VICKSBURG — The trip upstairs sets the tone, on a staircase so sturdy and full of character it could claim all the climb’s attention. But it doesn’t. Because each tread reveals a new treasure — a watercolor on the wall, an acrylic on the steps or a sign on the riser hinting at what’s ahead.
This historic staircase in this century-plus-old building is hardly a hallway pull-down ladder, but in most other aspects, the Attic Gallery’s name is spot-on. A visit is rarely complete without poking through bins and peeking into corners. Angels, alligators and the almighty Elvis. Birds, blues and buffalo soldiers. Cats, cups, crosses and more on display in media of every stripe and spectrum.
Gallery owner Lesley Silver is a generous sprite whose eye goes straight to the heart in the art that crams every corner, wall and surface. Mississippi’s oldest continuously operating art gallery anchors a corner of Washington and Grove streets, fronting the River City’s brick downtown artery and nestled alongside its dramatic descent from bluff to waterfront. A party last October marked 45 years as a Vicksburg fixture.
An upcoming anniversary is different, celebrating 20 years since a summer solstice art parade moved the spirit of the gallery — carried by friends armed with its art — several blocks from its original location to the current digs at 1101 Washington St.
This open house Wednesday, June 21, celebrates the essence of the space that has supported art — fine, folk and funky — and ferried it into the hands and homes of those who wandered in and regularly returned. The party, 5-8 p.m., will include music by Lee H. and the Boone Brothers on the porch, beverages from Martin’s at Midtown and an exhibition of veteran and new artists’ choice works plus the lively exchange that has made it a gathering spot, if not downright hangout.
It’s an institution in the city and state in a city where the Mississippi River and bluff-to-hardwood bottom views have long drawn and inspired artists, says Visit Vicksburg executive director Bill Seratt.
Silver reflects on the gallery’s organic start and 25-year stake in the original spot, above her former husband’s Versil’s Gift and Bridal Shop. It offered a showcase for contemporary regional and outsider artists and saw children grow into artists, designers, customers in their own right. It was special and, to some, spiritual.
Leaving that spot, with its challenges but also its comfort level, “was sad to me,” she says. Despite its bare bulb lighting, the narrow steps up in the shop’s rear and the top’s low clearance (where a pre-governor Kirk Fordice once bopped his head, as many did).
In 1995, “just on a lark,” Silver wandered down Washington Street to watch the auction of the Velchoff’s Building. On her mind: the feeling she wouldn’t always have a place for the gallery. Not on her mind: buying a building. The auction couldn’t proceed without the building going first. Silver, pulse racing, put in a low bid. Folks in charge huddled, then approached her with a figure she’d have to meet. She couldn’t do it. Two years passed.
“One morning … Mrs. Velchoff called me from Florida and she said, ‘I want you to buy the building.’ … I said, ‘OK.’”
That was 1997, the same year she and Daniel Boone got married. They were at Jazz Fest in New Orleans when they heard, on a pay phone, that she had gotten the building.
By summer solstice, they got it ready to receive the gallery.
“People came and helped us. It was really a community effort,” she said, noting that the move included painting, removing batten from the board and batten walls and more.
The move called for a ceremony. Friend and Episcopal priest David Christian brought people together, read poetry and opened the floor for them to share thoughts. Everyone was directed to pick up a piece meaningful to them, and walk it down the street to the new gallery, which would be blessed.
One woman inside felt like she couldn’t leave the space, so she lay down on the floor, scrunched a rug in her hands and wouldn’t move.
“It was just a little traumatizing for me,” recalls Jade Carson, now an artist in California.
Then in her late 20s, recovering from childhood trauma through therapy and art that helped her heal, she considered the gallery a sacred space.
“Moving was like losing a friend. I was losing my safe place,” she says.
Carson was able to join the parade only after Silver cut the rug into pieces, one for each hand. Memories of that attachment linger still with Silver, who sums up the gallery’s role.
“It’s not so much about buying, as about being,” she says.
Randy H. Jolly, who works at the gallery part-time, led the procession of artists, supporters and customers, with a specially created totem in hand, “to move that feeling, that soul, that spirit, to the new place so none of that was lost,” he says.
The big octagon table (likely once used for poker), a focal point of the old place, wouldn’t fit down the stairs but needed to go, too.
“Daniel felt like this was the heart of the gallery, because people would just come and sit,” Silver says, “and, you know, sometimes never leave.”
They took it apart and reassembled it in the move.
It’s still the gallery’s heart, occupying a center spot and covered like every surface. The handcrafted jewelry there is just a fraction in an inventory so vast even wondering about it out loud can incite momentary panic.
Gallery assistant Rachel Bacon, formerly a casino vice president, determined the number of artists represented there: about 170.
“It was enough to scare me,” Silver says. “I’m not a detail person.”
Among them are Jamie Tate, Kennith Humphrey, Jean Blue, Ellen Langford, Ron Lindsey, Susie Ranager, Laurin Stennis, Lucy Hunnicutt, Dr. Bob, Earl Simmons and many more.
She can’t take all who call. Space is limited, and some art would do better somewhere else. But she always encourages them.
“We love art and we want them to keep doing it,” she says.
A string of different businesses, mainly coffee shops, occupied the building’s first floor, before Boone opened Highway 61 Coffeehouse there more than a decade ago. The couple moved their home into the third floor, once used for exhibition openings, six years back. Now, they host shows in their living room and kitchen.
Mississippi Blues Trail travelers often include the Attic Gallery on their routes. It’s not unusual for European tourists to cycle through weekly, or for cross-country travelers to include it on annual treks.
“When people come here, they change their mind about Mississippi,” Silver says. “They love the art, they love the experience and they come back.”
“The heart of the gallery is Lesley and the art,” Jolly says, “But it’s also that community built of artists, patrons and friends, lovers of art and supporters of that.”
The new celebration continues that tradition and spirit.
“It’s all about building and keeping things alive that mean so much to the community and the arts in Mississippi,” Jolly says.
The totem he carried 20 years ago survives, its sun-like orb intact but a few rays lost to time. Rope and fur details remain, as do a tiny Tinkerbell wind chime and a stained glass fish dangling from the stick. It did its job then, and might again, Silver hints.
“Knowing Randy, he might start carrying it around the block, who knows?”
Photos by Melanie Thortis