An Artist’s Portrayal of the Mississippi Delta

by Marlee Crawford

 

Chesley Pearman, a fourth-generation native of the Mississippi Delta, is a painter, writer and musician.

“My roots run real deep here,” Pearman said. “It doesn’t matter where I’ve lived in the world, my heart has always been here.”

He was born into a family who had a love for music, writing and art. They immersed themselves in it, he said. No one was more important than the others.

His real education began when he got home from school by his mother, he said. She used to read books to him about art or literature each day. Oftentimes, she wouldn’t even read the ending, closing the book for Pearman to imagine the end.

Every Sunday they had “family sing-alongs,” he said. His mother played piano, and his father was on drums. His brothers and him could eventually play guitar, drums and piano.

He won awards for art in middle school, but he didn’t have an art program in high school, so he focused on his English classes, growing his love for writing.

He later enrolled at The University of Mississippi as an art major.

“Just as I was looking seriously towards that, I partied myself out of it,” he said.

Even though he’s always loved art, he let “mostly drugs and women and women and drugs” get in the way of it.

He did odd and end things such as bartending and paddling boats for many years, until he found himself at Ole Miss again. He met an art student, and she became one of his major muses who really pushed him back in the artistic direction.

After going into another “tailspin” for many years, he wound up back in Oxford while bartending and met another crucial woman in his life.

“This is who you are. [Art] is what you need to be doing,” she would say to him.

Although many of his teachers were men, he said the biggest influences in his life were the women he loved.

Paintings of women in Pearman’s life sit on his mantle. Photo by Marlee Crawford

IT’S NOT JUST FLAT AS A PANCAKE

Pearman said the land in the Delta carries a tremendous emotional weight. He doesn’t just paint pretty paintings; he paints his sentiments he has with a place or subject.

“If the emotion is removed from painting, it’s only a pretty picture,” he said. “It just matches the couch.”

That’s why, after living in various places in the world, he had to come back home.

“I came back to the Delta because I had to be fully immersed in the place where my heart and my history is,” Pearman said. “I may be painting a railroad bridge, but I’m also seeing all that has taken place there.”

A painting of the Delta landscape by Pearman sits on a shelf in his home. Photo by Marlee Crawford

He’s known many people to wonder how he sees beauty in the Delta. He refers them to his paintings that include light, shadow and colors that are plenty more than green.

“[The Delta] has its rises, mounds and levies,” he said. “It’s not just flat as a pancake.”

“[The paintings are of] a road that my brothers and I ran up as boys, or a place my father took me,” he said. Photo by Marlee Crawford
THE DELTA ART SCENE RUNS DEEP AND WIDE

Malcolm White, Mississippi Arts Commission executive director and Mississippi native, said the Delta has a huge influence on Mississippi culture and art that extends to the country and the world.

“The Delta art scene runs very deep and wide,” White said. “It encompasses everything from blues music to folk and traditional art – a lot of food too.”

White said he’s not sure how he first met Pearman, whether it was through music or art, since they are both so involved in the creative scene in the Delta.

“Wherever art was being made, we would always end up in the same room,” he said.

White said Pearman has never focused on one particular thing, as he’s gifted in many things.

“I’ve always admired his art, because I like the Hensche concept that all these painters in the Delta have used,” White said.

A horse stands outside Pearman’s house in a field as the sun sets. Photo by Marlee Crawford

LEAD US TO THE LIGHT

In 1963, Sammy Britt of Louisville, Mississippi, started studying at the Cape Cod School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, under Henry Hensche. He brought that specific style of art he learned back with him to the Delta.

Pearman used to study and work under Britt many years ago.

Britt said each individual has their own way of depicting light and color, and each person has their own degree of understanding this idea of art.

“I told him one day you need to quit worrying about trying to paint like me or anybody,” he said. “I want you to start painting like you write and how you feel.”

Britt said those that grow up in the Delta have a deep appreciation of it.

“[The paintings are of] a road that my brothers and I ran up as boys, or a place my father took me,” Pearman said.

Britt taught art at Delta State University for 35 years before retiring in 2002.

“I always taught this concept of light and color like a language,” he said. “If you study a language and just learn ‘A, B, and C’, you don’t understand it very well. But if you keep developing an understanding of a language, then you can express it in a beautiful way.”

The various times of day and the different seasons affect how people see light in nature, he said.

This “influence of the light” concept was born in Impressionism when artists, such as Claude Monet, saw that light changed throughout the day, he said. Rather than drawing first, there was this idea of massive color spots to attend to.

“We live in a lot of darkness,” Pearman said. “And an artist’s responsibility is to lead us to the light.”

Pearman paints in his house while looking out of the window in front of him. Photo by Marlee Crawford

A BALANCE

He said he bartends to make a living and pay the bills, but he also loves it.

“I spend a lot of time in solitude working on my art, but that’s not really a balance,” he said. “You have to get out there among people and not shut yourself away.”

Pearman has also bartended at White’s business, Hal and Mal’s.

White said they don’t talk about what they do for a living though; they talk about art.

“Most people think Chesley is a bartender,” he said. “They don’t know that he plays music and makes art and writes.”

Pearman said he has a tendency to isolate himself and keep getting more and more serious in his work, and it’s not a good thing.

“I can continue to unravel that ball of twine with art, until I get so into it that I get to the point that I wake up soaked with sweat,” he said.

Pearman talks about his life in Shaw, Mississippi. Photo by Marlee Crawford

FOR THE LOVE OF IT  

Pearman teaches painting, guitar and writing lessons. He said many students begin lessons worried about their talent or ability to achieve their goal.

“It’s like I tell them,” he said. “The most important thing that is crucial to the creative process is courage. It’s one of the only things in life we can absolutely call and make our own.”

He said he’s taught an afterschool art program at Delta State University for the surrounding public school systems, and recently for at-risk kids in Indianola.

He said there’s a long list of people he owes for having brought him to where he is today, including his muses and parents.

“I’m not here just of my own accord,” he said. “I’ve been helped and encouraged by so many people.”

He said he’s given away paintings to individuals, donates to charity organizations, and is in the process of trying to put together a charity benefit.

He’s “caught a lot of grief” from other artists who say giving away paintings and donating so much to charity devalues their work, he said.

People have come up to him when he’s painting onsite and complimented his work, and he has simply given it to them.

“It’s not like I’m not going to paint anymore,” he said. “They are going to be given something freely, and it’s going to bring some joy into their life.”

White said Pearman has never applied for grants or fellowships from the Mississippi Arts Commission, because he’s never sought fortune.

Pearman looks out of the window in his sunroom. Photo by Marlee Crawford

“You do it for the love of it,” he said. “Money and attention may come from your pursuit of what you love, but you pursue it because you love it.”

His paintings are displayed at art shows and different venues in the Delta, such as at The Alluvian Hotel and Spa.

He said he has some songs on albums and some headed for albums with George McConnell.

John Ramsey Miller is editing his first novel currently.

Pearman said the novel is about how a painter in the Delta fell away from painting and how his two muses brought him back to it.

 

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