Know the Art, Know the Man

Posted: 3/7/2011

With the strokes of his artist brush, M.B. Mayfield told the story of his extraordinary life lived simply in rural Mississippi

By Jean Bach

A riot led by white extremists broke out in Oxford, Miss., in the fall of 1962 when James Meredith, escorted by federal marshals, began his studies as the first African-American student at the University of Mississippi. History views him as the man who integrated Ole Miss, the state's flagship university.

But years earlier, in 1949, another black man more quietly began "attending class" at Ole Miss, albeit sitting in a broom closet listening to art professor Stuart Purser's lectures.

M.B. Mayfield was that man. A native of Ecru, a small town 30 miles from Oxford, Mayfield and his artwork are unknown to many outside Mississippi and the folk art world. But Glenmarians who pastored Glenmary's former mission in New Albany, Miss., knew him well-both as an artist and a parishioner.

In his autobiography, The Baby Who Crawled Backwards, Mayfield writes he had the urge to join the Church for years. In 1990 he took a "leap" and contacted Glenmary Father Wil Steinbacher in New Albany to begin a journey to Catholicism.

About his decision to convert, he writes he "made the right leap.... My relationship with the congregation couldn't be beat, considering the fact I am one of the few Afro-Americans who attend. I feel wonderfully blessed and no longer alone. God has been good to me."

Father Wil describes Mayfield as an extremely shy, gentle, humble man. "The people in New Albany loved him. (At St. Francis of Assisi mission) he found a place where he could really be himself and feel as if he belonged."

In a letter to former pastor Father Steve Pawelk in 2000 Mayfield wrote, "I must tell you of a spiritual experience that I have had ever since I entered the Catholic faith 10 years ago. This particular experience takes place while you are praying over the bread and wine. At a certain point as I kneel, I always feel a great sense of relief from the tension that I always have when I am in a group inside."

That tension was with Mayfield throughout his life. One of 12 children, he grew up on a farm in Ecru during the Depression in deeply segregated Mississippi. His father died when he and his twin brother were almost three; five siblings died within the next few years. His entertainment was reading the newspapers and comic strips that lined the walls of the house, serving as insulation. Throughout his life he suffered from severe claustrophobia and depression. He had a nervous breakdown at age 18.

Drawing, writing poetry and painting were his therapy following his breakdown. He couldn't afford art supplies so he created his own. For paint he smashed berries, vegetables and flower petals. He used shoe polish to add color to his sculptures.

The content of his paintings revolved around what he knew: Ecru, his family and the events of his childhood. Words didn't come easily to Mayfield but his art did.

"The man," says Father Wil, "was expressed through his art."

It was his busts of Joe Louis and George Washington Carver, though, that began his journey to the University of Mississippi.

In 1949 Stuart Purser, on his way to Oxford to begin a position as the chair of the Ole Miss art department, drove by the Mayfield home in Ecru and noticed the sculptures sitting on the front porch.

Curious, he stopped and asked to meet the artist. Purser was so impressed with Mayfield's work that he presented him with two surprises at the end of their visit: quality art supplies and an invitation to come to Ole Miss and work as the janitor for the art department while taking art lessons.

Mayfield—who at 26 had never spent a night away from home—took his first bus ride that fall to Oxford. He would later describe this move as a "turning point in my life."

While at Ole Miss, Mayfield served as custodian and also assisted Purser with classroom tasks while soaking up the lectures and the discussion going on around him.

When Mayfield was not in the classroom, Purser would leave his classroom door open, which allowed Mayfield to listen and take notes from an adjoining broom closet.

It was in these ways, as well as through one-on-one art instruction given by Purser, that M.B. Mayfield was able to expand his artistic talents.

Purser and Mayfield became close friends. Many of the all-white Ole Miss faculty and staff also got to know and love Mayfield, as did the students in the art department. They all shared in the open secret of Mayfield's education.

For example, a professor gave Purser money to purchase art supplies for the artist. Oxford native and author William Faulkner, after learning of Mayfield's situation from Purser, also became a Mayfield supporter.

The art department students and faculty even arranged for Mayfield to visit the Art Institute of Chicago in 1951 as a birthday present, a trip William Faulkner helped finance.

Despite all the good things happening in Mayfield's life, there were some things that remained the same. As a black man, he was still seen as a second-class citizen throughout the South.

Purser and Mayfield often traveled together for lectures and field trips. On these trips it was illegal for them to sit together in restaurants or stay in the same motel. Mayfield stayed in motels for "Coloreds." Purser stayed at motels for "Whites."

On a visit to the Brooks Gallery in Memphis, the men arrived on a day other than the one when blacks were admitted. The gallery's director, at Purser's request, admitted Mayfield as her guest and gave him a private tour!

Mayfield's life took many twists and turns following his three years in Oxford. He cared for his mother until her death, worked in Wisconsin and Tennessee, and then returned to Ecru permanently. He painted sporadically, sometimes selling his creations for meager amounts-or giving them away.

By the early 1980s, he was making ends meet by working part-time jobs in Ecru. A neighbor, Lamar Wilder, volunteered to ask the University of Mississippi about hosting an exhibit of Mayfield's art. The university's Center for the Study of Southern Culture agreed to host a monthlong exhibit in 1986.

"Nearly 40 years after he mopped floors and cleaned blackboards and studied art in a broom closet at the University of Mississippi," said a press release promoting the exhibit, "M.B. Mayfield returns to the campus with an exhibition of his paintings."

Because of that exhibit, his art became known throughout the region. To his amazement, people were willing to pay hundreds of dollars to have a "Mayfield."

In later years, as his health began to decline, he couldn't attend Mass often at the Glenmary mission. But his family, neighbors and fellow Catholics visited him, as did the Glenmary priests at St. Francis.

"I hold the highest esteem for the priests who have served during my membership at the church," Mayfield wrote. He listed Father Wil, Father Steve and Father Don Tranel.

M.B. Mayfield died in 2005 in Ecru. His funeral Mass was celebrated by Glenmary Father Gerry Peterson.

In his book, The Education of Mr. Mayfield, author David Magee notes that Mayfield never achieved widespread notoriety and was humbled when people paid for his art.

"Art was both his lifeblood and his passion...," Magee writes. "Though he never forgot his friendship with Stuart Purser and his days at Ole Miss, he didn't talk about them in much detail, suggesting that James Meredith deserved the credit for officially becoming the university's first black student.

"Mayfield told stories to the end, brushing them onto canvas...hoping that people would see that a sometimes-difficult life was also a life well lived."

Dewberry Pickers (top) is from The Baby Who Crawled Backwards: An Autobiography of M.B. Mayfield, and is reproduced courtesy of the Pontotoc Historical Society, Pontotoc, Miss. See his other artwork that is featured in the print issue of the Spring 2011 Glenmary Challenge.