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Tuesday, December 16, 2014

By Caitlin Podas, Registrar

My first job in Mississippi was at the Mississippi Agriculture and Forestry Museum. What does an Orange County native and art aficionado know about agriculture, you may ask? Not a whole lot. But, I was fresh out of grad school and wanted to put my education to use and the Ag Museum took a chance and hired me as their Collections Specialist. Thanks to the other Ag Museum staff and a reference book or two, I learned how to identify different kinds of plows, wood planes, wagons, tractors…the list goes on.

I didn’t think my new-found knowledge of agricultural artifacts would come in handy at the art museum, but it just so happens that we have a large collection of works that depict agricultural scenes. Several of them are in the Mississippi Story exhibition, but we also have a number of prints and drawings by Thomas Hart Benton who pioneered the American Regionalist movement. The movement glorified rural American scenes and rejected avant-garde artistic styles popular in Europe. Benton’s work is devoted to portraying the landscape, people, and way of life in the central and southern United States. He toured the Mississippi River regions of Mississippi and Louisiana in 1928. In the 1930s he was commissioned to paint murals depicting the history and daily life of people in Indiana, Missouri, and New York. All of the murals were cloaked in controversy, however, because Benton painted some histories that the states would have liked to ignore. Nevertheless, these murals established Benton as a great American artist and the murals are now in the collections of Indiana University and the New Britain Museum of American Art.

Knowing what kinds of plows, wagons, and other agricultural implements are depicted in Benton’s work adds another layer of appreciation and understanding of the artwork for me. I have touched those implements myself, and know that someone else’s hands used them to work the land, provide for their families, and build a life. The Ag Museum has a cane mill on the grounds that looks very much like the one depicted in Benton’s Sorghum Mill, middlebuster plows like the one in Plowing with Ox, and scythes like the ones in Island Hay.

A few weeks ago, the Ag Museum was devastated by a fire that consumed some of these artifacts and threatened others. Through the recovery effort I was reminded about how important it is to know where we came from and how precious our history is. Thankfully, volunteers and Ag Museum employees have been able to salvage a lot of the damaged artifacts so they can continue to tell the story of the people of Mississippi. My thanks are owed to all of them for enriching my experience here in this state.

Thomas Hart Benton (1889-1975), Plowing with Ox, c. 1930. ink, graphite, and wash on paper. Purchase, with Funds from Merle Tennyson Montjoy Fund, 2013.029.

Sorghum Mill (detail), 1969. Lithograph. Bequest of Sarah Virginia Jones, 1991.247.

Island Hay (detail), 1945, 1945. lithograph. Purchase, with Funds from Dr. and Mrs. Julian Weiner, 1985.054.