A new photography exhibit in Water Valley showcases Mississippi’s past and present, including never before seen works by the late Jim Higgins.
by Erin Z. Bass
Before the spring of 2007, there wasn’t much going on in Water Valley, Mississippi. Located outside Oxford, the sleepy little town developed along the railroad and includes two century-old businesses. Mechanics Bank and Turnage Drugs have long been staples downtown, while other historic buildings sat vacant. Wade’s Barbershop was one of those buildings until local artists Coulter Fussell and Megan Patton converted it into an art gallery and studio this past spring.
Yalo Studio and Gallery is sandwiched between an old-time grocery store and flower shop on North Main Street. Its grand opening on April 8 included works by Alabama folk artists John Henry Toney and Butch Anthony, blues photographer Axel Kustner and several other artists, including Fussell and Patton. BTC Grocery, which helped jumpstart redevelopment in downtown Water Valley, stayed open late, as did fellow gallery Bozarts, and The Kenny Brown Band played White Star Tavern a block away.
Since then, Yalo has shown works by Memphis wrestling legend Jerry “The King” Lawler, and the gallery’s next show, opening tomorrow night, will certainly rival that opening party. “Higgins & Abott: Our Time” combines the works of late Square Books fixture Jim Higgins with that of Erin Austen Abbott, known for her One Night Stand Motel Art Show held in Oxford in October.
“Erin and Jim were friends, and I knew that I wanted to show Jim’s work and Erin’s work,” says Fussell about the decision to pair up the two artists. “Both are photographers and both work well in color and would draw the same crowd of people,” she adds.
Capturing the subculture of Oxford in the mid-1990s through the late 2000s, Higgins commented on society through his photography from his cluttered office at Square Books. An excerpt from Yalo’s blog post on the show sums up his legacy to perfection:
“With a judge’s eye and sick twist Jim documented an entire generation of writers, musicians, artists, restaurant workers, and bartenders as they came of age in Oxford. To be photographed by him in our natural habitat that was the late night scene on the Oxford Square was a distinction, surely, but one could always be confident that you were a player in something foolish enough to deserve the merit. Hearing the click of Jim’s camera a second too late was a tell-tale sign that you were having one hell of a night.”
Higgins died in May of 2009, and his wife, Tayla Burns, gave permission for the studio to show his work, which will act as a retrospective. Much of it has never been seen before, and it’s never been shown collectively.
Born in Tupelo, Abbott spent much of her childhood in Oxford and currently lives in Water Valley. She owns craft and design store Amelia on the Oxford Square, and her work has been published in Esquire, the LA Times and Teen Vogue. Depicting value in the old and forgotten, Abbott’s work for this show features former beauty queens from Memphis. Titled “A Lovely Society,” the photo essay is a collaboration between Abbott and Arkansas-born actor/writer Jennifer Pierce Mathus. Created in part from research for Mathus’ forthcoming screenplay, the works feature Mississippi Delta beauty queens and belles who held court between the years of 1955-1970.
“During these years, the Mississippi Delta, in particular, produced bumper crops of beauty queens and Southern belles from communities up and down the mighty river, where social issues of the day remained strong undercurrents,” says Abbott. “Debutantes from powerful families, many as interested in cotton and commerce as they were cotillion, held fast to the rules of Southern civility and Old South society.”
Ultimately, Abbott and Mathus hope to grow the exhibit to feature queens from the Delta in Memphis down through Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana.
As promised, Yalo’s opening night will transition into a full-blown party after 9 p.m., moving to Ajax Diner in Oxford for a live performance by punk rock band The Neckbones.
While Fussell does hope to cater to existing fans of Higgins’ and Abbott’s work, she believes anyone with an interest in Mississippi culture will enjoy the show. “Jim worked at Square Books for years, so I expect the Oxford Square crowd to be here, but really people who just appreciate good photography and people who want to buy Christmas presents are welcome,” she says. “It’s a pretty drive out from Oxford to Water Valley.”
Photo Credits, from top: Studio building by Yalo Studio, pepper and “Redneck” by Jim Higgins and beauty queen by Erin Austen Abbott.
Yalo Studio is located in Water Valley, Mississippi, at 303 N. Main St. The opening for “Higgins & Abbott: Our Time” will be held December 9 from 6-9 p.m. Drinks and hors d’oeuvres will be served, followed by an after-party at Ajax Diner in Oxford with music by The Neckbones.