Mississippi Delta Artist


Artist Joe Moorman discusses the influence of the Mississippi Delta on his life and art.

When I was about five or six, I watched my father cut up scrap steel with a cutting torch and build a tablesaw.  I think the motor was salvaged from an old industrial box fan or something like that.  When he was done, he loaded the tablesaw into the back of the truck and took it to the field beside my grandfather’s house.  There he built the house we lived in over a six-year period as we lived in it.  All of the work was done on installments over the weekend.  Daddy would work during the week as an electrician and welder for the gas company, buy some two-by-fours or plywood, and then we would work on the house over the weekend.  I probably would not be an artist now, or an engineer or anything like that had my father not taught me to work with my hands as a boy.

I probably would not be creating art had I not grown up “across the tracks” and Mormon in the Mississippi Delta at the dawn of desegregation there. I would probably not be creating art had my parents not sent me to one of the most snotty private schools on earth, even though they couldn’t afford sheetrock for the walls of our house.

TV wasn’t too much of a distraction back then because we lived south of Greenville and only received one channel, the local ABC station.  Sometimes we could pick up PBS and CBS, sort of, on Sunday nights, but it was very fuzzy and seemed to fade in and out with the wind.  My father would try to watch “Nova” or “60 Minutes,” but it would be more frustration than anything else.  I remember him switching it off early one night, “I’d like to watch me some Nova or something good, but I ain’t even gonna let this thing make me cuss tonight.”

Then the pipeline company Daddy worked for changed over to digital controllers in the late 1970’s, and suddenly we could afford cable. I suspect this was because the plant manager had hired all his buddies from church, and for some reason this didn’t give them any head start on understanding how to build control systems based on programmable logic with things like NAND gates.

At least I feel like that was what happened.  My father isn’t a talker. What little I know or think I know is pieced together from a few random comments over the course of a lifetime or inferred from that sort of thing.

I have a memory of my father standing in front of an old outboard motor bolted inside a 55-gallon drum full of water.  The motor is making blue smoke and coughing.  Daddy is cussing and calling it a son of a b*tch under his breath. “The fish be done quit biting the time I get this d*mn thing running.” The outer cover has been taken off of the back of the motor, revealing the carburetor. The cover and a junk carburetor are sitting on an iron shop table covered in tools, dust and grease.  There is a book on the table too, laid right over the top of the tools.  It is held open with a screwdriver.  The title is something like “Introduction to Digital Devices and Advanced Logical Design.”

In this memory, my father is drinking a beer with his shirt off, and the ginger hairs of his pot belly are glistening with sweat.  His jeans are streaked with rust and grease. He will come to dinner this same way, only by then he will have his boots off so you can see the mud stains on his white cotton socks.

Here are some comments about my Mississippi Delta artwork:

Delta Dream was a plan for a mosaic I was designing.
Empty Places has a short vignette about my father picking up my sister and I from school and driving home in silence across the emptiness of the Delta.
Boy with Doll is all about drowning in the despair of the Delta, “The Sound and the Fury” in a few paragraphs and not one detail made up.
Delta Dream is a painting of my father holding one of the catfish he caught on a trotline in the river.
Blackbird Flying Over the Delta is a nod toward the Delta as the birthplace of American folk music.
Catfish Musicians was painted before I understood gels, mediums, glazing, grays, scrumming with a dry brush or anything else.
My Father and the Bulls is an illustration from the day when I was fishing with my father and was almost trampled by two Brahma bulls.
Listening to Bullfrogs is a flawed mosaic. The johnboat should be a darker color, probably the color of the treeline.
Mississippi Osiris is death and resurrection and the River and the land and all the cycles of an alluvial land.
Dead Barges partially submerged in a backwater near the mouth of the Yazoo River.
Cypress Bayou blazing in the sunset.
The White Car is the definition of Southern Gothic.
Working from Memory is about an artist in exile painting in a basement all night long, painting memories of weeks on end spent out of doors.
Painting the Greenville Bridge is about five or six different ideas all crammed unsuccessfully onto one canvas.
Moses Looking over Jordan is an image of frustrated dreams.
Deer Hat and Trotline is about my father and his uncles, my great uncles.
Mudcat Dream is an artist remembering his land after years.
Johnboat is about the quiet places without the noise of people.
This Was the Park is about fading towns in an empty landscape.
Boys Fishing on the Levee was an attempt to capture the cool light of twilight and how it looks to your eyes after a blazing hot summer day.
The Writer and Shelby Foote was art created in desparation at the wholesale loss of culture.
Daddy and the Bulls is a mosaic depicting the scene where my father whipped two Brahma bulls with a cane fishing pole to keep them from trampling me.