V.A. Patterson: a crucial component to Mississippi’s creative circle

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The arts encircle V.A. Patterson’s neck, fill her shelves, adorn her walls and crowd her calendar.

It’s a warm, all-encompassing embrace, from her necklace of pine needles, raffia and beadwork by Andrea Thompson to the exuberant little Roz Roy painting propped on her end table. It’s an embrace Patterson loves to share.

Virginia Alice Bookhart Patterson is the daughter of longtime women’s editor of The Clarion-Ledger, Mary Alice Bookhart, and she was raised on the sort of arts events that would later claim her devotion.

V.A. — her name was shortened at college — is the first to tell you: “I’m not an artist.”

Instead, she is that quintessential component that completes the creative circle: The viewer. The listener. The cheerleader. The promoter. The facilitator. And the leader.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

V.A. Patterson poses with some of her treasured artwork by Jackson artists.

“I love all the arts,” she said of a passion that has channeled professional and volunteer pursuits. “I just enjoy going to as many and as much as I can.”

Patterson was recognized earlier this year as a Community Arts Leader at the 30th annual Mississippi Arts Commission’s Governor’s Arts Awards.

Patterson chuckled when she recalled her earliest arts memory, with proof in a snapshot of her in costume, tap dancing. “I was probably 5 years old,” she said, fondly recalling kindergarten art projects, too.

A young V.A. Patterson in a dance costume

In piano lessons as a child, “I really did not do too well with practicing.” The appreciation end, though? She soaked it up.

Her mother covered many of the performing artists who came to Jackson, and young Virginia Alice would go along to the concerts and sometimes the rehearsals. Like her mother, she leaned more toward reporting in high school, but appeared in a play at Central High her junior year, The Curious Savage.

After graduation from Millsaps College, she worked in special collections at Tulane University, researched 19th century cabinetmakers at the University of Texas Library, then worked at two historic house museums in New Orleans.

At the behest of then-Old Capitol Museum director Patti Carr Black, in 1980 Patterson became the first curator at the Manship House, the restored home of Civil War mayor of Jackson and artisan Charles Henry Manship.

“I’m forever grateful to Patti Carr Black for hiring me, because it brought me back home,” Patterson said of setting up the house as an accredited museum. “You just know when a job is the right thing.”

Patterson told of the time travel writers came through on tour, and she mentioned plans to create a seasonal display for the house — mosquito netting and slipcovers. A writer from House Beautiful followed up, wanting to cover that project, but the work had not begun. So the magazine made it happen, paying to have slipcovers made, lace curtains hung on the windows and more.

“It was awesome … because it would have been a really long time before we could have done that,” Patterson said.

V.A. Patterson in a vintage photograph taken in front of the Manship House, where she worked as the curator for years.

Fond memories also wrap in her work with students for Christmas by Candlelight tours, and with mezzo-soprano Lester Senter Wilson on a series of Sunday arts programs at the Manship House.

Patterson’s community arts focus went on to include roles at the Historic Natchez Foundation and USA International Ballet Competition, and executive director positions at the Craftsmen’s Guild of Mississippi and at VSA Mississippi, the state organization on arts and disability.

At the Craftsmen’s Guild, members and their crafts wove their way into her life, and the annual Chimneyville Crafts Festival remains dear.

“There’s all this hard work that goes into it … and you know when people walk in that door they are going to be so wowed by what they see,” she said, “and it’s such good work to be wowed by — that just is a big, big, big thrill.”

VSA Mississippi, her first opportunity to work with people with disabilities, opened a new world. Seeing people find new or renewed social outlets, confidence, focus and avenues of expression touched her deeply. There, she expanded a program of in-school artist residencies in inclusive classrooms around the state.

With previous director Leslie Roark Scott, Patterson started the Community Art Group program of art classes for adults with disabilities. Participants explored their creative potential in a supportive setting and were encouraged to share their art with peers, family and community. It spurred some to artistic careers.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

Original artwork by Jackson artists at the home of V.A. Patterson

Meeting Patterson was “divine order,” said Jackson artist Roz Roy.

Patterson urged Roy, then focusing on digital print design, to start painting, saying, “I guarantee you’ll start selling.”

When Roy joined VSA Mississippi workshops, “I was ever so blessed. They really pushed me hard,” connecting her with opportunities and more.

“She was more than an executive director,” Roy said. “She was like a mother, like a friend. She loves the art. She saw my gift, saw my talent and wanted to make sure if I ever left the program, I’d go on. … She would go the extra mile.”

Photo by Melanie Thortis

V.A. Patterson at her home in Jackson

Now 79 and retired, Patterson’s volunteer activities include The Oaks House Museum board of directors, Scott Ford Houses board of directors and research committee chair, Episcopal Diocese of Mississippi archivist, the Mississippi Book Festival and Goodwill Industries Volunteer Services Celebration of the Arts consultant.

A cardboard cutout of Elvis Presley in gold lamé anchors a corner of her foyer, sporting a Mississippi Book Festival lanyard and Mardi Gras beads — a cultural nod akin to Patterson’s own approach, equally at home with the literary set and Hal’s St. Paddy’s Parade.

Her longtime association with the parade’s marching Krewe of Kazoo finds her in downtown Jackson each March, in a jaunty costume with cohorts raising hot pink umbrellas in yet another spirited creativity/community combo.

Photo by Melanie Thortis

A photograph of V.A. Patterson marching during the Mal’s St. Patty’s Day parade in Jackson

“It is probably the only time I can make a fool of myself on Capitol Street, and my daughter isn’t embarrassed about it, and my mother would probably have thought it was OK, too!”