Museum showcases Miss. art

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, April 14, 2009

HATTIESBURG (AP) — If William Carey University had a concrete vault for the Sarah Ellen Gillespie art collection before Hurricane Katrina, most of the 600 pieces could have stayed safe.

But there wasn’t a vault on the coast campus. The collection housed at Carey’s Gulfport branch was right across the street from the beach and was hit hard by the historic storm. The building the gallery was in was destroyed. Most of the art was heavily damaged. Some of the collection was lost, including many pottery pieces.

More than three years later, William Carey has restored the pieces and built a new museum for the collection in Hattiesburg. It includes a concrete vault.

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‘‘It’s been a long three and a half years,’’ said Iris Easterling, museum director.

The wait ends Wednesday with a public reception and dedication of the Sarah Ellen Gillespie Museum of Art — technically a step up from a mere gallery, a step that requires extensive documentation.

The collection includes works by Mississippians, trained and untrained. It also includes works created in Mississippi by artists who lived in the state at the time. It is thought to be one of the most complete Mississippi art collections in existence.

Gillespie, a Hattiesburg native who died last year, was diligent in collecting art from all over the state, Easterling said.

‘‘The subjects tell a lot about Mississippi life in the 20th century. These rural scenes are quickly disappearing,’’ she said.

Some paintings show children running barefoot, others show small country stores or farm work. Some are landscapes, a special favorite of Gillespie’s. The artists include well-known Mississippians Walter Anderson, Kate Freeman Clark, William Hollingworth, Theora Hamblett, Karl Wolfe, Wyatt Waters and Ethel Wright Mohamed.

Gillespie also collected artists no one ever heard of.

‘‘The collection reflects her keen eye for choosing artworks that speak to the viewer on many levels,’’ said Kathy Dyess, a former William Carey art professor who knew Gillespie.

Gillespie decided as a collector to stick with two-dimensional pieces. These include oil paintings, watercolors, drawings and embroidered images. Earlier in her life, she also collected pottery, the same pottery that was mostly lost to Katrina. Over time, Gillespie wanted the collection to have a theme and a common thread, Easterling said.

The new space for this treasure is about 1,650 square feet of the Smith Rouse Library expansion. Designed by architectural firm Landry and Lewis, the open space is covered with gallery cloth and several short walls jut out to form galleries. Each gallery will be named for the museum’s major donors.

Donations and grants have come from many private sources and a few public ones. It was a National Endowment for the Humanities grant that helped pay for making the collection ‘‘whole,’’ Easterling said.

From restoration of nearly molding framed work to the detailed, meticulous documentation for each piece of art took expert help. Some of the work was donated and some was paid for with gifts like the $50,000 from the Chisholm Foundation, based in Laurel.

Lauren Rogers Museum of Art advised on lighting and other matters, Easterling said.

‘‘The Sarah Gillespie collection is virtually a who’s who of Mississippi art and, more importantly, it shows the power of one collector with a focus and vision,’’ said George Bassi, LRMA director.

Not all 600 pieces can be shown at once in the new museum.

‘‘Exhibits will pulled by subject matter or media,’’ Easterling said.

The museum is the highlight of William Carey’s event ‘‘Celebrate the Arts,’’ from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday.

Dedication of the Sarah Ellen Gillespie Museum is at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday.


Information from: Hattiesburg American,