Red Grooms captures the essence of Memphis in a commission for the Brooks Museum

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Red Grooms captures the essence of Memphis in a commission for the Brooks Museum
Red Grooms, American (b. 1937), Davy Crockett from Tennessee Fox Trot Carousel, 1996. Mixed media, 47 × 49 × 16 inches (119.4 × 124.5 × 40.6 cm) Collection of the Tennessee State Museum © 1996 Red Grooms.

MEMPHIS, TENN.- Red Grooms touches on geography, economics, race, and the arts in Memphis on My Mind, a commission for the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art that was unveiled in Red Grooms: Traveling Correspondent, part of the museum’s centennial celebration. Grooms (b. 1937), a Nashville native who moved to New York City in 1957, is a fascinating figure in post-World War II American art. He relies both on personal investigation and research to develop the ideas that he transforms into heartfelt, perceptive, and engaging works of art.

In 2014, Grooms and his wife, Lysiane Luong Grooms, spent four days in Memphis visiting artist-created environments, museums, casinos, and neighborhoods with museum staff, author and filmmaker Robert Gordon, and raconteur Tad Pierson. They documented their sojourn through sketches and photographs. In the painted relief, Memphis on My Mind, Grooms distills and captures much of the city’s essence. He selected people and events from different eras and united them in a composition that celebrates Memphis and the region.

Memphis on My Mind is bisected by the Mississippi River, which emphasizes its historical importance to the city’s status as a transportation hub. Cotton, a primary economic engine for decades, is being farmed by a sharecropper in the lower left, and bales are being loaded on the waterfront. The Cotton Carnival parade, started in 1931 to promote the crop during the Depression, begins at the bottom center. Shrine clowns drive the lead car with the cotton king and queen in the back.

Also riding in the convertible is storied trumpeter W.C. Handy, who is flanked to his left by Memphis Minnie in a green dress and to his right by Isaac Hayes driving his “solid gold” Cadillac, currently on view at the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. Underscoring the importance of music, Grooms includes Elvis Presley twice: his plane the Lisa Marie is flying in at the top left; and his first paid concert at the Overton Shell appears in the middle right, just above the Brooks Museum. Typical of Grooms, he takes artistic license with geography; just above the shell is historic Beale Street, the center of Black life in the region for nearly a century. Grooms illustrates the 1968 scene of striking sanitation workers as they march down Beale. To their right, the world-famous Peabody ducks are being escorted to their fountain in the hotel lobby by the uniformed Duckmaster.

Grooms also included himself at the top right—that’s Red and his friend Ed Beerman riding their bikes along the river, duplicating a bike trip they took from Nashville to Memphis in the early 1950s.

“The relief brings home many of the characteristics of Red’s best work: through the artist’s extraordinarily smart and apt choice of figures and places to depict, Memphis on My Mind provides a nuanced view of a city with a complicated past,” explains Brooks Museum Executive Director Emily Neff. “While celebratory, it also references the challenges the city has long faced.”

While Grooms was unable to include everything he saw or researched about Memphis, he chose well, capturing scenes that are historically, culturally, politically, and geographically significant to illuminate some of the ethos of the city.

“The sheer visual pleasure of the relief is infectious, and for those willing to interpret its iconography, the work reveals some of the city’s rich and complex history,” explains Brooks Museum Chief Curator Marina Pacini.

Memphis on My Mind was made possible by the generosity of the Halliday family, who wished to honor their parents, Mr. and Mrs. William P. Halliday Jr., both of whom had deep connections to the Mississippi River and Memphis.

“My parents and their extended families spent virtually their whole lives in cities on the Mississippi River from Cairo, IL to Rosedale, MS to Memphis, TN. Our great-great-grandfather was a riverboat captain on the Mississippi, and then his son moved the family to Memphis and helped to form the Memphis Hotel Company which rebuilt the Peabody in the 1920s. Our grandmother helped to start the Brooks League in the 1930s so our support of the Brooks is a family tradition. Therefore, we are thrilled to be able to honor our parents during this 100 year celebration,” commented William P. Halliday III.

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