'Christmas Memories from Mississippi,' and a conversation with Wyatt Waters

January 7, 2011 2:34:00 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


"I tell you, I believed in Santa Claus a lot longer than I should have," said Wyatt Waters, with the disarming grin he wears as easily as a familiar jacket. Quiet-spoken and approachable, the celebrated Mississippi artist talked about "Christmas Memories from Mississippi," a new collection of holiday essays, during a visit to The Book Mart in Starkville Dec. 10. 


The watercolorist, who makes his home in Clinton, was enlisted to illustrate the book of 38 treasured memories from Mississippians such as Oprah Winfrey, Mary Ann Mobley, Richard Ford, John Floyd -- and Columbus'' Michael F. Smith -- by editors Charline McCord and Judy Tucker. They also asked him to pen an essay. It''s the seventh book the artist and editors have collaborated on. By all accounts, the University Press release has been flying off the shelves like St. Nick''s reindeer.  




Sharing stories 


Waters has a genuine soft spot for the season, that much is apparent in conversation. The pony-tailed painter shares several of his favorite memories in "Yes, Mississippi, There Is a Santa Claus." In it, he recalls Christmases past, with his football-coach dad, patient mom and two brothers. 


Other contributors, like the award-winning Will Campbell, who spent the Christmas of ''43 on a crowded troop ship, and retired judge and former Marine Billy G. Bridges tell of holidays impacted by war. 


Oprah Winfrey lived in Kosciusko until she was 13 and recounts how the selflessness of nuns one bleak Christmas long ago helped inspire her own spirit of charity. Walter Anderson''s daughter, Mary, writes of fog and dreams transcended in "My Mother Was Santa Claus But My Father Was an Indian." 


Ground Zero blues club co-founder Bill Luckett gently laughs at himself in an account of turkey-cooking gone wrong. And humor runs rampant in Cleveland writer Dorothy Shawhan''s "Whole Hog Christmas." 


Throughout the personal accounts, Mississippians celebrate everything from the Sears "wish book" to family dinners, from Christmas pageants to spiritual revelations. For each, Waters rendered a small individual painting. 


"I wanted to do a different ornament with each story, and I wanted to make the cover (of the book) look like a gift," explained the painter, who has been the subject of articles in publications including American Artist, Art & Antiques and Mississippi magazine.  


Co-editor McCord said, "Everybody has a Christmas story to share, even if they don''t know it. We had a very generous reception from people we asked to contribute an essay, even people who are incredibly busy, like a college president, medical doctors, people who don''t normally have time to sit down and write." 


''Yes, Mississippi ... '' 


"My story tells how we grew up in Florence ... and that Christmas is about wishing as much as getting," Waters said, pausing to autograph a 2011 Wyatt Waters calendar for a customer at the book store.  


"Christmas was not a certain day of the year for us. It was an expectation of something wonderful to come ... " his essay begins. "Friends had their place and time, but Christmas was family, and I knew that without ever being told."  


Waters writes of happily chaotic holidays, picking pecans to sell, the revered tradition of riding around looking at Christmas lights ("a kind of parade where the spectators move and the floats stay still") and, of course, the bicycle -- something every boy dreams of finding under the tree at some point in time.  


On that Christmas, a young Wyatt and his older brother Jim, confident Santa would fulfill their wish, "were in our beds, delirious with the coming reality we were about to receive," he writes.  


What they found the following morning were indeed bikes, but not the shiny conveyances they''d admired in the catalogs. Instead, used bikes, enterprisingly painted red and silver, waited for them.  


When Jim said, "Looks like somebody''s been riding my bike!" the boys'' father was ready: "You know, son, sometimes Santa''s sleigh gets so full of toys the elves have to ride a bike all the way from the North Pole." 


At the bookstore, a relaxed Waters chuckled as he recalled that morning long ago. 




Early on 


Even though his father, now deceased, was a coach, Waters never felt pushed into sports. In fact, his parents got him art lessons at a young age. "That was unusual for a coach''s kid," he remarked. "Later, my dad even helped me to sand frames. Whatever we did, they insisted we do it the best we could. We were raised with a good work ethic." 


As recognized as his paintings are now, the artist''s career path wasn''t strewn with roses. 


After attaining his master''s degree in art from Mississippi College, "soon as I got out I was painting for posterity at flea markets, because galleries wouldn''t handle my work. I was unknown. My parents thought, ''So much for academia,''" he smiled. 


That state of affairs changed, of course. He''s now considered one of Mississippi''s premier watercolor artists. His work is in numerous collections, both private and corporate. He''s illustrated a string of books, including several with renowned Mississippi chef Robert St. John. An Italian cookbook with St. John is next on his calendar. 




Star gazing 


Book signing appearances are wonderful for meeting friends and fans. They do, however, keep Waters out of the studio for sometimes a month or more. 


"I''m looking forward to really getting back to painting," he said. "I used to be afraid I wouldn''t be able to get back into the rhythm ... but I did. I learned you have to be patient. I''ve found there''s an optimum speed. Like Goldilocks, there''s too fast, too slow, and just right." 


Painting isn''t the only thing on the agenda. "I''m looking forward to getting lost in the country, camping out in a cow pasture with my grandson, looking at stars," he shared. " ... You need to keep a sense of wonder, and if you don''t get it when you''re small, it''s hard to get it when you''re big." 


At no other time of year is that sense a wonder a more precious gift. 


"As I have grown, I don''t see Christmas as the ''great getting of things''," Waters expresses in his essay. "Attaining desire has its place, but so does dreaming and waiting. People who love you show you the difference."  


Editor''s note: Look for "Christmas Memories From Mississippi" at The Book Mart, 120 E. Main St., Starkville, and at Reed''s and Barnes and Noble in Tupelo. It may be ordered from Books-A-Million in Columbus, or through University Press (www.upress.state.ms.us, 601-432-6205), or from major online booksellers. The Tennessee Williams Welcome Center has sold out of its supply, but may have more after Christmas.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.