The Blue Devil of North Mississippi.
As a coincidence I happen to have been baptized a Methodist, and as Methodists are understood to be surprisingly sensible I would like to say that the Methodists won the day, but that would be a lie; the Baptists won out in the end. They have the biggest church--the biggest building in town, with their youth center a close second (about twice the size of the civic center). Maybe I'm exaggerating. I've only been inside it once; I have not since been invited back again, although I'm sure if I inquired in earnest I would be ushered directly to the front row. I'm not saying the Baptists are bad people because I try not to be bigoted or classist. So I'll just say they run things in Water Valley.
At least I'd like to say that it's the Baptist church that runs Water Valley, but I wouldn't want to offend anyone of standing in another church; so I'll say instead that it's the Protestant church that runs things in Water Valley. And other than the artists that includes just about everyone. There are something like 13 churches within one square mile of the historical marker in Railroad Park that proclaims Water Valley the cradle of North Mississippi Methodism. It wasn't until I started exploring more of Mississippi that I realized that wasn't a particularly noteworthy concentration of churches. In fact it's a rather humble reflection of the town.
It surprises some people, then, to learn that the city's school mascot is something called a blue devil, which looks exactly as it sounds. It kind of seems a little hypocritical to outsiders, if not theologically then at least in terms of optics, to play games under the image of the sworn enemy of the Protestant work ethic. It didn't matter that much, though, until John Davis, the woodsman wiping the cucumber juice from his chin with his sleeve, discovered how to make art with concrete.
Davis lived down the hill from me on the so-called wrong side of the tracks in a neighborhood he referred to as the Lower East Side. Most every other white person of means, whether an artist or a Protestant, lived on the opposite wall of the valley. It's not really that bad on our side, especially if you're white and live on Wood Street, where I lived. But I suppose there are some places I wouldn't walk at night. Why not? Maybe I'm a little bit classist.
Most of the other artists--and there are a lot of us--live on the other side of the valley, too. Water Valley has cultivated a reputation as something of an artist's colony over the last ten years. A certain kind of colonizer has definitely moved in, most of them far more audacious in their expressed aims and interests than Davis or I. These West Side artists banded together in for--progress organizations like the Water Valley Arts Council and the Main Street Association, tightly-knit neoliberal clubs disproportionately controlled by New Orleans expats like the signpainter, Bill Warren. Davis and Warren did not get along particularly well, and due to sheer geographical proximity I sided more often than not with Davis. We were both disabled, we were both outsiders, and we both lived on the wrong side of town.
So when one fall day Davis drove his Chevy to the mud flats outside of town, collected six buckets of unfiltered Yocona sand (dog waste and all), mixed it up at home with a $4 bag of Portland cement in the back of a wheelbarrow and started to sculpt, I allied myself with him immediately and jumped right in. It was good timing. I'd been reading Wonders of the Ancient World, a full-color high-gloss hardback from the NGS' esteemed National Geographic Atlas of Archaeology series, one of my favorite series in the world. Wonders posits the mound-builder as a central category of civilization, like burial rites or grain surplus. And at that time I was so without direction, so unfit--despite the perfect ease and unyieldingly excellent weather cycles of North Mississippi in the waning years of the Obama Administration--that I identified completely with the idea. Society had priests, farmers, soldiers, and moundbuilders, and it was obvious to a fault which category Davis and I belonged.
A few other disaffected young men in Davis' community joined in, too. Cement is cheap and a birdbath is always good for $150. But I had little contact with these other men, whose work was obviously inferior to Davis'; their pharaonic busts and cheap crosses disturbed me, and I felt no small urge to distinguish myself. I converted my entire basement, once devoted to my letterpress enterprise, into a full-time sculpture studio, while Davis did most of his in his backyard. I ordered barrels of pozzolana ash from Roman volcanoes and mimicked ancient recipes to manufacture hermae, four-sided pillars with the heads and phalli of Hermes. I kept my sculptures their natural pale colors in the post-classical tradition but Davis experimented with bright colors and metallic paints in the genuine classical tradition. I used plywood to make re-usable molds while Davis remained committed to organic forms, relying on skeletons of rebar and chicken wire to keep the wet concrete together.
We bought a welding machine and learned how to weld heavier and more complicated frames to withstand ever-growing concentrations of concrete. In the spirit of collaboration we began drafting plans for a massive, state-funded enterprise at the gates to the city, striding the highway beside the Hollywood-style lettering that was already there. These plans failed to materialize, but it wasn't long until the WVAC and the MSA reached out to Davis about putting on a show in the spring--or maybe it was the other way around, I wouldn't know. Either way the arrangement broke down and David decided to host his own show, totally independent of any institutional pressure, in the parking lot of the old gas station that had recently been converted into a successful crawfish restaurant.
