March 9, 2014 12:09:13 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Larry Feeney could write a book. But he would probably much prefer to draw one. It could illustrate the history of Mississippi University for Women's art department and the community of visionaries who grew it during his 37-year tenure as a full-time instructor. The pages would be filled with the finely-drawn images he is known for, compelling images of luminous beauty and strength.
There is no book -- yet. But for the first time in his prolific career, Feeney will be the sole focus of a retrospective. "Illuminated Memory" -- a collection of approximately 80 of his works from the mid-1960s to present day -- will be shown in the Eugenia Summer Gallery inside MUW's Art and Design Building March 18 through April 10. A reception hosted by the Lowndes County Chapter of the MUW Alumni Association is set for Friday, March 28, from 5:30 to 7 p.m.
The Feeney exhibit is important, said Alex Stelioes-Wills, MUW associate professor of art and director of the gallery. "It represents not only Larry's history, but MUW history." It's important for students to see the legacy they are inheriting. And it's important for the community. "Larry has been well-loved, and many people have his work hanging in their homes."
The gallery is the fitting exhibit venue. Feeney is passionate about it, which is why the retrospective and reception also mark the establishment of the Larry Feeney Endowment for the Eugenia Summer Gallery. The fund, which the public is encouraged to contribute to, will support exhibits and expand opportunities for student study, as well as community programs.
"People should really care about the gallery," said Feeney earnestly. He does. He was director of it for his last eight years at MUW, where he taught drawing, painting and calligraphy to more eager proteges than one could count. The Davenport, Iowa native joined the art department in 1968, when Betty Dice, Mary Evelyn Stringer and Eugenia Summer made up the faculty. He remembers it all well: He's a keen observer, and a reservoir of seemingly all he's observed.
The 76-year-old recalled an incident 20 or so years ago, when a visitor to campus -- Feeney remembers him as oriental -- stopped in the gallery to look around. The gentleman was affiliated with one of the large industries in Lowndes County and seemed to be considering relocating to Columbus.
"You could tell that what the cultural life of this little town in Mississippi was was important to him," said Feeney. "I don't know if people here think of that enough ... the way you look (to others), through the art, the plays and the music you bring in, how you show yourself off -- that matters as much as football games."
His two very proud daughters have heard it before.
"'Art is long, life is short.' He says it all the time," laughed Katherine Feeney Munson of Columbus. "He lives by that."
Munson and her elder sister, Elizabeth Richardson of St. Louis, didn't have to wait until college for an education in art appreciation. For them, that class began at their father's knee.
"Whenever we would go anywhere, he'd take us to the art museums; it was almost like going to church for him," recalled Munson. "I remember him having such a reverence. That was really instilled in me."
As children, they frequently tagged along with dad to the art department. Both went on to graduate from the university, as had their mother before them.
Richardson said, "I can remember as a little girl going with him and 'helping' him hang pictures. I could at least hold a hammer."
Among the girls' favorite keepsakes are elaborate cards their father drew for them for birthdays and special occasions, something he still does for his three grandchildren. The cards incorporate a favorite stuffed animal or something else personal to each child.
"He just makes this beautiful little world in these cards. They're full of joy, you really can feel it," said Munson, whose daughter is 2. "We treasure them."
Feeney credits his daughters for taking his desire to support the gallery from seed to fruition. He would talk of leaving something to The W when he was gone, recounted Richardson. "But we wanted him to experience something when he is here to be a part of it."
Sitting in his office at MUW with Feeney, Stelioes-Wills talked about the impact.
"The endowment started in Larry's name will help in terms of visiting artists and student experiences, and it will also give us the ability to get back to building our permanent collection," said the gallery director.
"Yes, yes!" Feeney interjected, noting the Nov. 10, 2002, tornado that devastated the art building and other parts of campus. "We were hurt by that tornado. We had some real genuine losses, and you don't get them back."
The tornado heralded a turning point for Feeney himself. After more than three decades in the art department he cared for so much, the mentor felt the storm and rebuilding ahead somehow signaled it was time to think about a new chapter. He retired in 2005. Make that semi-retired. He's continued to teach some classes and frequently visits his office and the campus.
The professor emeritus may make time these days for "Downton Abbey," book stores and good conversation, but he is seldom without a colored pencil in his hand. It reminds Munson of her childhood, when she would wake in the wee hours of the morning, only to find her father working away on a drawing in the kitchen or dining room.
Feeney describes his drawings as a form of naturalism, with at times an almost dream-like surrealism. They reflect his memories, people he's known, his Catholic upbringing, his investigation of the world. And there is still much to explore.
"'Ars longa, vita brevis' -- art is long, life is short," Feeney recited. "That was carved above the main door of the art department when I was at the University of Iowa. I thought that says it all."
Editor's note: Contributions to the Larry Feeney Endowment Fund may be directed to the MUW Foundation, 1100 College St., MUW 1618, Columbus, MS 39701.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.