LaRita Smith’s Mississippi Meaning
Friday, October 16, 2015
Dozens of Mississippi artists, past and present, are represented in this year’s Art by Choice: Home Edition exhibition. The fundraiser benefits both the artists and the Museum. Work can be viewed now through the evening of October 29, when the public is invited to the main event sale and live auction.
LaRita Smith is 91 years young. Her paintings, like the one now hanging at the Museum in the Art by Choice: Home Edition exhibition, are vessels for stories far older than she. Home on the Railroad; Home on the River in 1871 (2015), a striking canvas tapestry, was sketched out and begun forty years ago. Smith’s reference material was an old 5x7 photograph, but the painterly sprawl soon eclipsed that narrow frame. As far as the artist is concerned, it isn’t – and likely will never be – finished. The history of her personal South that it contains is too stacked and intersecting to be fully contained. In the artwork, these stories are revealed, one begetting the next, the offspring of the past perpetually piercing the present in aesthetic free verse.
I put in a lot of details. She points.
My grandfather’s sugar cane mill. It was never in this original plantation.
I brought the creek in from the river. I added that.
There’s an egg basket. From my aunt’s Smith County chickens.
I have to change that mule’s ears. I don’t know what’s wrong with him.
The bottom portion of the painting is pre-history, before the plantation was hewn from the bayou.
This is before 1871. She gestures.
All those big live oaks. They were there before they could build a plantation.
This was a big swamp.
Uncle Vernon was a cattle man.
And he brought these from out west. And that’s a heifer.
And this is the brother of this other man.
He was home from the war and they took him in because he had a broken leg.
This is an inlet from the Mississippi river there.
Some children have climbed atop the big house, central to the composition, peering over.
This one never happened, but I wanted it to happen. Because I always wanted to get up there.
I tried to do a bird dog, and I didn’t have a bird dog nearby. So I did it from memory.
I managed to get a pig in there.
This is a baby wildcat.
And he’s wandered off from the river and he’s going to get him a chicken.
“Have you ever looked a racoon’s hands?” she asks abruptly. “It’s a treat. They have human hands. They actually have human hands! No hair.”
“It’s a beautiful piece,” a passerby says to her.
“Well it’s not finished. I’m going to slip in here with my paints.”
I never did get that southern belle’s legs right.
It’s a job to sit side saddle on a horse.
Now do you see the owl?
That’s a watering truck. If they had a drought, they watered.
This is what my grandfather cooked the cane sugar in.
He boiled that juice.
It started off juice and when it got to the end where the fire was, it was thick molasses.
This man was a photographer sent down from New York.
He’s actually in the kitchen of the house having coffee now.
I have to finish the fish, too.
Each tract of the painted plantation bursts forth with narrative. The story, safeguarded for all these years by the artist, is now available for purchase. It is one of a kind; a living document scrawled with authentic Mississippi meaning. It tells of the home place, and now it’s ready for a new one.