Travel: The creative arts in Oxford, Mississippi

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By Debi Lander
mail@floridanewsline.com

Oxford, Mississippi may sound familiar to football fans as the home of the University of Mississippi and the Ole Miss Rebels, including greats Archie and Eli Manning. Literary fans recognize it as Nobel Prize-winning author William Faulkner’s hometown. The city’s history, small town charm and community support continue to spark inspiration and creativity for artists, musicians and writers, giving Oxford the title “Cultural Mecca of the South.”

The region makes a fascinating destination for travelers. Oxford lies in northern Mississippi, 75 miles from Memphis, Tenn., a destination attracting Blues listeners and Elvis Presley fans who flock to his former home, Graceland.

I followed the Literary Trail stopping at Rowan Oak, the two-story 1844 home that became the residence of William Faulkner and his family from 1930 until Faulkner’s 1962 death. Visitors to the property, now a museum, see the outline of his award-winning novel lining the walls of his study. Faulkner’s bedroom remains as he left it, with his riding boots, cameras and reading books on a bedside table. Visitors can also stroll around the 33-acre estate that encouraged Faulkner’s fictional version of Oxford and Lafayette County, called Jefferson and Yoknapatawpha County.

In 1962, the Ole Miss campus became the site of a Civil Rights confrontation that riveted the nation. Today finds a moving life-size statue honoring James Meredith, the first African-American student to attend Ole Miss. An artist’s rendition shows James walking toward a portico bearing the sign Courage. The opposite sides of the assemblage display the words Knowledge, Perseverance, and Opportunity. The monument offers a place to pause and reflect on the past.  

Culinary artists have also found encouragement in Oxford from a booming restaurant scene. In fact, two local chefs received nominations for the prestigious James Beard Awards, an extraordinary achievement for a city of 21,000. Stop to dine on delights ranging from down-home Southern fare to gourmet feasts around the historic downtown Square.

The live broadcast of the Prairie Home Companion-style Thacker Mountain Radio Show originates from downtown Oxford. The public can attend the PBS recording including a live local band.

Occasionally I stumble on a place that surprises me with unexpected treasures — like the University of Mississippi’s Museum of Art. It houses an impressive, permanent collection of Greek and Roman antiquities, a fascinating group of 19th century scientific instruments, and colorful folk art including a delightful microscopic wedding party of pulgas vestidas, or dressed fleas!

Each year the museum hosts temporary exhibits in conjunction with various university departments. I became enthralled by the story behind the current show entitled “Lasting Impressions: Restoring Kate Freeman Clark.”

Kate Freeman Clark was a prodigious and prolific female artist from Holly Springs, Miss.; however, her talents were not recognized until after her death. She moved to New York in 1896 to study painting. Her work eventually found its way into the Carnegie Institute, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and at the National Academy in New York. Following the deaths of her teacher, mother, and grandmother in 1923, she gave up painting and stored her life’s work in a New York City warehouse. Kate returned to Holly Springs and never picked up a brush again.

When she died in 1957, no one in Holly Springs knew of her past or the hidden collection. Kate’s will funded an art museum to house her staggering 1,200 pieces. Visitors to Oxford gain the rare opportunity to see her oil and watercolor creations in the University Museum until July 22, 2017.

Oxford, Mississippi is a lot more than you’d expect.

Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.

Photo courtesy Debi Lander

Rowan Oak, home of William Faulkner