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Today is August 20, 2019

Painting Memories

The quintessential Mississippi farm in the early 1900s is the backdrop of Saul Haymond’s paintings. His visionary style of art has taken him all over the United States and earned him a place among the country’s most renowned artists.

By Elissa Fulton

Painting Memories

Saul Haymond of Pickens displays one of his small oil paintings of a rural farm home he remembers from childhood.

    Saul Haymond's paintings are rich with history from his days as a young boy on a rural Mississippi farm. His parents were sharecroppers who spent long days in the cotton fields.
    At the age of 4, Haymond discovered he had a talent while drawing on brown grocery sacks with charcoal from the fireplace in his family's Ebenezer home.
    “My step-daddy hated it,” said Haymond, remembering his childhood. “Back in those days, it was an offense to the older folks to waste time.”
    Haymond recalls carving small figurines from soft wood with a butter knife. His step-father would burn the sculptures as soon as he would finish one.
    “He felt like I could always find other things to do with my time rather than silly things like creating art.”
    Haymond was 12 years old before he was able to start school. He was unable to read and write as a teenager when he left home for the Job Corps in the early 1960s. Sargent Shriver, a political leader and member of the Kennedy family, founded the program in 1964. It was part of a series of legislation from President Johnson’s administration known informally as the “War on Poverty.”
    “The program was a way for the government to help people get jobs,” Haymond said. “It focused on education and vocation. It was through the Job Corps that those people began training me as an artist.”
    Haymond credits his learning to read and write during his time in the program to Clarence B. Rice, a professor from Howard University in Washington, D.C. “I will never forget him,” Haymond said with esteem. “He told me he was going to give me something that nobody could ever take from me. He spent four years tutoring me and when I got back to Mississippi, nobody could believe I could read and write.”
    Education in his trade was not always easy for Haymond. He believes that if an artist is born painting, he can’t be taught because he is going to paint his own way. Haymond, however, had an art teacher that did not agree with that concept.
    “My teacher kept wanting me to follow him the way he was doing it, but I just couldn’t do it,” he said, laughing as he remembered his training. “He asked me why I couldn’t just follow the rules, so I told him it was because I just saw things a little bit different than he did.”
    It is that persistence to do things a little bit different that earned Haymond a fellowship with some of the country’s most prestigious art foundations. His art has been exhibited in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda in Washington, D.C., St. Mary’s College and St. Joseph’s College in Maryland.
    Haymond sold his third painting to Sargent Shriver and was well on his way to success. In 1987, he began applying for artist’s grants and fellowships.
    “I was told by many in the area that I would never get funding because nobody likes hearing about people in a cotton field,” Haymond said. “And I guess it’s true that no one likes to hear about poverty, but I tried anyway.”
    For 40 years, Haymond worked full-time as a farm laborer during the day and painted at night. His persistence paid off. The artist has won fellowships with many art foundations across the country, including the Mississippi Arts Commission, the Southern Federation, the Ludwig-Vogelstein Foundation, the Adolph & Esther Gottlieb Foundation, the Pollack-Krasner Foundation and the world-renowned John Simon Guggenheim Foundation.
    “A lady told me one time while I was in New York City that the odds of me winning all these grants were 200 million in one,” said Haymond, a bit amused. “Imagine that! This little old man from Mississippi collecting all these fellowships. I don’t have a college degree, but to me, all these outnumber any degree I could have ever earned.”
    Haymond paints visions from his childhood, from dreams or even by hearing a story in which he imagines the scenery.
    “They call me a vision artist. That is what my fellowship was based upon and without that categorization, I probably wouldn’t have gotten a fellowship, let alone as many as I have,” Haymond said proudly.
    “Every painting I’ve ever done, I go over to a place, and come back and paint it. Or you can sit down and tell me a story and the painting automatically pops up there in my mind. When you can take things from history itself and put it down on a canvas, or in a song, or even poetry, you are actually called a person of vision.”
    Many of Haymond’s paintings spring from childhood events he remembers, but some are from visions he dreams about. “I sketch a lot of my dreams out and it’s as if I was there. Sometimes it is an imaginary place, or I remember the smell of old dusty roads and I just paint it.”
    The technique he uses is different from that of most conventional artists. Haymond paints the canvas black before he begins painting an image so that the light is reflected from the canvas. He claims to see the painting before he even paints it.
    “I know that may not be the right way to do it for some folks, but it’s hard to train someone to do something different when they’ve been doing it their own way for so long.”
    As with most art, each one of Haymond’s paintings has a story. One painting he is particularly fond of depicts a young boy lying on the floor of an old cabin, next to a kerosene lamp. “This is a memory and everything is exactly as I remember it. Even the kerosene lamp that is only half full because that’s all we could afford.”
    Despite all his accomplishments through the years and all the interesting people he has met in the art community, Haymond’s motivating factor for staying in Holmes County came from his first cousin and close friend, former state Rep. Robert Clark.
    “When my cousin was in the House and on the Appropriations Committee, every time I saw him he’d ask me when I was coming home. He’d say there’s no place like home and when you get back, you can stay a while,” Haymond said. “I lived away for many years and even though those people in New York City are nice people, the cost of living up there is extreme.”
    Haymond has learned the ropes of the art world and endured many trials as an artist. Luckily, he had a few friends, particularly the late Anson Peckham, a New York City art dealer, who helped him along the way.
    “Mr. Peckham came down to Mississippi and said he wanted some of my paintings for an exhibit. I took them all out, laid them in the yard and told him to pick the ones he wanted. He asked me what I was doing. You see up there, they handle art with white gloves. Some of those painting have their own air-conditioned rooms. I guess I just didn’t know any better,” Haymond said as he remembered how green he was as an artist. “They take art very seriously up there in New York City.”
    Haymond sells his art through galleries and museums, and accepts commissions.   
    “You see, it’s very hard to become a Guggenheim winner, and once they support you, they have higher standards for how your work is sold. That was another thing they had to teach me. I can’t just go sell my paintings at a flea market anymore.”
    Haymond paints the history of Mississippi as he remembers it. Though there are some things we all would probably rather forget, he does not intend to create a racial barrier or make anyone feel uncomfortable. He’d rather use his work to educate.
    “People ask me why I paint cotton fields in today’s world, and I tell them that it’s our history. It is education, and when us old folks are gone, the stories are gone. You can have all these modern machines but to have your mind be able to go back and come back up, you’d be surprised what you learn. And if you don’t pay attention to history, it’s a good chance it will repeat itself,” he said.
    “Looking back now, it makes me feel good because it never discouraged me, and there were good people of all walks of life that helped me along the way.”
    Haymond has painted nearly 5,000 paintings over the course of his life. He says his paintings are much like the blues. “You can sing the blues and gospel, and these paintings are the same as that. Only difference is, you can see it.”
   Haymond was finally able to retire a few years ago and now spends most of his days at his home in Pickens, Miss. where he is a Yazoo Valley Electric member. He spends his time painting or working on other hobbies. In addition to his talent as an oil painter, he paints with pastels and watercolors and draws with pen and ink.
    “I’m still just a struggling artist. I ain’t rich, I just have a lot of paintings.”

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