This lecture is part of the Divine Disorder Conference held February 24-26, 2015.
“Where there is Doubt, Faith: A Case Study in the Community-Based Preservation Efforts of Margaret’s Grocery and the L.V. Hull Home” By Jennifer Joy Jameson
Jennifer Joy Jameson: I started at the Mississippi Arts Commission just over a year ago, moving from Nashville to Jackson to direct the Folk and Traditional Arts Program. I had taken the art environment altar call several years prior and had known about Margaret’s Grocery but, unfortunately, was never able to visit while the Dennises were still around. My predecessor at the Arts Commission, which I’ll call MAC, was Mary Margaret Miller-White, who moved on in 2013 to manage the Creative Economy Bureau of the state tourism board, “Visit Mississippi”. I’m lucky to still have her around a few floors down, actually, in my building. Our working lives often overlap. This is one of those times. I had actually hoped that we could present this together because much of what I’ll be talking about is the labor of years of her work and checking in on that work, but she had a prior engagement.
I knew coming in that Mary Margaret had been involved in the preservation efforts of two Mississippi sites, Margaret’s Grocery in Vicksburg and L.V. Hull’s Home in Kosciusko since she presented a paper on the subject at the 2012 annual meeting of the American Folklore Society in New Orleans, where I first met her.
Real quick, I kind of want to take a poll. Who among you all are familiar with Margaret’s Grocery? Okay. Who among you all are familiar with L.V. Hull and her work? Okay. Less, yeah.
Since starting at the MAC, I had folks periodically call for information or updates on both the preservation or deterioration of these sites. I’ve been eager to learn what’s occurred since Mary Margaret’s 2012 account. Preparing for this conference was a great jumping-off point for me to directly plug in to the conversation, reexamine what has failed, and what has worked in the case of these two community-based preservation efforts, and hopefully facilitate and encourage some movement forward for the sites in the coming years.
Today I’ll be re-presenting some of Mary Margaret’s writing from 2012, providing a few of my own findings from the past month or so, and providing an up-to-date briefing on the current physical state and preservation of each site.
From around 2008 to 2013, the MAC’s Folk and Traditional Arts Program worked closely with each community forming town hall meetings and awareness campaigns around these valued cultural sites, and facilitating professional evaluation and action plans for the preservation of each space. Both communities showed strong buy-in for the preservation of their respective art environments. However, the results and the preservation process varied immensely.
First, a little context from Mary Margaret. Margaret’s Grocery, home of the now-deceased Reverend Herman D. Dennis and his late wife Margaret, was a one-time country store that was transformed by Dennis into an extension of his ministry. The home featured masonry towers, signs, gates, and sculptures, most inscribed with scripture or excerpts from one of Dennis’ sermons. The late L.V. Hull’s home and yard were full of her brightly-colored artworks. She was popularly known for painting and adorning found objects, such as shoes, televisions, and hubcaps with dots and sayings, many original turn of phrase. Both Margaret’s Grocery and L.V. Hull’s home challenged the conventional ways in which artists created, making them highly valuable cultural assets while also complicating how these environments can be preserved and experienced.
As the Folk and Traditional Arts Director at the Mississippi Arts Commission, the state’s arm for granting and service to the arts, Mary Margaret wrote that her goal was to help the communities facilitate partnerships with individuals and organizations interested in these spaces, to provide grant funding when possible, and to offer assistance and guidance in the preservation efforts. She felt strongly that the preservation work should be a grassroots effort that builds from within the community. Little did she know that it would take nearly three years to get the projects in motion and that many of her own ideas and intentions for the spaces would be reshaped as the projects took form.
First, let’s explore Margaret’s Grocery, located alongside the historic Highway 61, an often mystified but less traveled portion of the Blues Highway on the outskirts of Vicksburg near the Mississippi River. Reverend Dennis was born in 1916 just upriver in Rolling Fork, Mississippi. His mother died in childbirth and Reverend Dennis, who swears he can remember being born and watching his mother die, was raised by an abusive father until the age of 12, when he ran away and was taken in by a white family on a farm between Rolling Fork and Vicksburg. He later joined the military and served in World War II, where it is believed he was first exposed to Freemasons and learned about bricklaying and carpentry. “All are welcome, Jews and Gentiles,” was a phrase often used by Revered Dennis, and while many of the sermons he shared with tourists and visitors were hell fire and brimstone, equality and brotherly love were also major themes of his doctrine.
