Posted by Bruce Miller
The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is honoring Murry DePillars, who died Saturday, with a special showing of his 1997 painting From the Mississippi Delta (as seen to the right). Murry was the retired Dean of the School of the Arts at Virginia Commonwealth University, and a great friend of artists and arts organizations throughout our community. Our “In Memoriam” to Murry was posted yesterday, and immediately follows this post.
"From the Mississippi Delta is an important work that addresses racial turmoil in Mississippi and throughout the South," says John Ravenal, VMFA’s Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. The work was inspired by a play by Endesha Ida Mae Holland of Mississippi, a scholar and dramatist. One of her plays (also titled From the Mississippi Delta) reflected her move from poverty and prostitution in the segregated South to civil rights activism and an academic career.
Barksdale Theatre produced the Central Virginia premiere of From the Mississippi Delta in 1998, and the African American Repertory Theatre revived the play earlier this season.
The acrylic-on-canvas work, measuring 42-1/2 by 32-1/2 inches, was a gift to the museum from VMFA’s Friends of African and African-American Art in 2006. The painting went on view when the museum opened yesterday morning.
From the Mississippi Delta reflects Murry’s maternal roots in Gunnison in the Mississippi Delta. DePillars, who was born in Chicago in 1938, was an artist-scholar of international renown who lived in Richmond since 1971.
"DePillars embedded his composition with layers of symbolic and protective imagery. The central figure, a little girl, is waving goodbye to the unsafe place of her birth. The girl’s white dress is a metaphor for the act of removing children from unsafe environments, particularly from Mississippi, which many families fled to escape racial hostility," Ravenal says.
Delta quilt patterns known as “windmills” or “cartwheels” in each corner of the painting are metaphors for moving quickly through life’s underbelly. Other images – silhouetted nudes, serpents, the dress with a purple hem – symbolize and encapsulate the playwright Holland’s own dramatic evolution.
“DePillars’ sensitive treatment of these themes incorporates a palette alternating between vibrant and deep colors, thoughtful use of geometry, and fine brushwork honed over the course of his career,” Ravenal says.
Be sure to stop by the VMFA in the next few weeks, and spend a quiet moment with this vital reminder of Murry DePillars’ immeasurable legacy.