug-fishing for catfish on the Mississippi River at night in an old wooden shrimp boat my father restored. It had a cuddy cabin below deck in the bow, and when my brother and I would get wet and cold, we would get up in there, wrapped in blankets, and eat sardines out of the can with crackers. Being on the river at night, with a questionable Scott-Atwater outboard, involved a certain amount of trust, good luck, danger and more magic than any kid could imagine. 

One other very early memory would be crawling around under the big cast-iron printing presses and linotype machines at The Delta Democrat-Times newspaper where my father worked. To this day I have a love of large cast-iron machines and tools.

Brown:  Talk about your parents and siblings.   

Beckwith:  My father started working at the Delta Democrat Times (DDT) when his father died in the Depression. He was not yet a teenager. He learned to cast and set lead linotype and did so until World War II and again after the war. He carried a scar in one eye from a molten lead casting accident at the DDT when he was training someone who made a mistake. He was quite a craftsman. My mom taught school before we were born, then stayed at home with us until we got in the first grade.  She then went to work as a secretary at a commodities brokerage, J. G. Lusk Company.  She trained herself to become a broker, and she and my father later bought the company and ran it until they retired.  Mother was possibly the only female broker at the time and was listed in Who’s Who of American Women, or something like that.  

My brother, David, received an M.B.A. from Ole Miss. He became the first white teacher to cross the color barrier and agree to teach for an all-black Mississippi school district which had been formally classified by the 5th United States Circuit Court as “in defiance” and then persisted in helping guide it through a federally mandated, court-supervised, total immediate desegregation. This experience resulted in David’s first foray as a published author, the nonfiction book, “A New Day In The Delta”.  He worked his way up in the business world to Senior Vice President at Morgan Stanley, from which he retired to the Florida Keys and continues to write books.

Brown:  Where did you go to school? 

Beckwith:  My schooling consisted of Greenville Public Schools, and then a B.F.A. and M.F.A. in sculpture from Ole Miss. My high school class of 1970 was the first class to graduate integrated and in the words of our beloved English teacher, Nell Thomas, “You were the first class to graduate integrated; and you did it with class!” We had no trouble. The sky did not fall.

Brown:  What was your high school experience like?  Were you a good student?  What was your favorite subject?  

Beckwith:  It is no secret what the late sixties were like. The Vietnam War was raging. The Civil Rights War was raging, The Drug War was declared, voting rights, civil rights, women’s rights, the British Invasion, you name it, cultures were clashing, families were split like firewood.  I was 1A and could be called up at any time. The war made no sense to me. Later during the lottery, my birthday drew a good number and I never was drafted. The sixties created a lot of conflicts and a lot of big questions. I witnessed a lot of messed up, angry boys-turned-men come back with drug and alcohol problems, basically dangerous and dysfunctional emotional wrecks. There was not a lot of help for them. I am still friends with some scarred vets. I got kicked out of school my senior year because my hair touched my ears and collar, both of which were forbidden. Graduation night, I threw my diploma on the bed and hitchhiked to California, shaved head and all, with $50.00 in my pocket; ate out of trash cans; sold underground newspapers on Fisherman’s Wharf; slept in the desert; traveled with a Manson girl . . . I never did find all that “free love” the magazines talked about but got mugged three times in San Francisco.  The hate was free.  So, I turned around and hitched to Florida where I got a job in a Canada Dry warehouse and worked as a roadie at night with a rock and roll band out of Greenville, “The Shoestring”. We had a blast. 

My favorite subject in high school was Art under the incredible painter, Bob Tompkins. My 2-D education was second to none.

Brown:  Did you play sports?  What is your favorite sport?

Beckwith:  In the ninth grade I got exposed to motorcycles. My father would not let me own one because they were “too dangerous.” He was probably right at the time. But later when I left home at 18, I started buying, riding, touring and restoring them. I have probably owned 80 or so. I used to love telling Dad on the phone, ‘Well I bought another bike today. I now have 10, or 20, or whatever!” He wouldn’t reply!

Brown:  What was your first job?  

Beckwith:  My first job was in a plaster shop after school. I would cast plaster plaques and paint the Lord’s Prayer on them.  I got fired for being 14 instead of 15. 

Brown:  At what age did you know you were meant to be an artist/sculptor? 

Beckwith:  I knew what I wanted to do the first time I walked into Leon Koury’s studio at age 14 and saw what he could do with clay and plaster and bronze. There was no going back. 

