ART: Gaga Over Lallah

The Lallah stands 10 to 12 inches high. The clay figure is of an older woman sporting a wild orange kimono while holding a wine glass in one hand, cigarette in the other and a paintbrush across her arms like Miss America's scepter. The recipient of the Lallah Perry award, created by Jackson sculptor Susan Clark, will be honored during the closing ceremony of each session of the annual Mississippi Art Colony, held in the spring and fall in Utica. The award goes to the person who embodies the most Lallah-like qualities during that session: imagination and daring are two of them. Her credo is "We smoke, we drink, we eat, we draw." Living large is the Alabama native's way of life.

Perry, now in her seventies, taught art in Mississippi much of her adult life. She was an itinerant artist, teaching art in the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians' school system while living in Philadelphia, then later teaching art at Delta State University. After 17 years at Delta State, she taught at Meridian Community College until her retirement. Her ongoing job, other than painting, has been as parent to four children. Three live in Jackson, while one is in North Carolina. (One of them, Pippa Perry Jackson, is an original Sweet Potato Queen.)

Almost since its inception in 1948, the Mississippi Art Colony has also been important to Perry. Since becoming a member, she has never missed a session, even when in a wheelchair with a broken leg. Participants paint and create throughout each semi-annual session, which culminates in a juried show.

The Allison Wells Hotel in Way was the first home of the colony where artists and teachers gathered to create and critique. The colony experienced location changes, but for the last 25 years, the artists have met at Camp Henry Jacobs in Utica. Attendance at the colony is a prestigious privilege: Artists are invited to become members, and members get first choice on a place at each session. More than half the members are from out of state. The final pieces from each session form a traveling show that exhibits in unlikely venues such as elementary schools both in and outside Mississippi.

Perry remembers fondly her work with Jackson artist Marie Hull at the colony. Hull was a colorist, and her influence shows in Perry's work. Bright colors evocative of Matisse abound: pinks, yellows, blues and oranges. "Colors really are the reason for painting; otherwise you can do something else," Perry says. Her paintings have always been primarily figurative, and many include the artist as subject. "Biography" includes images of powerful people in her life as well as her own pregnant body. Two figures appear in the style of Picasso and Matisse.

The great wave of Social Realism in the 1940s coincided with the Abstract Expressionist movement in painting. Perry learned early to closely examine the world she lived in and not just paint pretty pictures about the way she would like the world to be, to allow emotion to show through her work. The act of painting and the final product were inseparable as expressions of the artist. War, depression and civil rights struggles have presented Perry constant opportunities to examine her world and her place within it.

Her painting "Tienamen Square" has Picasso-like figures reminiscent of his "Guernica" painted in response to another massacre. Perry says the figure of the man in front of the tank was as strong for her as the flag being raised on Iwo Jima. The blues, yellows, pinks and bold figures with military stars resonate with Matisse-like tones.

Process is what appeals to this artist most—she considers her final pieces byproducts of the artistic act or leap of imagination that created them. And that process has taken many forms: from delicate watercolors and realistic pencils to more dramatic abstract works. Perhaps this is why Glenn Canford, fellow artist and owner of Southern Breeze Gallery, jokingly told Perry that one of her shows is like a four-artist show. Not only is there so much art, but it is in completely varied styles. Perry creates and generates so much art; yet she seems completely at ease with her place in the world. It is as though she doesn't give a damn what it thinks.

Perry does want to communicate with the world, though. She is passionate about correspondence, but she does not do e-mail; she's a strictly pen-and-paper person. At one point, she did an entire show of paintings about letters. One piece, "End of Conversation," is at Southern Breeze Gallery where we see the large red flap of the envelope and all the stuff from the letter creeping out around it.

Perhaps the feel of the paper appeals to this artist's love of texture. Perry's early creative efforts included weaving and embroidery. She says she loved the textures she could achieve with the loom and the manipulation of paddles, bobbins and needles. Tapestry was another venture—challenging because of its detail but also because you never actually see what you are doing while you are working. Her "Watercolor Quilt" is a marriage of her weaving and fabric work as well as her painting: She stitched favorite bits from watercolors together into a quilt, a perfect metaphor for her body of work. "I am constantly pulling all the pieces of myself together," she says.

Lallah Perry's work is on view at the Southern Breeze Gallery in Highland Village (4500 I-55 North, Suite 160. 982-4222, or http://www.southernbreeze.com)


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