Biography Bronzes Drawings-Pastels Mixed-Media Contact

In the summer of 2000, I sat down for my morning Cornflakes and picked up the Clarion Ledger. When I stumbled upon a hidden column in the bowels of Section B, my jaws stopped. With cereal packed away in my cheek and my heart racing I read the article title, MONUMENT AT PARK TO HONOR BLACK SOLDIERS. I pulled up to the heart pine counter top and leaned off the edge of my bar stool. What was this? There in my Brookhaven, Mississippi, kitchen I slowly began to crunch and read on as I felt the rush of creative energy that periodically overcomes me.
That morning I discovered that the Mississippi Department of Archives and History at the direction of the Mississippi State Legislature was granting the city of Vicksburg the money to place a monument in the Vicksburg National Military Park. The unique idea for the memorial was conceived thirteen years earlier by a lifelong resident of the Mississippi River city. From what I could tell, the man was going to finally see his dream become a reality and I wanted to be part of it despite the fact that I did not know him or his committee or anyone in the Department of Archives and History. And those were not my only barriers. My experience with sculpture had not thus far included monumental work nor did I have any knowledge of the intricate workings of public monument commissions or competitions. Nevertheless, I decided that morning I would follow my heart and my instincts; desire and passion often overcome seemingly insurmountable obstacles, or so I had found.
So I cleaned the cereal bowl, brushed my teeth, and drove to my medical office, all the while considering what my next move should be. Although I had no map to chart my way and was unsure of the right path or even the first step, I was sure of one thing. I would move forward. Now, who was this Vicksburg man of dreams who had worked diligently to see such a monument erected to honor his forefathers who had contributed to the Civil War?
Robert Walker was born along the outskirts of the Vicksburg Military Park. As a child, he and his buddies would roam and play among the hills that made up the very same landscape where soldiers from Lincoln’s army fought and bled and died along with the Confederate troops struggling to hold that crucial check point for passage up and down the Mississippi River. A young Robert and his buddies had found and sold war artifacts for coins and as he aged and learned more of the institution of chattel slavery, he discovered that the history of what had taken place there in his neighborhood involved the bondage and ownership of his ancestors; human beings owning other human beings as property. He responded by ignoring the Park, the history of the Civil War, and the place that his hometown had played in that important crossroads of our nation’s history.
However, the boy grew up and fulfilled his father’s dream of having his son pursue higher education. Robert Walker was unable to escape his calling. He could not overcome a drive to learn more of the history of the black people of his community and country. In doing so, he came to realize that the Civil War and the Vicksburg Campaign became essential to a clearer understanding and he pursued that history with purpose. In route to his Masters Degree in History from the University of Mississippi, he never forgot his roots. Better yet, he reveled in the dignity that it and his family had instilled into him.
In 1987, the history professor began a grass roots effort to raise funds to erect a figurative monument in Vicksburg to memorialize his black forefathers, their valiant contributions to the Civil War and more importantly, their efforts to obtain liberty in a state and city in which they had been enslaved. Ironically, it was the same city that generations later would elect Robert Walker as its first black mayor.
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I don’t really know how to explain why a white forty-five year old gynecologist in Brookhaven, Mississippi, would be drawn to this project, or, better yet, to the broader category of the African American subject in American art. I’m not sure I fully understand it myself or when my vision for such works was conceived and nourished. But I can remember as a small town Mississippi teenager stumbling upon photographs of the works of an American painter and being moved by that portion of Andrew Wyeth’s oeuvre that dealt with and communicated his relationship with his black friends and neighbors in Chadd’s Ford, Pennsylvania. It goes without saying that it wasn’t cool to be drawn to a watercolor sketch of an old fat black handyman standing by his chicken coop, so surely this was not some adolescent effort to blend in. The “in” teenage crowd found no coolness in the mystery of this Wyeth fella splashing paint over pencil lines onto a piece of paper and communicating real life and heart and soul. . . and all that through the images of black people. No, in this endeavor, I was on my own.
Nevertheless, I was drawn to Andrew Wyeth’s subjects. Adam Johnson, Tom Clark and Willard Snowden may have been poor by the world’s standards. They dressed in whatever they could find and there was nothing particularly noteworthy about their lives except that they were survivors, finding joy in the basics of the life in which they found themselves. And they were Andy Wyeth’s friends unaffected by the painter’s infamous position in 20th Century American art. N.C. Wyeth, the patriarch of the Wyeth clan and the great American illustrator, often told his precocious youngest son that the inhabitants of Little Africa, as he called the black neighborhood within that Pennsylvania farming community, were unworthy subjects for serious art. Unphased by the opinion of his overbearing father, the younger Wyeth followed his heart and what he discovered in his work was a subtle tribute to Little Africa and its occupants; no fancy poses, no regal attire, no architectural landmarks, no premeditated scripts or setups. He painted and drew them as they were and that was enough. That realization knocked me on my skinny country butt.