When I interviewed Saul Haymond, Sr. during a summer internship at my hometown paper, I was excited; I knew that I would be meeting an artist. What I did not know beforehand was that I would be meeting a self-taught artist, a man who had lived his entire life in the Mississippi Delta -- just like me -- and had created something not only powerful, but beautiful, from his experience in a part of the world that I had always considered lacking in beauty.
I interviewed Mr. Haymond because several of his paintings had recently been featured in a prestigious exhibit at a New York art gallery. He had been interviewed in several New York papers, and the critics loved his work. When I saw one of his paintings, I knew why: it spoke. I am a writer at heart -- I prefer language to almost any other art form -- but even I saw that his work told the story of his life, and of the land where he had grown up, better than any words ever could.
Saul Haymond does not depict the Delta as a polarized land of rich ex-plantation owners and struggling working-class families. He does not show the racial tension that exists there. He paints the land as hot and fertile, the people as determined, hardworking. Anyone who has ever been to Mississippi recognizes it immediately in Haymond's work, and feels the realism of it -- feels a respect, almost a reverence for the place, even if (like me) they do not normally feel that way. Anyone who has never been to Mississippi feels as if they have. Saul Haymond's work is not criticism or praise - it is difficult to criticize or praise one's own life, after all, and all of Mr. Haymond's life has taken place here. His work is a statement of place, of wonder, of truth.
What amazed me most about him was that he could create art so genuine without ever having been taught how to create art. He sees the same things that I see everyday -- only the way he sees them makes them important to the whole world. He is a farmer; he lives the same life as many Delta men. But, at the end of the day, he enters his house and paints what he sees, and what he sees is life itself.
I will never forget the conversation I had with him; he was amusing, polite, and even thankful for the publicity our paper was offering him. All the while I was talking to him I was thinking, I'm the one who should be thankful. And I am, for one thing that he said will always stick in my head, even after I have forgotten his name and face. It has changed the way I look at not only my daily life or the place where I have grown up, but everything I see.
Mr. Haymond was telling me about the sightseeing he did in New York; he met Whoopi Goldberg and Bryant Gumbel, and went to several art museums. He told me that he had gotten to touch Van Gogh's painting "Sunflowers."
Of course, I was confused; how had he persuaded the museum to let him touch it?
He answered me a little sheepishly. "Well, the sign said "Don't touch," he conceded, "but for $110 million, I had to find out why."
I love that quote; I ended the article with it -- the piece remains my favorite thing that I wrote at the paper. I loved the sense of wonder his words communicated, the curiousity, the unwillingness to accept first impression as fact. In the same situation, I would have looked at the painting as "the painting I've seen pictures of about a hundred times." Mr. Haymond, however, looked at it as he looks at everything -- as something he's seeing for the first time.
This has changed the way I look at things in my own life. My friends, my family, the sights and sounds of every day -- I try to stand back from it all sometimes and think about what it actually looks like, wha it might say to an outsider. I try to think about how I might write about it. I try to look at least twice at everything, because I realize that even if it doesn't say anything to me now, it might someday; and if it does I want to be prepared to describe it all as clearly as Saul Haymond, Sr. describes the Mississippi Delta.
A senior from Greenwood, RACHEL SAMS plans to be a writer/magazine editor. Her favorite authors include Sylvia Plath and T.S. Eliot. She served as the 1996 editor of the Southern Voices Literary Magazine at the Mississippi School For Mathematics and Science. This essay appered in the 1996 edition.
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