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Home:  >News & Events   >News Archives   >2004

Book recounts African-American artist’s pre-integration study at University of Mississippi

March 16, 2004

By Jennifer Southall
University of Mississippi News Services

'Fire Flys' by M. B. Mayfield
Completed in 1989, Fire Flys is among paintings and poems by UM legend M.B. Mayfield, who recently released his autobiography.

OXFORD, Miss. — Folk artist M. B. Mayfield said the idea of an autobiography had been “in (his) mind for a long time.” No doubt the Ecru native had a great deal to say — after all, he got his start decades ago studying art secretly from a broom closet at the then-segregated University of Mississippi.

Fortunately, a friend of Mayfield’s finally persuaded him to record his life’s story, resulting in the book The Baby Who Crawled Backwards, self-published by the artist last fall. The account not only tells of Mayfield’s extraordinary life — including the story of how he crawled backward as a toddler — but it also features his original poetry along with full-color photographs from his artwork spanning more than five decades.

“I wasn’t thinking about money or anything like that when I started writing the book,” said Mayfield. “It was about getting something out that needed to come out and the story coming to maturity.”

Among the things that Mayfield “got out” is the story of his lifelong friendship with Stuart Purser, UM’s first art department chair and the person Mayfield credits with changing the direction of his life.

Purser first met Mayfield in the summer of 1949 when driving to UM from his previous post at the University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. The art professor was so impressed with the artwork he saw on the front porch of Mayfield’s family farmhouse that he stopped to speak with the artist.

That fall, the 26-year-old Mayfield moved to Oxford to work as a custodian in the art department, where he studied one-on-one with Purser and spent hours in a broom closet listening to class lectures.

“The really fascinating thing about Mayfield is this intersection with the world of fine art that he stumbled into,” said Lisa Howorth, who taught classes on folk art at UM’s Center for the Study of Southern Culture for several years. “He got to look at the art world at Ole Miss but was still marginal to the whole thing.”

After returning to Ecru to attend his ailing mother, then moving to Racine, Wis., where he held a number of odd jobs, Mayfield moved to Memphis in 1969. There he again was drawn into the world of fine art — if only marginally — as custodian at Brooks Memorial Art Gallery. He studied paintings on exhibit in the gallery and displayed his own artwork in the museum’s stairwells and work areas for his fellow employees to see.

The nature of his involvement in the art world has left Mayfield with seemingly no bitterness, although he said he’d rather not speak about his time at Ole Miss because it detracts from the achievements of James Meredith.

“I didn’t accomplish the things he did. He was the one who took the punishment,” Mayfield said of Meredith, who integrated the university in 1962. “I’d really like to meet him one day.”

But Mayfield’s ties to the university remain. A number of his paintings, including a portrait of Martin Luther King Jr., hang in the University Museums, and the center hosted one of Mayfield’s first big art exhibits, in 1986.

Following that show, Mayfield’s career flourished, so much so that he has sold almost everything he’s painted since then. He said his eyes are not as good as they once were, so he’s slowed his painting in recent years and turned to writing.

“I always doubted myself and was very self-conscious, but (writing the book) has been a real neat experience,” said Mayfield, who keeps his ideas for a possible second publication in a scrapbook.

Charles Reagan Wilson, director of the center, said he believes Mayfield’s book represents a “parable of the contemporary South.”

“He tells of someone who moved through the rural segregated South to something very different,” Wilson said. “He was a janitor and unable to attend classes, yet he drew from the real strengths of Southern culture to learn and express his creativity.”

The Baby Who Crawled Backwards can be ordered by calling the Town Square Post Office and Museum in Pontotoc at 662-488-0388. Copies are available for $35 plus shipping.

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