By M. Scott Morris
TUPELO – Any number of reasons could draw someone to live and work in Tupelo.
“We came for the Buffalo Park,” M.J. Torrecampo, 24, said.
“Maybe it’s because we’re all Elvis enthusiasts,” 24-year-old Corin Robidoux added.
No offense to the Buffalo Park or Elvis fans, but they were joking. They came because of artist Ke Francis and his collection of old-fashioned printing presses.
“These were my students at the University of Central Florida. I said, ‘I’m retiring,’” Francis recalled.
“They said, ‘Where are you going?’
“I said, ‘Tupelo, Mississippi.’
“They said, ‘We’re going.’
“I said, ‘Yeah, right,’ and then they all came up here and found jobs.”
Two of his former students have come and gone, and four remain. They found places to live and took part-time jobs, all so they could continue to develop their skills as artists and printmakers.
“This room is 90 percent of the reason I’m up here,” Robidoux said, pointing at the machines all around him. “When you’re a printmaker, you need equipment.”
Francis has a deep understanding of his former students’ situation. As a young man, he returned home to Tupelo after graduating from the Memphis College of Art.
Maybe envy is too strong a word, but some of his friends had scattered to cities where they could work in print shops.
Francis wanted access to the same equipment, and thanks to his purchases over the years, he eventually achieved his goal.
The result is Hoopsnake Press, a place for pushing old printing technology to its artistic limits. The students are mostly self-directed as they discover what they’re capable of creating.
“They’re finding out what it’s like to be independent, working artists,” Francis said. “These guys are doing their own things. There’s all new stuff up in the shop. They all make new work, and it’s fun. It increases energy for me.”
Torrecampo and Lujan Perez are servers at Olive Garden, while Robidoux and Jager Palad are working to renovate a building in Tupelo’s Mill Village.
“I work enough to be able to take four days off and make art,” Perez, 24, said.
She and her friends provide some of their own supplies, but Francis isn’t strict about the give-and-take.
“Ke has everything,” she said. “He says, ‘Grab something if you need something.’”
In return, the young artists donate in-kind labor.
“We help around the property,” she said. “There are things to be done. We kind of put in our time in exchange for using this stuff.”
They’ve also given back to their adopted community by helping Tupelo native Tanner Coleman install brick butterflies at Ballard Park to commemorate the tornado anniversary.
“We didn’t do any of the brick work. He had people for that,” Robidoux said. “We took the broken pieces of tile and did the mosaics on the wings. We did that for a few days, just in time for the opening.”
Their efforts caught the attention of Coleman’s wife, Alexis Gregg, who teaches at Wesleyan College in Georgia. There are plans for the artists to show their work at the school in the fall.
Exhibits also are scheduled at the GumTree Museum of Art. One batch of work will be featured beginning Aug. 1, and the second batch will go on display Sept. 16.
“We’re excited to be able to share what we’ve been doing,” Palad, 25, said.
The four artists have each other to offer critiques, and Francis offers his thoughts. In addition, they want to be part of conversations that go well beyond Tupelo.
“We’re all trying to get our work in galleries and museums,” Palad said. “We’re definitely looking. We keep up with other artists who are doing this type of work.”
Palad aims to create pieces that reflect the contemporary world, and something as simple as a hairstyle can give his layered prints the modern feel he wants.
“You wouldn’t have seen my work 20 or 30 years ago,” he said. “It’s new, but it’s made with an old process.”
Torrecampo paints and makes block prints. For her, art is a way to examine her relationship to the world. It’s deeply personal work, and by necessity, viewers will make up their own minds about it.
“That’s OK. It’s out there. I’ve said my piece,” she said. “There you go.”
For Robidoux, Hoopsnake Press provided a break he didn’t know he needed.
“I’ve been at school all my life. When I first came here, my expectation was to go to graduate school” he said. “But now, I’m just trying to live and work, and I can take time to not worry about getting somewhere else.
“Grad school is in the future, but right now, the work is the motivation.”
The artists have plenty to learn from their mentor, but one of Francis’ essential lessons has already gotten through to them.
“What ties us together is work ethic,” Perez said, “and Ke, he is the big monster of creating work.”
Another member of the Hoopsnake Press team, Francis’ daughter, Kerry Francis, said there are plans for workshops and other events to engage the community.
“We want to make this a real resource for creative people in Tupelo and the surrounding area. You’ve got Birmingham, Memphis, Oxford. There are a lot of artists in the area,” she said. “We’re trying to develop all the buildings and get things together so we can do more. Slowly but surely.”
For now, two artists have come and gone, and four others are pushing their talents and expanding their skills on Francis’ enviable collection of printing presses.
Perez said the same things that attracted the former students to Tupelo will keep them connected to the city.
“Wherever we go from here,” she said, “this will always be the homeplace, Hoopsnake Press, for us and other artists.”