Brown:  I’ve read that Leon Koury influenced your career path?  Please tell us about him.  

Beckwith:  Leon Koury was a genius. I believe Will Percy said that in one of his books. Ben Wasson, also from Greenville, was William Faulkner’s first literary agent at Ole Miss and Leon Koury’s first agent, getting Leon the Faulkner bust commission at Ole Miss in 1962. Landing the Faulkner monument commission in 1997 was especially meaningful for me. There was a diverse group of teenagers who gathered on weekends in Leon’s studio. We were sorry excuses for well-meaning, invincible revolutionaries- teenage anger, rebellion, angst, and determined confusion, all that stuff. Leon became our little guru, guiding us safely through those dangerous years with skill, humor and understanding. He had been “enlightened” by Will Percy, and tried to do the same for us. He pushed good literature and classical music into our anarchist, rock and roll, wine-soaked minds. On any given night, Shelby Foote, Hodding Carter, Ben Wasson, Ellen Douglas, Bern Keating or members of the Percy family might stop by the studio to pay homage to Leon. We were exposed to great minds.  Being right across the street from the famous, Doe’s Eat Place, it was a short walk to get a dozen of the best hot tamales in the world. Leon left a very successful career in New York to return to Greenville to care for his dying father. His career was basically over when he crossed into Mississippi in his new Rambler station wagon, despite the fact that the art powers knew what he could do. So, he started teaching at the Greenville Art Association and adopted a flock of bohemian, ragtag, gypsy rebels growing up fast in the turbulent, dangerous sixties. All of Leon’s kids turned out to be successful adults: published poets, novelists, musicians, visual artists, professors, designers, professionals, Ph.D.’s, etc. We all owe him. Later I took over all his mold making, bronze casting, studio repairs, and helped him when cancer got him down. I hope I paid him back a little.

Brown:  Tell us how/when your Ole Miss “story” began?   Who hired you?  How long did you work at Ole Miss?

Beckwith:  My first job at Ole Miss as a freshman was working at night in the dog kennels for the Psychology Department. I ate government Commodities and lived with my brother in a basement on Highway 7 North, riding a bicycle (from Mr. R.S. Truss’s junkyard) to class. During the summers I worked on towboats on the river, as an electrician’s helper, counted trees, you name it. Later I got a graduate assistantship in sculpture and bought a motorcycle. Charles Gross was my major professor in undergrad and grad school. He taught me much. He taught me how to build a bronze foundry with very little money. He had learned this in Mexico, where they had nothing. When he started having health problems, I started teaching his sculpture classes in Bryant Hall and eventually took over the program. I think I also taught figure drawing, perspective drawing, was foundry foreman and probably taught some other stuff. Margaret Gorove was Chair and the department was one big, very productive family for a long time. To go from being homeless to having that much acceptance and support was unimaginable. You only get that once. Department politics were not a problem in the ’70s. It was a team effort.

I left teaching to work full time in the studio/foundry for six years or so. While I was gone, Jan Murray had become Chair and the sculpture program went through several heads and had gone pretty far down. Jan asked me to come back and try to build the program back up. It was a challenge.

I was running the foundry and sculpture program when the move was made to Meek Hall. That was no easy task, but we made it. Later I enjoyed working under Nancy Wicker and Ginny Chavis. I think I taught 18 years in total. 

Brown:  What did you know about Ole Miss before you accepted a position here?

Beckwith:  Ole Miss had the only MFA program in the state at the time. They had a bronze foundry. The Art Department in the seventies was hot. Dunlap and several other successful studio artists had just graduated and paved the way. The department turned out a long list of very talented studio MFA’s. We were attracting good students from all over the state and beyond. The foundation programs were strong. The foundry never cooled off. We were getting very professional, complicated, creative castings under the direction of Charles Gross. Things just got better and better.  It was family, functional or dysfunctional in the eye of the beholder, but very creative and productive!

Brown:  Through the years, you’ve taught and influenced many students.  Are there any who stand out, who have also made their mark as you did?

Beckwith:  Right now, Earl Dismuke is tearing it up! Keegan Love is teaching in Starkville. Charlie Buckley is hotter than a firecracker! James Price is painting in Seattle. Lauren Nail is working in Water Valley. Michael Satterfield has his own successful studio. Kirina Knight is teaching kids in China online from Phoenix. Vivian Neil is painting and owns the wonderful Treehouse Gallery. I know there are many more success stories my old mind is forgetting.