Reverend Dennis returned to Mississippi in 1979 and met Margaret Rogers, proprietor of Margaret’s Grocery. He told Margaret that if she would marry him, he would build her a castle that the world would come to see. At the time, his new bride ran a country store of sorts, selling snacks, luncheon meat, cold drinks, and sometimes beer from behind the counter. Actually, there are rumors that Margaret’s Grocery was a sometimes juke joint, that when Reverend Dennis came on the scene, that ended. He began transforming their single wide mobile home in the early 1980’s. Over the next 30 years, Dennis fabricated towers, archways, fences, paths, and signs, making Margaret’s Grocery a popular attraction far and wide. One of the most interesting aspects of the site is the school bus in the north side of the property, which Dennis painted and decorated and turned into his church. This is where Reverend Dennis practiced sermons, sometimes alone and sometimes for visitors.
In 2009, through an AFS, that’s the American Folklore Society, technical assistance grant the MAC was able to contract folklorist Fred C. Fussell, who some of you may know as being strategic in the preservation efforts surrounding Eddie Owens Martin’s Pasaquan in Buena Vista, Georgia, to conduct a site visit and provide a report of current standing and best practices for preservation. In that report Fussell writes of Margaret’s Grocery, “Much of the building materials that were employed by Reverend Dennis in creating the site are not impervious to the effects of the elements. Even though the lofty and complex outdoor structures at Margaret’s Grocery are a testimony to Reverend Dennis’ remarkable and creative skills as a brick mason and carpenter, often there are elements of plywood, Styrofoam, plastics, untreated wood and other such potentially degenerative materials employed in weight-bearing positions, thus creating present and future structural weaknesses all around the site.”
To further what is already a complex preservation project, ownership of Margaret’s Grocery was less than conventional. In 2009, both Margaret and Reverend Dennis were both moved to an assisted living facility. This proved detrimental to the upkeep of Margaret’s Grocery as well as its susceptibility to theft and vandalism. Margaret, the sole owner of the land and property, willed that the property be given to her church, Cool Springs Missionary Baptist, once she and Reverend Dennis had passed. The church actually sits just behind the property. Margaret died in 2010 and Reverend Dennis, who died in September of 2012, would spend the next two years in a limited state of lucidity at a local nursing home. Here you can see Mary Margaret, who is my predecessor at the MAC, with the Dennis family.
L.V. Hull was born around 1944 in McAdams, Mississippi, but moved to Kosciusko as a young adult, where she began working as acaretaker for babies and small children, both in her home and in the home of her employers. L.V. began creating artwork in 1975, first through collecting and arranging objects in her home and front yard at 123 Island Street. These early pieces often included careful positioned collections of toys, plates, bottles, buttons, beads, discarded jewelry, and other miscellany, often glued onto a frame, shelf, or display case. L.V. is best known for her dots, which she painted on discarded items, including but not limited to hats, televisions, hubcaps, plastic bottles, and so on.
Most visitors interacted with L.V. from outside the front gate, often coming into the front yard to select an item for purchase, and sometimes passing beyond her porch into a cluttered living room. L.V. had many native plants, which seemed to bloom throughout the season, intermingling with her most recognized canvas: shoes. Many remember L.V. for the quirky and clever phrases she included in her artwork, for example: “Face powder may get a man, but baking powder will keep him.” Here are a couple examples. This one says, “Nothing is dirt cheap anymore.” This one says, “I started with nothing and I still have most of it. Take time to appreciate. Do not just try to understand me, just love me. Mind your business.” I should also mention that the title of this presentation; Where There’s Doubt, Faith; I took that from an L.V. piece that sits in my office that the MAC owns. It’s her take on the prayer of Saint Francis, “Where there is doubt, faith; where there is darkness, hope.” I think I got that right.
Through the same 2009 AFS grant, Fussell wrote a report on the current standing and best practices for preservation of the L.V. Hull home and collection, noting, “The variety of the materials she employed in creating her striking artistic output appears to be nearly endless. However, during the intervening months since L.V.’s death in 2008, the natural elements, the intrusion of wild or unmanaged vegetation and animals, and the hands of occasional trespassers have disrupted the much more orderly arrangement of the front yard as it is remembered and reported by Hull’s neighbors, friends, and patrons, and which is evidenced by numerous documentary photographs that portray the order of the yard and porch as it was maintained by Mrs. Hull during her tenure.”
Similar to Margaret’s Grocery, the ownership of the L.V. Hull home was also in limbo. Following L.V.’s death, the ownership of her home went to her sister Q.T., L.V. and Q.T., who lived in Memphis and cared for their aging mother. However, the title to the house was not free and clear. L.V. incurred vast medical expenses in the final years of her life and used her home as collateral to borrow money through the Medicaid Assistance Program. At the time of her death, L.V. had a Medicaid lean on her home to the tune of $12,000.
