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ARTS // wild space

Laying Down Roots

// by Julian Rankin


uch is said of folks leaving Mississippi. But to only consider the departures is to discount the state’s mercurial magnetism, the thing that brings people here who are not originally of this place. A perfect example is Virginia-born artist and woodworker Fletcher Cox, who had no Mississippi roots when he moved here in the 1970s after living in New York and Wyoming. No roots, he told me, save for a great-great-grandfather born in Yazoo City in 1849 before the family moved on into Arkansas. Now, decades later, Cox is inseparable from his Jackson and Mississippi communities. It’s not just that his woodworking graces the Governor’s Mansion and the new U.S. Federal Courthouse in Jackson, or that he’s been awarded the Governor’s Award for Artist’s Achievement. He is of Mississippi mind, and committed to working in this place he and his wife, Carol, have called home for much of the last five decades. “I knew very little about the place,” Cox says of the first days of his Mississippi residency. “I went to work for the McGovern campaign in Mississippi, which was being headed up by Patt Derian, the co-chairwoman of the Loyalist Democratic Party. ... She said I should meet her for lunch at the Woolworth lunch counter. I had no history of the Woolworth lunch counter. But I have learned since—a lot.”


To a woodworker, place is integrally joined to the art: The tree standing in the woods or felled in the backyard or discarded on the road side is tied to the land by roots, and to its environment by the twists and turns and knobs of the branches. Cox repeats a phrase he often shares: “I had an insight that I would probably never make anything as beautiful as the tree that was killed to provide me with the wood.” This somewhat disheartening thought led Cox to his well-known “Raw and Cooked” woodFletcher Cox found in Mississippi the perfect home to create art as a woodworker. working series, which amalgamates processed or treated wood with raw timber. Through it, Cox seeks to seamlessly and harmoniously join the first nature of the tree, the wildness, with the second nature, the cut and milled and kiln-dried board. “The cooked flows over into the part of the piece that started out as raw,” Cox says. “I cannot imagine the ‘Raw and Cooked’ project happening anywhere other than Mississippi. The same thing that made musicians and writers so innovative while living in such a reactionary place worked on me the same way. It is an unbelievable place; improvisational and reactionary, simultaneously,” he says.

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“As V.S. Naipaul said in ‘A Turn in the South,’ we here are not that far removed from the frontier.” Not surprisingly, Cox has a new project in the works. He has just finished construction on an ambitious project: an entire reassembled tree to be installed inside a newly conceived building in the heart of Chicago. Cox calls the building itself a “wild space.” The tree came from the building owner’s land, near where he raised his 10 children. It currently sits patiently here in Mississippi, preparing for the great migration north. “In the early going, I was thinking about how to turn it into a Raw and Cooked project. But the further we went with the assembly, the less and less I wanted to do any of that stuff. The tree was so wonderful, just by itself, that it didn’t need anything extra. It would have been gilding the lily to do it,” Cox says. Through it all, for Cox, his profession has been about working with his hands and making things that others can interact with and enjoy. “I love being the woodworker to this community,” Cox says. “(Carol and I) would go to the Chimneyville craft show (years ago). We’d set out tables full of spoons and spreaders and boxes and bowls and plates. We’d have everything from a $2 spreader to a $2,000 table. To me it felt like a very democratic thing to be doing. And I love doing it.”

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