Exploring William Faulkner with good friends

Published 9:38 am Thursday, October 19, 2017

By Joel McNeece

Seldom is the sequel to anything just as good as the first time around, but Dudley Davis, Robert Stewart and I gave it a good go in New Albany last week.

Our primary destination was the Union County Heritage Museum in downtown New Albany, where Dudley, a unique artist who lives near the Reid Community, has contributed through the years numerous pieces from his collection for display there. But as we did on our first visit two years ago, we managed to make time for a visit to a local coffee shop, a good eatery and do a lot of catching up.

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The return trip to the museum was to see the new William Faulkner library they’ve added since our last visit and the expanded Faulkner garden, which is my favorite.

Jill Smith, museum curator and a former student of my father-in-law Gale Denley, met us at the back door and ushered us into the large library where I was instantly captured by a cast concrete bust of Faulkner sculpted by Calhoun County native John Steele Davis.

I’ve written stories on John and his artistry in the past that covers multiple mediums from fine furniture to bows and arrows, to all kinds of sculpture. It was just recently at the Skuna Art Fest that I was visiting with his brother Andy, who makes some fabulous wooden chairs of his own when he told me John was in Idaho right now “experiencing life.”

You could see the “life experience” in Faulkner’s eyes on this bust that glistened blue, green and bronze. The library, whose large windows overlook the outside garden, includes all of Faulkner’s works and practically everything ever written about him, which is substantial.

A giant grizzly bear stands towering over you as you walk past the shelves of books or park in the comfortable seating area complete with a bottle of booze (not Faulkner’s brand, however) and some glasses as if they’re ready to be filled.

After flipping through book after book, we ventured down the hall to the art gallery where a number of artists had done interpretive works of Faulkner and his “Big Woods” book of stories. “The Bear” has always been my favorite Faulkner story.

Two of my favorite works of art in the show was by Suzanne Talbert, of Oxford, who painted a beautiful work of the front of The Calhoun County Journal for the recent Plein Air project in Bruce. That painting now proudly hangs in our newspaper office. She had a portrait of Faulkner and a gorgeous piece called “Faulkner’s Woods.”

Prominently featured on one wall was a giant, hollowed pine log from Dudley’s collection. It stood more than six feet tall and was a major focal point in the room.

He said he had gotten it from Ricky Box and spent some time getting it smooth and bringing out every unique knot and grain in the more than six-foot piece of wood.

Other highlights of the show included a glass etching by Haley Yurkow of Brandon featuring Faulkner’s image on a bottle of bourbon (which would have been more appropriate on the library table). Gail Morton of Thaxton had a piece of fired clay that appeared in constant motion and was hard to look away from.

The most magnificent piece of them all was outside in the garden. It was another hand sculpted piece by John Davis of a life-size Lena Grove — the pregnant young woman in Faulkner’s “Light in August” who leaves Alabama coming to Mississippi to find her baby’s father. The statue was surrounded by thick, blooming yellow jasmine and more colorful zinnias than you could count.

Dudley took up residence on the nearby bench to take it all in. Robert, a former botany professor at Delta State, took careful notes of everything he saw. I enjoyed the peaceful bubbling fountain in between the giant trains rumbling through downtown New Albany every few minutes during our visit.

We made time for two stops by AC’s Coffee Shop for a good cup of Joe and had lunch at Tallahatchie Gourmet for their daily special. Neither disappointed.

Faulkner was such a big point of emphasis for this visit and our conversations about everything seemed to come back to a famous Faulkner quote — “To understand the world, you must first understand a place like Mississippi.”

It’s another Faulkner quote that means more to me, however — “Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors, try to be better than yourself.”

Traveling with Dudley and Robert and sharing their experiences motivates one to do exactly that.

Joel McNeese is the publisher of the Calhoun County Journal.