We hauled our latest creations through the valley and put them on display. Davis' own contribution to the show was a larger-than-life centaur and was condemned, like mine, as a graven image. They caused a sensation: the exposed breasts and phalli of my Greco-Roman hermae caused enough of a stir that the mayor himself, a good-old-boy chicken broker, had to come down and order the statues covered-up. The restaurant supplied a pair of old gas station attendant jerseys for the cause.
After the show the weather changed and it got too hot to work in my basement, so I retired from concrete sculpture altogether. My sculptures found a home in my front garden; shortly afterwards a 12' wooden cross appeared in the opposite yard. Davis worked right through the heat, building, as though in direct provocation to his community's self-balanced scales, the most graven image of all: a life-sized, full-colored Blue Devil with a pitchfork, a top hat, and a metallic blue suit.
There's an empty lot right in the middle of Water Valley that the Main Street Association has rebranded a Pocket Park. In the beginning they talked about making a garden-and-sculpture park, but they failed to procure any sculptures.
John Davis immediately tried to find a buyer for his Blue Devil but was asking a tidy sum and had trouble attracting any interest, so one night he loaded it onto the back of his Ranger and dropped it off right under the banner for Pocket Park. The overnight appearance of a bright Blue Devil in the middle of Main Street caused some controversy the next day. The WVAC objected to the piece on aesthetic grounds, which was fair enough; the blue skin of the devil was one thing, but it's nightmarish, metallic blue-black clothing clashed with virtually any aesthetic imaginable.
Yet the WVAC was not without its own controversy on this front, having just initiated work, likewise without significant community input, on a somewhat uninspired mural of a blue wave--resembling, according to more than one onlooker, an ad for cola--with an equally uninspired color palette. Bill Warren, the signpainter, took it upon himself to complete the project over several weeks, working away in the soaring heat. The finished project was something of a miscalculation, and the presence of the Blue Devil didn't make it any better.
Davis hurt his knee soon after and spent the next 9 months in bed perfecting a bust of William Faulkner to copy and sell, which I considered a disappointingly normative end to an otherwise promising vision. Upon his recovery he sold his house and left Mississippi, heading first to neighboring Arkansas where a gallery was going to show his Faulkner bust. Almost immediately he received a call from the member of the Main Street Association asking Davis just where exactly his Blue Devil had gotten off to; it had disappeared from Pocket Park overnight.
A flurry of speculation followed in Water Valley once the news broke. A general contention was that the Baptists had obviously taken it down, which some people thought would be a typical shame, but others regarded as a sympathetic instance of direct action. The realists amongst us thought it most likely the work of some rowdy teenagers, drunk football kids looking for a harmless target and finding, everyone agreed, an admittedly fruitful one.
Some of Davis' friends, including fellow concrete artists, believed it more than a little bit likely that the local government itself was behind the disappearance, and if there was a lackluster police response it was because the police themselves were directly involved with an entirely-too-fishy situation. Others even blamed the signpainter, Bill Warren. I liked both of these ideas very much but, when it came down to it, must admit that I blamed the Christians. They'd sent the mayor to desecrate my hermae with gas station jerseys; what else were people like that capable of?
Davis filed a police report from abroad and, when the people involved realized that the alleged value of the piece meant they had a felony on their hands, the statue turned up at the station. It was missing a hand, its tail, and had a gaping hole in the back, but was otherwise still breathing. The devil was rehoused back at the gas-station-cum-crawdad-hole for the time being, and rather than press charges Davis asked that the culprit make a donation to the Elementary School library instead. Recent reports have been unable to confirm the donation.
Ultimately the crime really did go straight to the top--the vice-mayor, a position that I don't think any of us knew even existed, directed the removal, and subsequent return, of the devil. Today that man is the mayor.
The Blue Devil found a final resting place in Durham, North Carolina, where Davis shared his story on a local radio show. I returned to school in the north. Davis spent some more time abroad in Utah, California, and India before finally returning to Mississippi. He bought a patch of land in the hill country and built a haybale house, perhaps the first of its kind in the state.
His friends were glad to have him back. They welcomed him home on Facebook. "Why did you come back, John?" they asked; "Is it because you see that the good outweights the bad here?"
"I came back because this is home to most of my friends and family and there is plenty of water," he said.
As for me, I have no plans to return.
Caption: My hermae covered up by the mayor with gas station jerseys. All photos credited to John Davis
Caption: First Baptist Church on Main Street.
Caption: John Davis showing off a home-made banjo.
Caption: The "pharaonic busts and cheap crosses."
Caption: Hollywood-style sign at the entrance to town.
Caption: Davis' centaur in the back of a truck.
Caption: The Blue Devil in front of Warrens wave mural.
Caption: Davis' Faulkner bust.
Caption: Portrait of the Blue Devil.
Caption: Davis' new haybale house.
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|Publication:||The Carolina Quarterly|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2019|
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