Brown:  Technology has had an effect on so many things.  How has it affected your artistry?

Beckwith:  I did an enlargement one time at a foundry in West Palm Beach, Florida with a sculptor/craftsman/foundryman named “Jesus”, (I always wanted to put on my resume that I had worked with Jesus), and anyway Jesus had come from Spain and used the traditional technique of “pointing up” from a maquette to the enlargement.  after 3-D scanning and five-axis routing of foam was developed and computers took over enlarging with mathematical precision (at $1,000.00 per foot and more). Both processes work fine, but I am glad to have been able to use both methods. 

Brown:  What attracted you to Taylor, Mississippi which is now known as an “artists’ town?”  

Beckwith:  We were able to buy a dilapidated, 1897 Store building in downtown Taylor in 1982, at a price we could afford, (even though our first loan from First National Bank in Oxford was at 16.5%). Taylor also had natural gas and no codes to prevent a studio/ foundry. 

Brown:  What part did you play in establishing the colony of artists in this small, rural town?

Beckwith:  We opened a gallery in the front room of the house in ’82. We handled Bill Dunlap, Jere and Joe Ann Allen, and several successful artist friends’ work. There was not a lot of collectors in Oxford at the time, but we had a great time with it. One day Jackie and I were painting a ceiling on ladders in the gallery when our friend, Barry Hannah (the other genius), walked in behind us. He spoke and we said, “Hey what’s up?” or something like that.  Barry replied, “I brought Jimmy Buffett by to meet you.” We finally turned around and there stood Buffett. We all walked over to Taylor Grocery and Mary Katherine fixed us some food. Taylor and Oxford were wide open in those days. Less crowded, less mercenary, just friendlier, you never had to watch your back. One never knew what a day might bring. Willie Morris would show up at Taylor Grocery at closing time with William Styron or somebody, and Mary Katherine would run them off, “My feet hurt, Willie! Go somewhere else!”

Jane Rule Burdine, Obie Clark, Keith Stewart, James Daigle, Elizabeth Dollarhide, Jim Dees, Lucius Lamar, Robert Malone, Nicole Rottler Harlow, Jared Spears, Scott Rorie, Van Nicholas, Laurie Stirratt, JoJo Hermann, Jimbo Mathus, Jennifer Pierce Mathis, Daniel Perea (a.k.a. El Bebop Kid), Kate Coulehan, Charlie Mars, Christine Schultz and many more are some of the artists who either have lived here or still live here. Contrary to popular opinion, no bohemian orgies ever took place, or at least I wasn’t invited!

Brown:  Your art has been exhibited across the country and you have won numerous awards and honors.  Do you have a favorite piece?  If so, why is it your favorite?

Beckwith:  The “Piomingo” monument in Fair Park in Tupelo was a very important piece for me.  I worked closely with Kirk Perry of the Chickasaw Nation in Ada, Oklahoma.  Mr. Perry guided me through my research for the piece by suggesting books on Chickasaw history and answering my many questions. I probably read a dozen or so books on their history and culture and came to greatly admire the Nation, the people and the culture.  It was transformative.  The Chickasaw motto is, “The unconquered and the unconquerable.” They are a very honorable, honest, ethical, brave and important people.

The B.B. King Monument in Indianola was also important. Mr. King was a true gentleman.

Chief Piomingo, historic Chickasaw leader – commissioned in 2005

William Beckwith (left) pictured with B. B. King in front of the sculptor’s statue of the native son

Brown:  Of your many awards, which one means the most and why?  

Beckwith:  The lifetime achievement award from the E.E. Bass Cultural Center in Greenville was maybe the most meaningful. My mother was still alive and got to share the honor, even though she had to witness my terrible public speaking attempt. 

Brown:  Which sculpture has been the most challenging for you?  

Beckwith:  The next piece? 

The New Capitol scale models, architectural renderings in bronze for the Jackson Airport were a nightmare technically.  But they came outright.  Every large piece has “monumental” challenges. There is a lot of trial and error and basically no one to talk to or ask questions.  At one time, I offered to do a monument commission in Meek Hall so the students could watch and learn if the Chair at the time would provide studio space. On every large piece, a master mold-maker comes from the Atlanta foundry and pulls the mold, usually at least a three-day process. It would have been a unique learning experience. The Chair responded by taking away the small, shared studio space I was currently using. “And so it goes.”

