Eudora Welty was an infant in 1910, a few days after her first birthday, when she was taken to the window to see Halley’s Comet in the sky over Jackson, Mississippi. She was in her mother’s arms, sleeping. Did she see it in a dream? A few years later, when her family moved to what is now the Eudora Welty House and Garden in Belhaven, her father put a telescope out in the yard. Eudora learned the names of the constellations. When she knew how to read, she learned their legends, beginning on her sixth or seventh birthday, when she was presented with Volume One of “Our Wonder World,” a children’s encyclopedia. Opening it, the first thing she came across was “How to Read the Heavens Like a Book.” That combined two favorite things: reading and looking at the sky.
Her father also taught her about cameras. The language of photography: focus, framing, and composition, and the techniques of contrast and double-exposure underlie what she wrote for the next seven decades: five novels, six collections of short stories, book reviews, essays, and the remarkable memoir One Writer’s Beginnings.
The year Halley’s Comet passed again, in 1986, Welty, in honor of her writing, was given the President’s National Medal of Arts. She had already won the Pulitzer Prize, four O. Henry Awards for her short stories, and international acclaim for her writing. The photographs she took in the 1930s, while traveling Mississippi with the Work Projects Administration, are considered classics of their own: as clear-eyed and compassionate as her prose.
In Welty’s photographs and in her writing, everyday life is shown as in some way miraculous: that courage, humor, hope, and joy are what all people at any time have had in common. It is this vision that combines for Welty the past and present, the old and the new, the reality of life on earth and legends of the stars in the sky. She passed away in 2001. Her accomplishments encourage new visions. For further reading.
Eudora Welty’s vision of ancient classical legends that shadow the world we live in now is passed on in Biennial exhibits at the Mississippi Museum of Art by Clarence John Laughlin’s haunting double-exposure photographs, full-scale replicas of columns from the ruins of Windsor Plantation, and a modern interpretation of the Goddess of Mississippi and other sculptures from the top of the Mississippi State Capitol. The legends of ancient Greece inspire the displays of hand-made quilts from Port Gibson named after constellations and whimsical electronic sculptures, also named after constellations, created by Mississippi master James Seawright. The Biennial exhibits are accompanied by commentary – and story-telling — from National Book Award winner Jesmyn Ward. All exhibits are free to the public.
The twelve weeks of the Biennial will include special events in and around downtown Jackson. Some events complement exhibits. May 8 is the premiere of a documentary film about Clarence John Laughlin, the American master of Miss Welty’s idea of two pictures at once in one frame. May 1 there’s a show at the planetarium of Mimi Garrard’s Virtual Constellation Sculptures adapting James Seawright Constellation sculptures to a new medium. Biennial events include live performances: May 14 Obie Award-winning actress Brenda Currin and Hattiesburg’s Philip Fortenberry will perofrm in concert with the Mississippi Symphony Orchestra. The first weekend in June, Oscar-winning Olympia Dukakis will perform a staged reading of Welty’s short story Asphodel. In the third week of April, prize-winning quilts with themes from the constellations will be displayed. All events are free to the public. For a calendar and more information.
Welty called her photographs snapshots: they were taken fast, in a snap. Years later she explained why: “a good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.” As part of the Welty Biennial, children between the ages of 6 and 18 are invited to keep their own memorable moments from running away by entering a SnapShot contest. Prizes will be given in three categories that pass on some of the principles of Welty’s vision: 2 THINGS IN 1 IMAGE / OLD AND NEW / EVERYDAY, MADE SPECIAL For more information, including how to submit photos and win a prize, visit the SnapShot Contest Gallery.
In 2011 the National Book Award for writing a novel was won by Jesmyn Ward, who grew up like Eudora Welty as a girl in Mississippi. Jesmyn was raised in a small African-African community on the Gulf Coast. That’s where the action of her prize-winning book Salvage the Bones is set — the week before Hurricane Katrina. Ward’s protagonist, a teenaged girl named Esch, thinks often of the story of Jason and Medea, whom Esch knows about from a book in her high school library. When asked in an interview about her narrator, Ward had this to say – sharing with Welty and Faulkner and Tennessee Williams – a Mississippian’s double-vision of living simultaneously in the past and present:
I wanted to align Esch with that classic text, with the universal figure of Medea, the antihero, to claim that tradition as part of my Western literary heritage. The stories I write are particular to my community and my people, which means the details are particular to our circumstances, but the larger story of the survivor, the savage, is essentially a universal, human one.
–Jesmyn Ward from an interview with Elizabeth Hoover, The Paris Review, August 2011.
For the Welty Biennial, Jesmyn Ward will write descriptions of the exhibits, descriptions which will appear on the walls as if she was walking along with us and commenting.