When Fred Fussell visited Mississippi in 2009 to evaluate the sites, he provided a much-needed action plan for preservation for each space. His report worked as a jumping-off point for both communities and served many roles: as a next steps blueprint toward preservation, as proof to city and state leaders that the communities were serious and committed to the projects, and as a marketing strategy to raise money for the preservation efforts. The action plans were similar for both environments. The community should establish formalized non-profit organizations whose primary purpose and intent is the preservation and interpretation of each site. The non-profit should settle any questions of ownership of the property and the collection. The collection should be systematically documented, registered, and curated by a professional in the field. The non-profits should create a long-term strategic plan for their respective site.
The Friends of L.V. group in Kosciusko organized quickly to partner with the local community foundation, which served as an umbrella organization for their 501c3 status. Two individuals took leadership roles: Tonya Threet, a program manager at the community foundation, began a formal fundraising effort, and Allen Massey, a local business owner and close friend of L.V.’s, took up responsibility for working to secure the title of the home and all the contents inside the home. I later actually learned that a well-known Columbus, Mississippi photographer, Birney Imes, matched the funds raised by the Friends group to further support the preservation efforts and costs.
Obtaining ownership of the home was important as a matter of transparency, legality, and also safety. L.V. had become a hoarder in the final years of her life and her home was stacked from floor to ceiling with original works, many of which tell the tale of her illness. The strokes and lettering became messy and confused toward the end. She also shared notes about her illness on her works. The home was in serious disrepair and many were afraid that it would catch fire or that the roof would collapse.
After endless calls by Allen Massey and several calls made by former MAC executive director Malcolm White to Medicaid, the lean was reduced from $12,000 to around $800, which was paid by the Friends of L.V. fund. The Friends group then bought the home from Q.T., that’s L.V.’s sister, for $4,000, which was more than the property was appraised given that the space had been rezoned by the city and was deemed too narrow for a home. Q.T. stated that she simply wanted enough money to cover for her mother’s funeral expenses. After two years of formalized fundraising and organizing, the home and all of its contents were now property of the Friends of L.V.
In December 2011, the MAC invited two Mississippi-based archivists, Emily Jones of Delta State University, and Brian Hicks of the DeSoto Museum, to visit the L.V. home and the potential repository for her artwork. Jones then provided a plan of action for the community to catalogue, document, and remove L.V.’s artwork from the home and her front yard. The city of Kosciusko offered the entire basement of its newly-refurbished city hall building as a temporary repository for the artwork and planned to have shelving built to Jones’ specifications. The Friends of L.V. group began removing items in May 2012 in the dead heat of summer and picked back up in September when things cooled down. All items were numbered and removed from the home and moved to city hall.
At that point, there were plans of a MAC grant that would support bringing Jones back to input the collection information into a past perfect database system that winter. However, movement on the grant application and other efforts slowed shortly after when Allen Massey dealt with some important health issues of his own. In October 2012, the L.V. Hull home was sold to a neighbor for $10, making the Friends of L.V. no longer responsible for property takes, upkeep, or liability.
I drove up to Kosciusko to meet with Massey and see L.V.’s collection for myself. After Massey had pointed out the small collection of L.V. works proudly displayed in the city hall lobby, the mayor of Kosciusko, Jimmy Cockroft, showed us down to the basement of the city hall where the full collection is housed. While the objects are definitely not organized or stored according to a curator’s best practice, the basement of the city hall does seem to be a secure enough location for the works to be placed for the time being in that its temperature is relatively controlled and the artifacts remain undisturbed. The objects are placed mostly in plastic bins, some resting on tables, chairs and the floor. Nearly all of the objects have simple catalogue numbers, for example, 1, 2, 3, 4, for which there is a corresponding index document. Here you can see 6, 23.
The Friends group also took photos of the house and its interior in order to document how L.V. had arranged her works of art in hopes that they could be arranged accordingly in a new environment. This, I thought, was a pretty great idea. Here you can see L.V.’s mantle with catalogues that were attached to the former locations of little items that she had and each of those items are actually bagged up individually with a corresponding catalogue number. Massey said that the object count for the whole collection was around 700, which excluded a large box of smaller objects and ephemera that he had at his house for a while. His total estimate is around 1,000 items in the L.V. Hull collection.