Brown:  How do you begin a project?  How much research goes into the conception?

Beckwith:  Every piece begins with many hours of reading and research. Sometimes historical, sometimes technical, usually both. Then in the words of John Prine, you look for “something I can hang on to.” One thing I learned from Bill Dunlap, the Pope, is to always go back through the work of the masters.  Regular sacrifices to the Muses are important also.

Bill Beckwith pictured with young son Clay at the unveiling of the William Faulkner sculpture on the Oxford Square

Brown:  Your son Clay has followed in your footsteps as an artist with his handcrafted knives.  Tell us about him.  

Beckwith:  Clay has become a very skilled custom knifemaker. He has a wonderful technical mind, tons of passion and drive, a great sense of design and a desire to succeed. His knives are selling in Germany, Denmark, France, and all over.  He named his business Slag Studios. We are extremely proud of him. He did this on his own. I have provided space and some equipment. Usually, when I come to the shop in the mornings, he is leaving from working solo all night. He has not yet mastered the important broom and dust-pan tools yet, but I have faith!

Brown:  How did you and your wife Jackie meet?  Please talk about her.   In what ways, if any, has she influenced your work?

Beckwith:  Jackie and I met about 1866, right after the Civil War.  We dated through high school and got married in 1872, while both going to school at Ole Miss.  She started out serving coffee in the old Student Union Grill.  She moved to the Center for the Study of Southern Culture and worked with great people like Bill Ferris and Ann Abadie. Jackie also had the honor of working as a secretary for then the Dean of Liberal Arts, Dale Abadie.  She taught at NMRC and retired as a Special Ed teacher with the Lafayette County School District. She has always helped in the studio/foundry as needed, modeled, help clean up after commissions, doctored, clerical help, or whatever was called for. She has been an important grounding balance. At least the marriage never got boring!

Jackie and Bill Beckwith

Brown:  What three words best describe you?

Beckwith:  Sculptor, survivor, pigheaded dissident.

Brown:  In your opinion, what attributes/traits predict success in life?

Beckwith: Tenacity, creativity, courage, vigilance, determination, common sense, ethics, morality, integrity, imagination, faith, thriftiness, poverty and honesty . . . just be a good Scout (and hire a good attorney)!

Brown:  What do you do to relax?

Beckwith:  Restore American-made, vintage tools and equipment. Ride motorcycles. Read. Draw. Listen to good music. Tractor therapy.

Brown:  Do you have a favorite quote?  What is it and why is it your favorite?

Beckwith:  “There’s a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious—makes you so sick at heart—that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part. And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop. And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all.”
― Mario Savio, 12/02/64

Brown:  What’s your favorite way to waste time?

Beckwith:  Sleeping.

Brown:  What is the most useful thing you own?  

Beckwith:  Multitool and pickup truck.

Brown:  To quote Katherine Meadowcroft, Cultural activist and writer, “What one leaves behind is the quality of one’s life, the summation of the choices and actions one makes in this life, our spiritual and moral values.”  What is your legacy?

Beckwith:  The public monuments will probably be remembered more than the smaller gallery work, mainly for the scale and subject matter. 

My civic contributions to the village of Taylor such as being a founding member and active firefighter for 30 years in the Taylor 9 Volunteer Fire Department, Fire Chief, building Taylor two new fire stations with no debt, Lafayette County Fireboard member, Secretary/Treasurer for many years, member of the Taylor Board of Aldermen, Taylor Planning Commission, President of Taylor Water Board during $2.13 million expansion, bringing safe, reliable water to people in the county who had none, building the Taylor Post Office with all lease proceeds going to Taylor 9 Volunteer Fire Department, active member Taylor United Methodist Church for many years, Assistant Scout Master with Troop 144 for twelve years taking a great group of young men from Tiger Cubs to Eagle Scouts, Board Member of Holding Hand Resale Shop in Oxford. 

I fought some power-drunk bullies for real justice and truth for the students, and my son, for the last 10 years. I feel I was instrumental in helping save some lives, educations, futures and families. I would not mind being remembered for that.

And never forget, “He who dies with the most tools, wins!”


Bonnie Brown is a retired staff member of the University of Mississippi. She most recently served as Mentoring Coordinator for the Ole Miss Women’s Council for Philanthropy. For questions or comments, email her at bbrown@olemiss.edu.