LAFAYETTE COUNTY — Footsteps crunched over a leafy carpet on an Oxford nature trail early one fall Sunday as about a dozen participants ventured deeper into the woods and delved deeper into their personal connections with the landscape.
For this opening event of “Land & Power: The Summit,” herbalist and gardener Lydia Koltai led a sensory immersion, urging followers to open eyes, ears, even taste buds and toes, to their wild, natural surroundings.
“Nothing like coming upon a space in the woods that’s been prepared for you,” artist daniel johnson said, when the woodsy trek paused at a sheet spread on the ground like an impromptu tablecloth.
“It feels magical,” Maddie Jewess observed.
That was the first, but not the last time such a description would surface that day. Later, in Abbeville, it’d describe the convergence of participants and cross-pollination of contacts, community groups and stories throughout the afternoon and into the evening, in the culmination event of johnson’s place-based artist residency in the county.
“Land & Power: The Summit” was one of two artist-led, community-driven place-based artist residencies in Mississippi this year, organized by the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Center for Art & Public Exchange (CAPE). Their aim is to engage the artist and community in a collaborative exploration of Mississippi places and their history, and produce art that builds deeper understanding. Listening sessions across the state were followed by a call for artist proposals, and a selection from among the submissions. Projects have to be collaborative with community, reflect the community’s goals, challenges and aspirations, and reflect CAPE goals of transparency, equity and truth.
The residency in Lafayette County was a work of Significant Developments, a Jackson creative strategies company founded and led by artist daniel johnson. Using the same methodologies, johnson envisioned the project as a work of social practice art. He’d proposed to dig up clay in different areas of Lafayette County, and make coins from it to see how currency flows through markets and how value rises in exchanges among people. It was an admittedly amorphous aim but, turns out, a cool metaphor for the soft, malleable start that was molded and hardened into something more lasting and durable. Community conversations started with the usual arts and culture leaders, then branched out and went deeper and wider, to people working with civil rights, with farming, with the broader local community.
“The center of gravity seemed to be the relationship between land and power,” johnson said. The clay coins, each a piece of someone’s land and the story behind it, became a sort of currency of conversation — a token of appreciation as each contact gave him their time and attention.“I came to a place where I realized the best thing I can do is bring people together and share their work, so audiences can overlap and these conversations can expand.”
That’s what happened throughout the day, in the summit at The Gordon Community & Cultural Center in Abbeville that involved dozens of collaborators sharing their projects and stories in sessions that invited questions, discussion and reflection.
Topics included fair exchange and permaculture, lynching memorialization, a dance approach to a history of the enslaved and civil rights, litigation in land and power, land through the lens in film, and the county’s legacy of black land ownership — all in shared spaces that gave not only voice, but also fresh ears to deeper issues and untold stories.
In one session, dance professor Jennifer Mizenko presented video highlighting projects that put people in the shoes of others, including the enslaved woman Jane assaulted in the chancellor’s home in 1859. “It’s difficult material. It’s difficult to go there, but when we come out the other side, there’s a lot of power and freedom there,” Mizenko said, “and when you witness it, it creates dialogue and compassion.”
In another, historian and educator Rhondalyn Peairs shared a nuanced view of the legacy of black land ownership, with stories of resilience, autonomy and self-sufficiency in Mississippi’s hill country — a sometimes neglected story because the Delta looms so large in the prevailing national image of the state. The legacy is a passionate topic for Peairs, great-great granddaughter of those who made the transition from enslavement to freedom, with some land in the family more than a century.
A community meal of locally sourced foods from Chicory Market brought a moment to focus on those local economies, as it nourished the gathering. In a roundup of local producers, market owner John Martin noted a Selmer, Tennessee, supplier who intensely farms one acre of land, yet manages wide distribution. “In that model, he’s taken a piece of land and made it very powerful.”
The day’s end felt more like a first step than a wrap-up finish, some collaborators noted. “A priming the pump … an introduction, a splash in the face,” portraitist Jason Bouldin called it.
A better understanding of the residency as social practice art was a key, enlightening takeaway for Robert Saarnio, University of Mississippi Museum director. “What I had previously thought would have been called activism or community organizing, I learned through daniel … is actually social practice art.
“I think the value is going to be tangible for the museum, so we can be more intentionally engaged with our community … It’s about exchange,” he said, with strategies toward community dialogue, crowd-sourcing an exhibition and welcoming active input, all for a more interesting and vital museum. “We’re going to be more intentional about being a welcoming, open, civically engaged, community participating museum.”
April Grayson, filmmaker, oral historian and racial equity practitioner, said the residency and experience with social practice art helped her develop and hone the language to describe the interconnectivity and fabric of her own work. “It’s a pretty magical experience for me, to see a lot of different parts of my life, from oral history work with the Mississippi Rural Legal Services to the lynching memorialization work I do for the Winter Institute, to the work at the museum that I do through the Winter Institute, to my own video and filmmaking … all of that is much more synthesized for me, in a way that helps me.
“This process has helped me recommit to being in Mississippi, as a native Mississippian who’s had a push-pull relationship with the state.”
“One of the things that daniel has been able to do … is really engage the community in a way it hasn’t been engaged before,” said Oxford native Peairs, who’d long observed a separation between the University of Mississippi and the community, even as locals supplied its working base. She saw the residency tie in with this year’s push in public history projects.
“Any opportunity, whether it’s performance art, whether it’s dance and movement, whether it’s spoken word — whatever can get the necessary stories out to the people, is what’s necessary. I’ve been really, really satisfied, and almost proud of the progressive elements in my community this year, that have been working to constantly engage all kinds of folks with the stories that we know are here.”
As johnson said, describing the residency’s development “You soak people in enough imagination, they see in each other what they can create.”