is a still life artist from Oxford, Mississippi, whose work is often described as “photorealism.” His paintings have appeared in galleries in New York City, Los Angeles, New Orleans, Jackson, Mississippi, and Santa Fe, New Mexico, to name a few. His beautifully published book “Portals,” a collection of his paintings, has attracted considerable attention. He is interviewed in this excerpt from the book by his son Zach Tutor.
Q: How is an artist different from other people?
A: An artist is born with heightened sensibilities. Please keep in mind that whenever I use the word artist I’m only speaking for myself. I can’t speak for other artists. Perhaps I shouldn’t have used the phrase an artist is different from other people, because I am speaking only for myself. Let’s just say I am different.
Q: What is it that makes you different?
A: I was born an artist. Maybe it would be more accurate to say being born with heightened sensitivities combined with being born an artist.
Q: …which made your childhood not normal?
A: As well as the rest of my life.
Q: Will you talk more about that early part of your life? Much has been written about your artwork, and it has been seen by a great number of people around the world, but the general public knows very little about you as a person. Were you rich? Poor? Were there any traumatic experiences for you as you were growing up? Surely there were.
A: You’re making me laugh.
Q: I’m serious.
A: Actually there is a large amount of knowledge that a viewer can gain about me from simply looking at my artwork. How far back would you like to go?
Q: All the way. At this point in the story, you have just been born and you are aware of yourself as an entity, right?
A: Very aware. Very born.
Q: And then…
A: Not poor, not rich. No traumas—unless you want to call being born a traumatic experience. Upon reflection, it was. But I recovered from it almost immediately. And became very interested in my new life. As I mentioned, my parents adored me. When they weren’t working they were interacting with me. I always had an abundance of toys. I had the perfect situation for learning about the world around me.
Q: You started in a grocery store…
A: I started in a hospital room. But, yes, I became visually interested with the products I saw in our grocery store. At the same time I also became interested in the outside world.
Q: Your parents provided an environment in which you felt protected from menace?
Q: It’s unusual for a child to be brought up without any negative factors affecting him.
A: You seem determined to find something inauspicious in my early life. Should I ask about your childhood?
Q: I’m interviewing you, Dad.
A: I hate to disappoint you, but I had a wonderful childhood. There were the usual splinters and bruised knees. My grandmother told hair-raising ghost stories. A couple of times I saw her twist the head off a hen. The hen flopping around, blood spurting from the neck. I watched her pluck the feathers, cut the chicken up, then put it in a pot on the kitchen stove. Difficult to eat chicken for a while after that. Especially when I thought of the chickens as my friends. Tornadoes were not infrequent in that part of the country. I saw several of them. My grandmother was frightened of them to the point of frenzy. I suppose all these things were disturbing to me to a certain degree. But no, I was not overly distracted by any of these things, probably because my parents and I had a close, loving relationship. I was the only child. I felt safe. I was free to concentrate on what I most enjoyed doing from day to day.
Q: Which was?
Q: What were you looking at?
Q: I want to learn more about your early life so that the reader might better understand your art.
A: So you think the key lies in my childhood?
Q: Very often what defines an adult is a result to a great extent of that person’s childhood experience.
A: In my case I think you are absolutely correct. I have a couple of comments about my looking at things. Then I’ll discuss a topic you hit on earlier—danger, strife, and when and how these things entered my life.
Q: So you didn’t have an ideal childhood after all?
A: I do feel I had an ideal childhood—up to a certain point. So do you want to skip my looking at things and get on to the contention?
Q: You’ve stirred my curiosity. But go ahead about looking.
A: When I look, what I see, for me is the same thing that you might experience if you found a treasure, and it was unclaimed and now belongs to you. I have always been intrigued with looking at distance. The terrain of my childhood was flat and open. During the day I could look into it infinitely deep. At night I could do the same with the sky. I also like to look at things closely. My grandmother’s driveway was gravel. Some days I would search for particularly interesting rocks. My pockets would be full by the time my mom picked me up. To keep my pants from falling down from the weight of the rocks, she made me empty my pockets and only let me keep a few to bring home. I still have some of those rocks. The way I closely examined those rocks and the way I looked at the stars at night and the distance in the day I would later apply to the way I examine objects for use in my paintings. To me, physical objects are portals to a fuller, deeper realization of the world around me.
Q: I should ask now: do you think you can see better than the average person?
A: Yes, in all senses of the word.
Q: Will you tell me now about the contention that you mentioned?
A: I had a wonderful life as a young child. I had everything I wanted. Toys, picture books, comic books, the security from a peaceful and loving family, good health, freedom to play, and the opportunity to do what I most desired: to look at things. This began to change after we moved from the country back into town. Just before I turned six years old, my parents received word that I was to start school. Mom and I went downtown and acquired items on a list: a satchel, crayons, pencils, pencil sharpener, and a notepad. I was so happy with these new things! I had no idea what school was going to be like, but these items suggested to me that it would be something I would enjoy. On the first day of school I immediately suspected I was wrong. Why were all the desks arranged in rows? And all facing in the same direction? Like the other students I was assigned a desk. This was done alphabetically according by name. We were told rules we must follow. After a while I observed that two boys got up from their desks and left the room. Where are they going? I wondered. (They were going for cartons of milk for us, but I didn’t know this yet.) I ran to the door and looked into the hallway. Suddenly I was being scolded by the teacher and led back to my desk. I had never felt such castigation. I realized that I was supposed to do what the teacher wanted and not what I wanted. At mid-morning a bell rang and the students and I went out to the playground. They called it recess. The children began running in a single wave over the playground. I was invited to join them, but to become part of the wave I was told that I had to whistle to join. I didn’t know how to whistle. A girl showed me how to squeal. Squealing with all my might I ran with the pack while thinking, this is absurd. I wanted to be doing things that I wanted to do. Not running with a bunch of deranged kids doing what they wanted. This was my first experience of what lay in store for me. I learned that if I were not constantly on guard, society would absorb me. My individual identity would be lost, and I would become a component of an enormous and powerful machine. Succinctly put, society would direct me instead of I directing myself. I was in for a battle. Fortunately I became aware of this situation early on and learned how to outwardly appear to go along with society’s rules—while at the same time—keep my self. You have to fool Society. You have to let it believe it has you. It’s quite a balancing act, to say the least.
Q: You were determined to keep your self, as you call it. Wouldn’t letting society lead the way have been a lot easier?
A: That’s the way most people go. But I resisted. Later when I learned what the word artist meant, I realized why I had chosen the hard way. Why I had to be true to myself, regardless of what society wanted of me. Otherwise an artist cannot do the things an artist does.
Q: And these things are…
A: To observe the world from the uncompromising viewpoint with which the artist is born. And to create art from what one has seen and felt.
Q: I’ve talked with many artists, Dad, but there is something different about you.
A: Should I take this as a compliment?
Q: You spoke of tornadoes.
A: I often dream of tornadoes. These dreams are among my favorite dreams. The tornadoes in my dreams are beautiful and elegant. I welcome these dreams.
Q: No fear?
A: None at all. I see tornadoes as objects. The way they move, the power they possess, the effect they have on the world… A tornado is like an artist. If you want to understand an artist… interview a tornado.