TUPELO – Artists, like history, can never be reduced to a single cause or influence, and David Magee’s new book, “The Education of Mr. Mayfield,” gives an intimate look at the complexities of Southern culture that colored the world of a Northeast Mississippi painter.
Magee, 43, an Oxford native, an Ole Miss graduate and a bookstore owner in Chattanooga, signed copies of his book at Reed’s Gum Tree Bookstore on Monday.
In his book, Magee recounts the life of Ecru native M.B. Mayfield, a black painter who, before his death in 2005, stood at the confluence of movements that shaped the character of the Magnolia State, like racism, art and Christianity.
“He was a delicate man,” said Magee. “It must have been indescribably hard for him growing up at that time.”
In 1949 Stuart Purser, chairman of the art department at the University of Mississippi, was driving through the countryside of Northeast Mississippi looking for inspiration.
He happened upon an Ecru farm house, in front of which sat plaster busts of heavyweight boxing champion Joe Louis and the black scientist George Washington Carver.
Inside Purser found a young, untrained black artist who made his paints out of vegetables and soil. The professor took the artist under his wing and got him a job as a janitor at Peabody Hall, which housed the university’s art department.
Purser supplied his protégé with paints and materials. Mayfield kept his paints and brushes in the same closet with his brooms and mops, and he watched art classes from inside its close confines.
Under Purser’s tutelage Mayfield unofficially became the first black student at Ole Miss – more than a decade before James Meredith made national headlines for integrating the campus.
Following Mayfield’s story, Magee’s book offers a glimpse behind the headlines, featuring scenes as diverse as the gridiron triumphs of Johnny Vaught’s Rebel football teams and the star-studded Oxford premier, in 1949, of the film version of William Faulkner’s “Intruder in the Dust.”
Today, Magee’s son, William, is a sophomore at Ole Miss, and when the author returned to Square Books last week to sign copies, it was an emotional experience.
“In this book I’ve tried to dig in and to decode the treasures,” said Magee. “So much of life is revealed through the anecdotes, the small stories that – often – we just don’t know.”
Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal