Works Had Once Adorned Governor's Mansion | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Works Had Once Adorned Governor's Mansion

JACKSON, Miss. (AP) — The whirr of a band saw and the whiff of sawdust signal action at Fletcher Cox's studio, where the master wood craftsman is at work, for once, reviving rather than creating.

In the Governor's Mansion Art Restoration Project, Cox is revitalizing works by himself and fellow Mississippi artists that once adorned the mansion's private office and living spaces, with the goal of getting them back in the public eye.

Installed during Gov. Ray Mabus' administration (1988-92) but removed mostly during Gov. Kirk Fordice's and subsequent administrations, the art had been languishing in warehouses for about 20 years.

Beyond their beauty and intrigue, the works tell a story of the state that goes beyond native woods, motifs and patterns.

"It is a snapshot in time of the condition of the national craft revival in Mississippi," Cox said, noting 1960s and '70s trends that saw a fresh generation take up traditional crafts such as quilting, metal-smithing and woodworking.

A portrait of where craft in Mississippi was then, "it seems worth preserving just for the historical aspect," Cox said. Also, "it was a gift to the people of Mississippi. And to have it be rejected was really kind of painful.

"So the thing that's exciting is to actually be reviving it and bringing it back into the light of day and into the public realm, to be appreciated again."

In Cox's shop, spring sunshine makes the glass art from Pearl River Glass Studio glow a brilliant blue and the paler oak tree motif and clear Greek key design (a nod to the Greek revival mansion) stand out.

Cox is preparing the project's third installation, which will see the glass pieces in a new light — 14 feet off the ground and about 36 1/2 feet long. It'll be mounted against the clerestory of the Guild Hall of the Mississippi Craft Center, catching outdoor rays by day and shooting a blue glow back outside by night.

"It's going to make an impression," he said.

Originally, the fine craft works were architectural adornments in a renovation of the mansion's private quarters, commissioned by a foundation and funded by privately raised dollars. The intention was to demonstrate to visiting trade delegations the quality of workmanship and imagination Mississippi craftsmen could offer, Cox said.

A key sidewalk exchange between Malcolm White, then heading the Mississippi Arts Commission, and Hank Holmes, director of Archives and History, planted the seed for the revival, Cox said. The works were transferred to the arts agency, and a plan was afoot.

Cox had been the original crew chief, rounding up craftsmen to make proposals, do the work and install it. Now he's directing its next life by re-purposing the works for public display.

The restoration project is funded by Mississippi Arts Commission grants to Community Foundation of Greater Jackson, which set up a fund that also allowed for private fundraising.

"It's just a journey, really, that all of these pieces have been on, from the Governor's Mansion and then slowly back into the public eye," said Jane Alexander, president and CEO of the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson.

That journey can open a conversation about what happens to such works and commissions, including plans for what happens to them later, she said.

"This idea of conveyance is a good part of this story, because I think that's the lesson we can take from it — to think through how things are given to the state" and intentions for their disposition, she said.

The first of the installations already are on view.

A former elliptical ceiling coffer by basket weaver Diane Dixon, of 1/4-inch strips of aluminum, brass and copper woven in the Choctaw lightning bolt pattern, was framed simply in hickory, a wood sacred to the Choctaws; it's on display in the Mississippi Craft Center's entryway.

Glass screens by Pearl River Glass that were once in the second floor elevator lobby in the mansion's family portion are now at the Mississippi Museum of Art. There, they are column capitals at the entrance to "The Mississippi Story" exhibition. Labels explain the origin of the project, significance of the design motifs and how it got to its current site.

Pearl River Glass Studio owner Andy Young recalled craftsmen's initial thrill and honor in having their work in the mansion.

"We thought that it was going to be a way to be a part of history. Well now, what Fletcher's doing is actually fulfilling that promise ... taking the work that's left and putting it into a context now where it'll have some permanence.

"Society has a tendency to destroy the past. We don't have much left of it," Young said. "And so, taking the time to do this is a very worthwhile endeavor, I think."

Cox expects there will ultimately be eight installations.

Next up for renovation are Cox's own four columns in native Mississippi cherry and ash; Mississippi's counties are carved into the paler ash wood. Their destination has yet to be determined.

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