Massey graciously and joyously showed me around the town where he had grown up, raised his family, and worked as a department store clerk and then owner on the town square. We traveled around the square, first stopping at the currently under-renovation Strand Theatre, where a handful of L.V. pieces are on display in the storefront window. Next, we stopped in to see the curio of L.V. pieces on display at the Chamber of Commerce. Here’s Allen with the Chamber folks. Especially with this, “Chamber of Commerce to be sure.” It’s my impression that these are items that were owned by the Chamber of Commerce, not the collection that was moved from her house. Finally, we drove to the NPS, Natchez Trace Visitor’s Center, where L.V. Hull collector and friend Dr. Stanley Hartness had loaned some of his L.V. pieces for a display in a glass case. Here’s the Visitor’s Center and here’s that.
The local people who I encountered seemed proud of L.V.’s story and work and while the Friends of L.V. group may have lost some steam in recent years, they all seem to embrace finding one or more permanent locations to exhibit the collection, seeing it as an asset to local identity and to local economy. Massey and Mayor Cockroft had discussed a few downtown storefronts that were changing hands, which could be promising locations to exhibit the work. Massey mentioned a few times that he’d like to see some of the collection exhibited at local K-12 schools as a way for the town’s children to learn about and access L.V.’s legacy now that she’s passed.
While my personal inclination is to hope for a downtown storefront or a nearby house that could be used for the exhibition and interpretation of L.V.’s life and her remaining collection as a whole, I don’t see it happening quite like that. The way in which some of L.V.’s pieces are currently exhibited in small corners throughout the town remind me of a project from the Craft and Folk Art Museum in Los Angeles, called Folk Art Everywhere, in which CAFAM partnered with local businesses and organizations to have miniature exhibits in a number of locations. I wonder if the best course of action is for Kosciusko to formalize a city-wide program for local businesses to maintain miniature exhibits of L.V.’s collection, which could also serve the local economy if visitors and local people alike want to see each of the miniature L.V. exhibits.
The Friends of Margaret’s Grocery took a more circuitous interpretation of the action plan. After a town hall meeting in Vicksburg in August of 2010, a small group formed to write the by-laws and mission statement of the tentative non-profit. After an initial meeting, the group didn’t meet again and the non-profit paperwork was never filed due to a lack of money to pay the filing fee. A Facebook page to generate interest in the project never took off and even publicity from the likes of National Geographic Traveler couldn’t get things organized on the ground level. With the lack of the 501c3, fundraising was virtually impossible. Suzi Altman, a photographer based in nearby Jackson Mississippi, and Robbie Fisher, an attorney in Jackson; became the liaisons between the Dennis family, Cool Springs Missionary Baptist Church, the community, and the Mississippi Arts Commission. An anonymous donor in California offered money to pay for Reverend Dennis’ care and residence at the assisted living home but no money was put toward restoration.
In the spring of 2011, as part of the MAC’s annual advocacy initiative day at the Capitol, Reverend Dennis and Margaret’s Grocery was recognized by then-governor Haley Barbour with a proclamation naming March 20 through 26, so coming up you’ll have to observe it and celebrate it, Reverend Herman D. Dennis and Margaret’s Grocery Appreciation and Awareness Week. A joint Senate-House resolution was also put in place and state Senator Briggs Hopson and House representative George Flaggs made speeches, kind remarks, and promises to help save Margaret’s Grocery.
Mary Margaret believes that if the non-profit paperwork had been in place at that point, then enough money could have been raised to have the space properly documented and partially restored. While Altman remained the point person for that project, her main concern over those years was ensuring Reverend Dennis had proper end-of-life care, and for that we’re eternally grateful. Around that time, Altman and other members of the Friends of Margaret’s Grocery organization felt the need to remove many of the key elements from the site, as there had been a number of break-ins and lootings since the Dennises were not on the property.
Items in personal care include the double-headed eagle and other pieces of outdoor signs and towers, as well as Dennis’ re-creation of the Ark of the Covenant, Ten Commandments, and a menorah he called The Seven Towers of Light. Altman has told me that this was done with the the approval of Cora Dennis, the Reverend’s daughter, who the work was willed to. Here are some snapshots of how I found the site just last week. Go through. This is from a front view. I know the gloomy winter afternoon doesn’t help either. Oh. Altman then told me that since she last spoke with the MAC, she also dealt with health problems of her own which had slowed the process to establish the 501c3, but was happy to report that near the end of 2014 the paperwork to establish the Mississippi Folk Art Foundation, so that was the Friends of Margaret’s Grocery name change, had been successfully filed and approved.
