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Legacy Preserved

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

This week at the Museum has been a living example of how art connects us to one another and enriches our lives. On Monday night, artist Jason Bouldin unveiled portraits of Medgar and Myrlie Evers, the culmination of a project long in the making. Bringing the portraits to fruition took many hands. One such force was Alan Moore of Baker Donelson, the exhibition sponsor, who worked on the project with the Evers family, the artist, and countless others, including a group of generous women who funded the portrait of Myrlie Evers. I could search for words to describe the unveiling reception, which was attended by hundreds - those mentioned above, family and friends, elected officials, and many, many more. But my words would be superfluous. The tone best struck and the words best spoken came organically, like art often does.

“Artists redefine and repatriate our memories,” said Betsy Bradley, Director of the Museum. The portraits stood nearby behind black veils. “They also inspire hope for our future. That is what this is about tonight. It’s about our memories and our hope.”

Alan Moore spoke next. “If someone asks the definition of strength of character,” he said, “the answer is Myrlie Evers. If someone asks the definition of strength of spirit, the answer is Myrlie Evers. And knowing her schedule over the last few weeks and months, and during this week, I must say that if someone asks the definition of strength of body, the answer is also Myrlie Evers.”

Joyful laughter followed the last part.

Then the artist, Jason Bouldin, took his spot behind the podium, and in a matter of moments, the portraits were unveiled. Hushed gasps of delight and appreciation echoed about the room. And then Jason gave a tour of the canvas.

“Medgar Evers is shown in the dress of the day. But he’s taken off his coat, and rolled up his sleeves,” he said. “He’s standing very firmly on the ground, in quiet determination.

“When painting a portrait, one paints not only what one looks like physically, but what one feels like spiritually. The tangible presence of body, and the intangible presence of essence.

“Mrs. Evers is with us in her portrait, her life force and her self is there. She’s looking directly at the viewer and engaging the viewer. She has momentarily looked up from what she was doing to acknowledge us coming into her presence.”

Earlier in the day, Jason had again stood before a group, albeit a much smaller one. In front of Myrlie Evers, her daughter, and the group of women who helped realize the portraits through their contributions, the paintings were shown for the first time. And when he described the frame that housed the portrait of Medgar Evers, emotions welled up from deep within everyone in attendance. The same happened that evening, when Jason again described the frame. It began as a bit of art history, and ended with the expression of a very personal connection between the artist and the subject. A connection of the kind that individuals make for themselves when they encounter memories of weight and artworks that move.

“Mr. Evers’ frame is specifically chosen to memorialize. It’s called a tabernacle style frame, which was originally intended to surround religious works and placed in sacred spaces. The word tabernacle is derived from the Roman word meaning hut or little house and it literally houses a sacred image. And in effect, that’s what we are doing here, housing a cherished image and a cherished memory of an important person and an important moment in our state and nation’s history.

“The second reason to choose the tabernacle style frame – it’s very personal…”

Jason paused to collect himself. In the moment of silence, the hundreds in attendance applauded. “I’m sure you all know that Mr. Evers was going home,” he continued. “He wasn’t going forth when he was shot, he was going home. And he never quite made it home…

“And given the idea that the tabernacle frame denotes a dwelling place, it is intended to provide a home for the image and that home hopefully may echo his domestic home. That may be a bit presumptive on the artist’s part, but that’s what’s intended.”

Applause rang out once again throughout the room.

Then, Myrlie spoke. “Let me share a little bit of a story with you,” she began. “To me it says, in essence, how far we have come in the state of Mississippi. When the presentation was first made, at this very place, by Jason, there were those in the room who looked at each other and really didn’t have to say much. Because the question in mind was how could a man who is called white do a portrait of an African American hero?

“Would he be able to capture the essence of Medgar Evers? And by the time he had finished making his presentation, and it was an emotional one then, for all of us, we realized that he was the right choice to do both of these. As I look at Medgar’s portrait, I know that it is Medgar. You captured his essence,” she said, looking to Jason. “You captured his spirit. He captured his tranquility. And he captured all that there is and all that there was about this man that we honor.

“So for anyone who comes through, young or old or anywhere in between, they will have a sense of the history of this state. Who we were. The tragedies. The hatred. And then reaching a point of understanding and reaching out to each other, not only for ourselves but for our children, and generations still to come.

“And I realize that Medgar was right when he said, ‘Mississippi is the state of my birth. There are things that have to be changed, and I am dedicated to changing those things. And I will give my life, and I will give it gladly. To make it a better place for my children, and for other children…’

“And I think about him. Not a day passes when I have not. And his spirit and his love for a state that once persecuted him. But he never gave up the faith. And he stood tall. And when he fell, his six foot one a half inches fell for freedom, for each and every one of us.”

“In the end, a good portrait serves to remember, it serves to call to mind, and maybe most importantly, it serves to encourage us not to forget. A good portrait is one where the subject can become like one of the cloud of witnesses talked about in the book of Hebrews, that can testify to lives well lived… And most importantly, a good portrait reminds us the viewers of who we are, and to who we belong, and for what we ought to strive.”

-Jason Bouldin