“The Mighty Mississippi: Heart and Soul of the Delta,” opening Saturday, Dec. 14, in the Clinton Presidential Center, packs a big punch in a little gallery, the perfect experience for folks who love art and music and don’t have a whole lot of time.
That doesn’t mean you can’t spend lots of time in the exhibition, in the Clinton Center’s Garden Room on the ground floor. (You’ll have to pay museum admission to get in.) You could probably spend lots of time listening to Delta blues recorded by “Encyclopedia of Southern Culture” author William Ferris in the 1960s and ’70s in the recreated “Blues Shack.” Or watching a video Ferris made of the late Mississippi folk artist Son Ford Thomas making clay skulls. Or watching a slide show of images from Jimmy Cunningham’s “Delta Music and Film.” Or listening to Mavis Staples and Aretha Franklin singing “Oh Happy Day.”
Lenore Shoults, the former director of the Arts & Science Center in Pine Bluff and a consultant, was selected by the Clinton Center to curate “The Mighty Mississippi” for the 4th “Fusion: Arts + Humanities Arkansas” series for educators and the public. Shoults drew on the collections of ASC, the Arkansas Arts Center, the Historic Arkansas Museum, Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Miss, the Ogden Museum of Southern Art in New Orleans and Louisiana State University in Baton Rouge to present images of “privilege and poverty.” Thus a long horizontal pastel by Norwood Creech of a modern cotton farm is contrasted with historic photos by J.C. Coovert of African-Americans loading boats on the Mississippi with bales of cotton and working in the fields.
Famed Arkansas-born artist Carroll Cloar’s painting of two women in long white dresses holding the American flag backward, which was used on the commemorative poster for the first inauguration of President Clinton, is here, and beside it on a monitor are videos of Clinton playing “Heartbreak Hotel” on the Arsenio Hall Show and President Barack Obama singing “Let’s Stay Together” by Al Green and “Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson. There are pastoral works by Clementine Hunter, New Orleans’ favorite outsider artist; square-dancers by Elsie and Louis Freund; a Jacob Lawrence silkscreen of voters; a sculptural tribute to Ruby Bridges by Kevin Cole; a large Al Allen piece of rustic building materials: tin, wood and paint; and an outstanding triptych by Henri Linton of Pine Bluff, who just won the Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Willie Lomax recordings of Delta musicians will play on an antique radio. Guitars belonging to B.B. King, Muddy Waters and John Lee Hooker will be on exhibit.
Shoults and the Fusion series have produced a fine show; it will remain on view through March 22. A public symposium on the culture of the southern Mississippi will be held Feb. 10, Ferris will give a public talk March 15, when the Educator Institute will begin.