I spoke with two other folks who are involved in the preservation efforts: Bruce West, a Missouri photographer who recently published an excellent book of his photos of Margaret’s Grocery called The True Gospel Preached Here, much recommended; and Leslie Silver, proprietor of Vicksburg’s noted Folk Art gallery The Attic, which sits just 10 minutes south on Highway 61 in Vicksburg’s historic district. Both West and Silver, who had close relationships with the Dennises spanning several years framed their misgivings on hopes about the site through various anecdotes of the Reverend and his wife. They reiterated that, “In light of the site’s extreme deterioration in the past few years, the most promising idea to come from the preservation effort is to move the school bus that Reverend Dennis turned into a chapel over to a plot of land in downtown Vicksburg, creating an art park that preserves and interprets the legacy of Margaret’s Grocery,” similar to what has been done with Vollis Simpson’s work in Wilson, North Carolina, which was brought up earlier today.
The bus is probably the most well-maintained element of the site since it has remained under lock and key. Altman and Silver have proposed that the bus and perhaps some of the remaining sculptural artifacts in personal care be relocated to an empty plot adjacent to Silver’s Attic Gallery, which is currently used for a local farmer’s market. Silver, Altman, and West explain that the Vicksburg Chamber of Commerce, Mayor, and tourism entities had ebbed and flowed in their support and interest in the idea of an art park; but said that there is enough support to revisit the idea. I unfortunately did not get a chance to speak with the leadership at Cool Springs Baptist, but Bruce West told me that the deacon and his church always seem supportive of the preservation effort, and especially to the memory of their congregant Margaret. Reverend Dennis didn’t go to the church. He was preacher of his own church. The situation was generally beyond anything that they could do as a struggling congregation.
Mary Margaret, reflecting in 2012, wrote: “Research on the local level leads me to believe that Reverend Dennis’ sometimes volatile religious views turned many Vicksburg citizens away from the preservation project. On the same note, it was L.V.’s docile personality that drew so many to save her artwork. These two projects underscore my desire for,” and this is her speaking, Mary Margaret, “my desire for a folk life organization independent of the MAC that can better serve communities by offering a non-profit umbrella and the ability to truly arbitrate decisions when necessary. After all, in the words of Ronald Reagan, ‘The nine most feared words in the English language are, “I’m from the government, and I’m here to help.”” I’ve experienced it.
As I dig into this work three years later, I see clearly the limitations of a state art commission’s role in supporting these kinds of preservation efforts, but I sincerely hope that the MAC can still serve as a catalyst for some movement forward in each of these communities on the ground level. I welcome your ideas, expertise, connections, and resources for these projects and I’m eager to bring your expertise back to these communities. With that said, regardless of how I think each community should respond I support them to know best what will work for their local people and how to share and remember their own local culture. Thank you.
Since their makers have passed in recent years, Mississippi’s two most notable art environments, Margaret’s Grocery in Vicksburg, and L.V. Hull’s home in Kosciusko, have experienced extreme deterioration. Margaret’s Grocery, home of Rev. H.D. Dennis and late his wife Margaret, was a one-time country store that had been transformed by Dennis into an extension of his ministry, featuring towers, signs, gates and sculptures inscribed with Biblical messages. L.V. Hull’s home and yard was full of her brightly colored artwork. She was popularly known for painting found objects such as shoes, televisions and hubcaps with dots and sayings, often of her own devising.
From 2009-2013, the Mississippi Arts Commission and its Folk and Traditional Arts program worked closely with each community, forming town hall meetings and awareness campaigns around these valued cultural sites, and facilitating professional evaluation and an action plans for the preservation of each space. Each community showed strong buy-in in the preservation of their respective art environments, but the results in the preservation process varied immensely. This case study will investigate why the model for preservation worked in one community but failed in the other, and will provide an up-to-date briefing on the current physical state and preservation of each site.
Jennifer Joy Jameson moved from Nashville, Tennessee to serve as the Folk and Traditional Arts Director at the Mississippi Arts Commission, where she administers grants, provides consultation to artists and organizations, and develops special initiatives and documentation projects related to a wide range of cultural arts. She has an M.A. in public sector folk studies from Western Kentucky University and a B.A. in folklore and ethnomusicology from Indiana University. Jennifer has worked with museums, archives, festivals, and arts and cultural organizations on the federal, state, and local level, including positions with the Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, Traditional Arts Indiana, the Kentucky Folklife Program, and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Jennifer currently serves on the Board of Directors for Folkstreams, a national preserve of films on traditional culture, and the Tennessee Folklore Society. Her academic studies have focused on material culture and traditional music in the American South, having spoken or taught on those topics within and beyond the Southern states.