Dr. J. Kim Sessums always starts off with a story.
Before Sessums can begin the process of creating a piece of art, he must write down a narrative.
“I have to explain what I’m trying to express,” Sessums, 65, said recently one evening while sitting in the two-story Brookhaven art studio behind his home.
The story of his art also has roots in the loss of his father when he was 5.
Sessums said he wished he had some words written down by his father — something left behind that he could go back to or revisit.
“My wife made a comment about our kids. She said, ‘don’t you want the kids to know what you were thinking about when you were working on a particular piece of art,’” Sessums said.
“She knew about how I felt about my father.”
I have to explain what I’m trying to express. My wife made a comment about our kids. She said, ‘don’t you want the kids to know what you were thinking about when you were working on a particular piece of art.
Writing down a narrative before drawing a picture, painting a work, creating a bronze sculpture, or putting together a mixed media piece, isn’t common in the world of art.
Sessums isn’t what most people would describe as a conventional professional artist.
Sessums has been a full-time OB-GYN physician for 35 years in Brookhaven.
Throughout that time, Sessums has managed to create works of art that fill private collections as well as pieces that stand as public monuments.
Just a few of Sessums’ most well-known pieces include sculpted portrait busts of Mississippi writer Eudora Welty, world famous evangelist Billy Graham, and realist painter Andrew Wyeth. Some of his public monuments include sculptures of Coach Johnny Vaught at Vaught Hemingway Stadium at Ole Miss, the Boo Ferris sculpture at Delta State University, the African American Soldier monument at the Vicksburg National Military Park and the Mississippi Monument at Shiloh National Military Park in Tennessee.
The juggle between his art and medicine hasn’t always been easy.
In the days before he had a studio, Sessums sometimes worked on his art at King’s Daughters Medical Center.
When Welty asked him when and how he created her sculpture while working full-time as a doctor, Sessums said he told her, “In the middle of the night between labor and delivery.”
Welty quipped back, “You should call the piece, Between Pap Smears.”
Sessums, his older brother Kevin, and younger sister Karole grew up in Pelahatchie until they didn’t.
When Sessums was 5, their father, Howard Sessums — a well-known high school basketball star drafted by the New York Knicks and a coach/teacher at Pelahatchie High School — died in a car crash.
About a year later, their mother, Nancy Carolyn Sessums, died of cancer.
Sessums’ grandparents — Nancy Carolyn’s parents — took in the children in 1965 and raised them just outside of Forest in rural Scott County.
“My grandparents were good people. They didn’t have anything. We were poor. But we knew we were very loved,” Sessums said.
During those years in Scott County, Sessums just started drawing.
“I drew cartoons. I just had this inclination to do it. Nobody told me to do it or showed me how. It was just there,” Sessums said.
When Sessums was in the 10th-grade, Joe Rex Dennis — a family friend who worked for the Houghton Mifflin publishing company — exposed him and his brother to art and books.
Dennis noticed Sessums’ interest in drawing.
“One day he (Dennis) brought me a big coffee table book from his shelf. It was “Wyeth at Kuerners” by the artist Andrew Wyeth. I went through the book, and it changed my life. I studied it. I was fascinated that he (Wyeth) could take something ordinary and make it beautiful,” Sessums said.
Dennis urged Sessums to go to college to study architecture. Sessums got into Mississippi State with help from Dennis but quit after six months.
“I just couldn’t do it. It was too much work,” Sessums said of the school’s architecture program.
Sessums wound up at Belhaven College in Jackson on a basketball scholarship. There he met Art Department Chairman Jon Whittington who introduced him to the ways art is composed and the history of artists that came before him.
But Sessums also really enjoyed his science classes.
Wayne Walley, the head of the biology department at Belhaven, suggested medical school.
Sessums wound up going to medical school in 1979.
Sessums and his medical partner, Steve Mills, decided to open their practice in Brookhaven.
“Brookhaven seemed to be the best fit, best opportunity for growth, and both our wives agreed to the town. At the time, there were no OB-GYN doctors in Brookhaven. The hospital, King’s Daughters Medical Center, offered to build a new Labor and Delivery Unit if we would come,” Sessums said.
Brookhaven has been the place where Sessums and his wife, Kristy, have raised their four children, where Sessums has helped bring other people’s children into the world, and where the doctor’s art and his practice of healing have co-existed together as it still does to this day.
Sessums wasn’t the only one of his siblings who found success in the arts.
Kevin Sessums became a professional writer.
A magazine scribe for most of his career, Kevin Sessums wrote celebrity profile cover stories for 15 years at Vanity Fair and penned the 2007 memoir, “Mississippi Sissy,” about growing up gay in rural Mississippi.
Karole Sessums runs a web design agency.
Family as art
Sessums’ art studio features a library and workspace on the first floor and a gallery on the second.
The art in the gallery showcases his earliest graphite pencil drawings, some of his bronze sculptures, and some mixed-media pieces.
One of those pieces is a mixed media/assemblage called “Nancy Carolyn,” named after his mother.
It’s one of the most personal artworks he’s ever produced, he said.
The piece includes the phone from his grandparents’ house — the phone that delivered the call to his grandfather that Sessums’ father was killed in a crash.
There’s a letter from his mother to her sister that includes a passage about how she didn’t feel well at the time, and she knew something was wrong. His mother passed away not long after. There’s a tiny Zenith television from the grandparent’s home and elementary school photos of his mother that adorn the installation.
There is a story behind each piece of art Sessums creates.
Somehow, the stories of family, home, the ordinary, and the extraordinary have all fused to birth and sustain a Mississippi artist’s life and work.
For more information about Dr. J. Kim Sessums’ art, visit Jkimsessums.com
Photos by Chad Calcote