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Governor's Mansion Art Sees The Light ....Again

Nov. 26, 2012
 
Melanie Thortis
Melanie Thortis

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Master craftsman and designer Fletcher Cox strides through a maze of wood and machinery in the cavernous warehouse studio space he shares with several other craftsmen. It’s a chilly fall afternoon, but there’s a hum of activity inside, the buzz of saws balanced by the sounds of a jazz recording coming from somewhere deep inside the building. Sawdust is everywhere, and a couple of dogs are curled up nearby.

He’s eager to show off a project that’s dear to his heart, one that puts him in a unique position. Part curator, part detective and part location scout, he is restoring and returning to the public realm some of the finest examples of Mississippi design and craftsmanship.

Cox stops and picks up a luminous blue glass panel etched with tree and Greek key motifs – one of 16 – and explains, “This was created by Andy Young and Pearl River Glass Studio. It is clear glass, with a layer of cobalt blue glass fused to the surface.” Holding it up to the light, he admires the artistry.

Cox is well known nationally both for the artistry of his design and his woodworking skill in a career that spans over 35 years. A 2006 winner of the Governor’s Award for Artistic Achievement, his work has been featured in Architectural Record, House and Garden and Fine Woodworking. And he has a deep connection to this particular panel of etched glass.

The story of those panels and a host of other works is one of loss and recovery, creativity and restoration, stretching back almost a quarter of a century.

A Real Fixer-Upper

Back in 1988, the private quarters of the Mississippi Governor’s Mansion was in need of a facelift. Ray Mabus had just been elected governor, and he enlisted renowned architect and Mississippi native Stephen Perkins to handle the remodel.
“There was a budget for renovating the mansion, and at the time they went to look at it, it was all cut up in this crazy warren of dark hallways and little rooms, with harvest gold shag carpet on the floor,” Cox says.

Everyone agreed immediately that the space needed to be opened up and walls knocked out to add light. The flow of traffic had to be addressed, and floors had to be replaced, but there was also a sense that the space needed architectural adornment.

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“Mabus felt the space was important to show visiting officials and trade delegations,” says Cox. “He felt we needed to use some of our local craftspeople to show that Mississippians are capable of holding our own with the rest of the world.
“So, Stephen said, ‘I tell you what, why don’t you call up Fletcher and see if he can put together a team of people who can do some stuff, and I’ll design some sites within the building where we can install architectural adornment.’”

Perkins designed about 24 sites in all, including ornamental columns, floor inlays, stair railings and other environmental fixtures. Since the structure of the mansion prevented skylights, in many rooms, he mimicked the effect by adding a coffer, or recessed area of the ceiling, which is indirectly lit. These coffers became the site for some of the most innovative and beautiful craftwork.

Cox recruited Andy Young and Pearl River Glass studio, woodworkers Bill Rush and Bob Willis, basket weaver Diane Dixon, papermaker Blanche Batson and faux-finisher Chester Mixon, for the project. They were asked to focus both on the Mississippi location and the Greek revival style of the building. In many cases, classical architectural decorations handled in a contemporary way were the happy result.

Their work was not publicly funded, the renovation budget from the state taking care of more mundane structural items. Instead, a private foundation set up specifically for this purpose raised funds for the art project, donated the work to the state of Mississippi and then disbanded.

They spent 18 months on the commission. Cox grins, “We managed to get it all in, in time to open the building, which was amazing, because you know, craftspeople are notoriously cranky and independent.”

Hidden Treasure

Over time, subsequent administrations put their own touch on the mansion’s private quarters however, and gradually many of the installations were removed and placed in storage with the Department of Archives and History.

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But a chance meeting on the street several years ago changed all that.
According to Cox, Malcolm White ran into Hank Holmes, the director of Archives and History, and asked him if the governor’s mansion artwork was still in storage with his department—or was that just an urban myth. After confirming that the items still exist, White, director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, asked to have the collection transferred to the custody of his agency in an effort to get it back in the public realm.

Cox describes the phone call that followed, “Malcolm called me up and said, “I heard you were the crew chief on this job. Why don’t you meet me for lunch and we’ll talk about it.’”

White already had a plan. He wanted to restore the works and place them in public spaces. With a mini-grant from the Mississippi Arts Commission, Cox set about to assess the condition of the materials, catalog the items, and scout possible public locations as permanent display sites.

With the preliminary work done, Cox turned to the Community Foundation of Greater Jackson for support. Two subsequent project grants from the Arts Commission were awarded to the nonprofit foundation to fund the restoration and installation of the various pieces, a process that is ongoing. Cox serves as the director of the project.

Show and Tell

Two of the pieces have been completely restored and installed, and another is almost finished. Others are in the wings.

Cox is enthusiastic when he describes them, “I’ve completed two pieces. One is the Choctaw lightning bolt motif that Diane Dixon did, made up of four panels of woven strips of copper, stainless steel and brass. It was originally a backlit coffer screen, with points of light coming through the weaving. I framed that up in four panels in an almost square frame, and it’s hanging on a wall at the Mississippi Crafts Center.

“And then the other piece is the coffer screen originally in the upstairs elevator lobby, clear glass panels from Pearl River Glass etched in alternating Corinthian column and magnolia motifs. I built a wooden frame for them, and they’re hanging on the wall at the entrance to the Mississippi Story exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art.”

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Next up are the etched blue glass panels he showed earlier, originally mounted as a circular coffer screen in the governor’s office. Cox modifies the pieces to fit the locations, “This one is going to go out to the crafts center. It’s easy enough to straighten out and mount it on the wall that faces the Natchez trace, up high on a clerestory, so there’ll be light coming through it. It will be really beautiful.”

Some pieces are not salvageable. All of the paper art is beyond repair, and there are pieces that are just plain missing. Everything has been moved several times, and some of it took a couple of hits in the moves, but many pieces remain.
The Crazy County Columns — a series of four solid cherry and ash decorative columns — combine beauty, craftsmanship and whimsy. Designed and crafted by Cox himself, the ash segments are carved with the counties of Mississippi, wildly scattered about. Noting their popularity, Cox smiles and says there’s a spirited discussion about where to display them.

Cox points out two more designs nearby that present particular challenges. He is the original artist for both. The first is a beautiful cypress coffer screen crafted in a continuous Greek key design. It was damaged during its removal but is reparable. Though a traditional design, the Greek key has always been used as a shallow surface decoration. Cox’s twist? He did the post-modern thing and made it a foot deep.

The second is an exquisitely delicate coffer screen made of solid cherry and maple veneer, based on the traditional Chinese ice ray lattice design.

The beauty, Cox notes, is the maple is thin enough so that light shining through it makes it glow. But he acknowledges that this restoration will be tricky, commenting that it’s difficult to imagine a location that’s not specifically designed to display it, “This, as you can see, is a very special installation, and I’m just kind of clueless as to what to do with it right now. But it’ll come to me.”

Everything Old is New Again

Cox is philosophical, happy to be a part of the restoration of some of the best of Mississippi craftsmanship, a project in which he was involved from the beginning.

“I’ll tell you one more thing. It was so stressful getting everything into the mansion on time, that it’s the only time I’ve ever had a penalty clause in a contract, which means I had to give up some of my fee for every day it was late. I lost sleep over that,” he remembers. “I was not able fully to appreciate what our achievement was.”

Near the end of the Mabus administration, though, Cox attended a party at the Governor’s Mansion and was struck. He marvels, “I was able to look at it all again with fresh eyes and think, ‘Whoa, we did pretty damn good here.’

“And it’s been wonderful to be able to resurrect it. It’s such a hopeful feeling to have something that I thought was dead, and in the ground, come back to life.”