My Favorite Piece

Posted on May 27, 2015

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STORIES FROM THE OTHER SIDE OF THE PORTRAIT

BY: CLARE SHELBURNE

Nestled in the middle of Overton Park is the Brooks Museum of Art, a well-known staple to most in the Memphis community. However, there are a few voices from within the Brooks Museum that are not heard as often as others.

The Staff at the Brooks Museum have the incredible opportunity to soak in the art for hours every day. Wandering the galleries, the staff is able to really analyze the masterpieces around them. They are quiet experiences. A new thought? Give them a chance to talk about the art surrounding them.

I went into the Brooks Museum on a Saturday morning. The museum was quiet, and echoing through the halls was a recording of a woman’s somber-sounding voice. As I walked in, receptionists’ and security guards’ eyes darted up, and then back to their original focus. I knew exactly where I was heading; the visiting exhibition This Light of Ours: Activists Photograph the Civil Rights Movement.  As I walked down the stairs and around the bend, I continued to see signs ppieceointing me in the direction of the exhibition. From the number of indicators, I could tell that this exhibition is extraordinarily important to the museum.

When I walked into the galleries of the exhibition, I was overwhelmed.  The emotions coming through the pictures have a way of making one feel dumbfounded. The first staff-member I spoke with was named Xena, a security watchwoman for the exhibition. I asked Xena what her favorite piece of art in the museum is, and her answer was enlightening. “We’re standing right in the middle of it,” she said. When I clarified that I meant a specific piece, as opposed to an exhibition, she clarified, too. “Dear, this is one piece. Of course, looking at one photograph would be amazing. But we’re standing in the middle of 157 of them!” Xena went on to talk about how important the exhibition is to her, “it’s been here since Valentine’s Day, and it’s leaving in May. I hate to see it go,” she explained.

After spending about an hour in the This Light of Ours exhibition, I meandered back upstairs to the Admission desk. I asked the man and woman standing behind it what their favorite pieces were, and I ended up in exactly the direction I came from. Celia Pruitt, the woman standing behind the desk, told me that the This Light of Ours exhibition held her favorite piece that is currently in the Brooks. Specifically, it is a photograph by Bob Fitch which was taken in Georgia in 1968. This photograph is a picture of the body of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in his casket, at his funeral. It is a sobering image of an amazing, influential man, whose face we rarely see documented at rest. Celia had an interesting story to accompany this photograph. “Now, I don’t know for sure that this is true, but they say that there were no photographers allowed at Dr. King’s wedding. They say that this picture was taken by a photographer hiding in the Organ being played at his funeral!”

Standing next to Celia was Braden Hixson, busy at work selling tickets to enter the museum. “Actually, my favorite current piece is in This Light of Ours as well,” he told me. In the collection, there are three photographs taken by Matt Herron in Jackson, MS in 1965. These photographs depict a young, African American boy named Anthony. Anthony is holding an American flag, and a white police officer is violently yanking the flag out of Anthony’s hands. Braden had an interesting story about this photo set to accompany Celia’s story. “My photos have a story too, actually. Anthony apparently grew up to be a school principle. After these photographs became famous, Anthony attempted to contact the police officer. Throughout the years, the officer always denied speaking to Anthony. The last time that Anthony called, the officer’s wife picked up the phone. She said that her husband had just died, and that these photos had ruined his entire life.” Braden added his own touch to the story, “I think that was kind of the point!”

piece 2

I walked toward the back of the first level of the museum, and ran into another exhibition watchwoman named Le. When I asked Le what her favorite piece is, without saying anything, she guided me straight in front of where we had been standing. The piece is The Grand Canal by Canaletto. When I asked her what she liked about it, her answer was much more technical than I was anticipating; “The brushstrokes create such movement. And the vanishing point makes the horizon look so real. The perspective, the colors, it all makes me feel as though I am there.”  Le told me that her favorite thing about the painting is the frame, “I love the gold-leaf. It adds elegance, I think.”
Finally, I spoke with the Brooks Museum’s new director—and when I say new, I mean that she has been there for just over a week—Emily Ballew Neff. Putting her on the spot, I asked her what her favorite piece in the museum is. “Oh goodness,” she said, “I can’t answer that! That would be like picking a favorite child!”
The Brooks Museum of Art has an incredible array to offer. Specifically, I suggest getting there before May 10th, as not to miss This Light of Ours. It is truly an extraordinary view at the Civil Rights Movement.
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