Self-taught artist in Tchula, Miss., lands $30,000 grant

by Fredric Koeppel - Commercial Appeal, Memphis

Michelangelo and Leonardo formed the example of ideal masters for artist and farm mechanic Saul Haymond Sr.

He must have chosen his mentors well.

The 48-year-old self-taught artist from Tchula, Miss., was recently informed that he had been chosen for a $30,000 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation.

Haymond has gone from a lad who didn't start school until he was 12 to a man who sells his paintings for prices that range from $500 to $35,000. To the comment that $35,000 seems like a lot of money for a painting by a self-taught artist, Haymond replies, with impeccable logic, "Well, you got to know the quality of the piece. I didn't work my whole life not to know a good painting when I see It."

The fellowship puts Haymond in the company of such 1995 Guggenheim Fellows in the South as Edward T. Samulski, professor of chemistry at the University of North Carolina; John Jay TePaske, professor of history at Duke University; Ann Patchett of Nashville, author of two widely reviewed novels; and Sister Helen Prejean, author and community acitvist in Louisiana.

The selection committee chose 152 scholars, artists and scientists from among 2,856 applicants for awards totalling almost $4.3 million. Fellowships are bestowed for distinguished achievement and exceptional promise.

Ask Haymond how the Guggeheim people found out about him, and he replies, again with infinite good sense, "By me sending them my slides."

Tchula is a town of about 2,200 in Holmes County, south of Greenwood. Haymond has lived around Tchula since 1953, but his "home birthplace" is Ebenezer, a much smaller town farther south.

"I own a farm," Haymond said in a telephone interview. "I'm a mechanic and a welder. My other part of living, when I'm not working, is I paint, at night and during the wintertime."

Haymond started painting seriously around 1986 or 1987. "You know, a lot of black kids had to get the crops in before they could start school. They have to work on farms. I didn't start school till I was past 12. Then I found a book on Michelangelo and Leonardo da Vinci. That was my image of the masters. Since then I been doodling and things until I came into the professional field."

The aritst produces paintings in oil and watercolor and drawings in pastel and pen and ink. He takes his subjects from the oral history of the county where he lives, listening to the talk that passes from individual to individual about ancestors and family members.

"I've been listening to people talk since I was a child," Haymond said.

Those people are dead now, but what they said lives in my mind. I visualize how people lived back then. What I did was, I took it all in and I painted all them subjects. I'm dealing with Mississippi cotton fields, with people that lived a long time ago and when I was a child. I capture scenes as far back as 1789.

Haymond may have been painting in isolation, but he hasn't worked in a vacuum, either. He is a self-taught artist who has an eye on his career, too. He hasn't exhibited much, but he has been submitting slides to such institutions as the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson and the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York. And the Guggenheim is not the only foundation that has noticed Haymond. The artist has received six previous (but smaller) grants from such institutions as the Mississippi Arts Council and the Southern Arts federation.

The real break came recently when New York art dealer Anson Peckham traveled to Tchula after seeing some of Haymond's work, bought a piece and asked for some work for his Gallery Atelier A/E.

"He came down and decided I had something worthwhile," Haymond said. "I just shipped 14 paintings up there."

Peckham discovered Haymond's work through one of those serendipitous occurrences that sometimes make people rich, or at least famous. Peckham's wife, a member of the board of the Ludwug Vogelstein Foundation, was instrumental in getting a grant for Haymond last year.

"I think that was September," Peckham said by telephone from New York.

"I was not involved in that but I knew what the situation was. In January, we wrote Mr. Haymond and asked him to send us some slides. We bought two small paintings, not too expensive, just to see what the quality really was. We thought they were quite interesting and definitely worth investigation."

The result was a trip to Mississippi for Peckham and an enlightening visit to Tchula, where Haymond brought out all his paintings and leaned them against the side of the house outdoors for Peckham to see.

"You have to put this delicately," Peckham said, "but the guy sort of lives in a shack." The dealer chose a group of Haymond's paintings for an exhibition titled "Outside the Boroughs" that will open at Gallery Atelier A/E on June 1.

One of the criteria was size. "He paints some awfully big pictures," said Peckham. "Some of them are too large to ship by regular means."

Asked about the prices Haymond puts on his work, Peckham said, with a touch of dryness, "Some of them are fairly expensive."

Shack or no (and perhaps that's a New Yorker's perspective), Haymond isn't considering spending his $30,000 to fix up the place or buy a new truck or update his welding equipment.

"It costs a lot of money to ship off paintings around the country," the artist said.

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