Editor’s Note: This story was originally published for African American History Month 2022:
Memphis’ local PBS outlet, WKNO (Channel 10) and its sister radio station, WKNO Memphis NPR (91.1FM), have always supported the arts. The station has been known to broadcast live theatre performances, interview artists promoting shows and more.
In February 2022, as part of its Black History Month celebration, WKNO featured an art exhibit “I Remember Mayfair,” with 12 works from Mary “Mayfair” Matthews, a self-taught folk artist, in Gallery 1091, its online art gallery.
Before the pandemic, WKNO’s office was open to the public and featured art from local artists in the lobby. Crowds of 250+ people would gather to discuss and celebrate the work of local artists.
“The lobby was designed to showcase art because of the natural light that comes in,” said Amy McDaniel, v
From 2008 through March 2020, WKNO featured different exhibits every month. McDaniel was used to booking artists out as far as two years ahead of time. However, when COVID-19 hit, the celebration of art took a different form. The art gallery, like so many other personal and professional endeavors, went online in November 2020.
“We’ve still been fortunate enough to showcase one artist per month online since that point,” said McDaniel.
But after about a year of maintaining the online Gallery 1091, appropriately named after Channel 10 and 91.1FM, McDaniel was faced with another challenge. In December of 2021, McDaniel realized she had no artist lined up for February 2022 and called in reinforcements.
“I literally prayed and 20 minutes later, God answered my prayers,” said McDaniel.
That day, McDaniel went to lunch and was informed upon her return that she’d missed a visit from a long-time friend, Carl Scott. She and Scott went to high school together in Forest City, Arkansas, and he, a local artist and muralist, dropped by with his fiancé, Rose Marr, also a local artist.
Remembering her predicament, McDaniel called Scott to come back to the office and what unfolded was truly serendipitous.
McDaniel asked Scott if he’d be able to exhibit in February, but he said no. Without hesitation, Marr chimed in, “My mother was an artist,” and pulled out her phone to show McDaniel some of her mother’s work.
“It was magnificent,” said McDaniel. “I’ve been in this business for more than 30 years and every now and then I come across an artist whose work and backstory really make me emotional.”
According to McDaniel, Mary “Mayfair” Matthews’ work, with its unique lighting and technique, reminded her of the work of another popular artist, NJ Woods, and is truly amazing.
Matthews, born in 1938, grew up in a sharecropping family in Senatobia, Mississippi and exhibited artist potential in her youth. However, it wasn’t until after she moved to Memphis (1964) to escape abuse and experienced a tragedy (1991) that she would accept her calling to become an artist.
“After her son, my brother, was murdered in 1991, my mother turned to art as a means of survival,” said Marr. “None of us even knew she was an artist! But once she started, she never stopped.”
Matthews would go on to produce more than 350 works of mixed media art from 1991 until 2011 when depression brought about her ultimate demise. Even on the day she died, she sketched a family portrait of her and her four children.
“I am now in a position to make sure that the world knows my mother deserves a place in the art world,” said Marr. “I wish I’d done it sooner, but my mom’s legacy is not going to stop just because she’s gone.”
Marr has a home gallery featuring her mother’s work downstairs from her own art studio. Marr attended Memphis College of Art at age 28 and recalls that during her time there, there were no Black faculty members and no mention of Black artists.
“It’s part of my legacy to let the world know that Black people have a place in the art culture, just like in any other culture,” said Marr.
Nearly 10 years after her mother’s passing, Marr found “I Remember Mayfair,” Matthews’ handwritten memoir that recounts youthful memories of rural imagery and life in Senatobia. These images are seen throughout her artwork, which includes quilts, paintings and small sculptures.
The varying images, some tragic, others playful and hopeful, all celebrate cultural aspects of African-American life in rural Mississippi. Marr is planning a mother-daughter art show featuring her and her mother’s work.
“As I read my mother’s memoirs, the narratives behind some of her paintings were revealed. I plan on publishing her memoirs, as well,” said Marr.
McDaniel agrees. “Matthews’ story needs to be told, and her art needs to be seen. There’s something extra special about it,” McDaniel said.
Marr and McDaniel hand-picked 12 pieces from Matthews’ collection to display on Gallery 1091 throughout February. Some of the pieces are for sale and a portion of the proceeds will benefit WKNO programming.