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Museum hosts Reunion of the families of artist and donor of the Four Freedoms

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Last month, descendants of Mildred Nungester Wolfe, artist of the Four Freedoms, and Arlean and Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Sr., the couple who commissioned the piece, gathered together to see the installation at the Mississippi Museum of Art (the Museum) for the first time. The Four Freedoms, now on view in the public corridor at the Museum, is a four paneled mural inspired by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous “Four Freedoms” speech.

Those in attendance represented three generations of the two families; some traveled from as far away as Dallas, Texas. It turned into a reunion of sorts, at the core of which was the impressive mural, now part of the Museum’s permanent collection thanks to the generous gift of Daisy McLaurin Stevens Thoms, Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Jr., Henry Nicholson Stevens, and William Forrest Stevens, the children of Arlean and Benjamin McClellan Steven Sr. The children and grandchildren of the donors joined the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren of Mildred Nungester Wolfe (1912-2009), including Mike Wolfe, of North Carolina, and Elizabeth “Bebe” Wolfe, who carries on their mother and father’s art-making tradition at Jackson’s The Wolfe Studio. Near the end of President Roosevelt’s 1941 Annual Message to Congress, he articulated four “essential human freedoms” that should be secured everywhere in the world: freedom of speech and expression, freedom of worship, freedom from want, and freedom from fear. Concerned with human rights around the globe, Roosevelt’s address came at a time when World War II was well underway in the Pacific and in Europe. America had a peace-time army, not one prepared for war, and Roosevelt’s 1941 speech made the appeal for higher taxes to fund a strong military defense program. Eleven months after his speech, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor.

Mildred Nungester Wolfe was commissioned in the late 1950s by Arlean and Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Sr., owners of B. M. Stevens Company store and Richton Tie & Timber Company in Richton, Mississippi, to paint the mural. Benjamin Stevens suggested the theme and supplied her with four Masonite boards. The paintings were completed in 1959 and hung for years above the produce section of his country store, which was the largest and oldest in Mississippi. “We sell hardware, silks, satins, fertilizer and feed. Used to sell coffins but we gave that up,” said Stevens in the article “Richton Grocer Buys Mrs. Wolfe’s Murals” written by Jane Reid-Petty for The State Times in Jackson, Mississippi, in 1959.

Wolfe described each panel of the Four Freedoms for Jane Reid-Petty’s article: “I painted a newsboy, because freedom of speech is something forever young, forever being fought for and renewed,” she said about the first panel. In Freedom of Religion, praying figures are rendered as in a stained glass window. A frail, elderly woman with hands folded in Freedom from Want is “touched with the thin sunlight of afternoon.” A terrified woman protects two children as an airplane drops a bomb in Freedom from Fear. The artist said, “I think the fear of a mother for her children must be a climax to all fears, possibly more powerful than any other.”

The Museum sincerely thanks the members of both families for making this installation and reunion possible. The Four Freedoms is now on view in the Public Corridor of the Museum, free to the public.

Pictured: Back row, from left to right: David Thoms, Joel Thoms, Jim Stevens, Marilyn Thoms, Martha Stevens Huckins, Holt McMullan, Lynn Stevens McMullan, Rusty Purvis, Jene Stevens, Nancy Stevens Purvis, Sam Stevens, Julie Stevens Harrington, Kallie Harrington, Benjamin Stevens, Susan Stevens, Richard Thoms, Elizabeth “Bebe” Wolfe, Mike Wolfe, Lisa Williams, Hank Thoms, Dave Thoms. Kneeling, from left to right: Marcie Scoggins, J. J. Thoms, Ellen Thoms, Lake Thoms, Sarah Wolfe, Esmé Williams, Alex Williams.

Artwork credit line: Mildred Nungester Wolfe (1912-2009), Four Freedoms, 1959. oil on Masonite. Collection of Mississippi Museum of Art, Jackson. Gift of Daisy McLaurin Stevens Thoms, Benjamin McClellan Stevens, Jr., Henry Nicholson Stevens, William Forrest Stevens. 2013.024.a-d.