Art and architecture meet the past in artist's detailed drawings of Columbus

April 10, 2009

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Tracie Grace Lyons is convinced old buildings have stories to tell. Armed with rulers, watercolors and a keen eye to the past, the Mississippi State University fine arts major is giving visual voice to as many of those as she can. 


It began with an Internet search last August, when the 22-year-old from Jackson needed a project topic for the advanced drawing class she was taking under Professor Soon Ee Ngoh. 


"I used to be an interior design student and loved rendering; I thought buildings would be interesting -- and I just love Columbus," Lyons shares with an almost kinetic energy. "I Googled the history of Columbus and came across this piece written by Birney Imes about how buildings have been more than one thing." 


The May 17, 2008, editorial penned by The Commercial Dispatch editor and publisher was a roving reminiscence of several older downtown buildings and "what once was." 


"Below The Commercial Dispatch was once a billiards parlor," a paragraph reads. "Legend has it a man was shot there and his ghost still roams in the basement where we store rolls of newsprint." 


That was enough to trigger Lyons'' imagination. The newspaper building, erected in the 1890s, became the first in what she refers to as the Columbus series. She also used colored pencils and watercolors for renderings of Annunciation Catholic Church, the Corner Cottage and Mississippi University for Women''s Shattuck Hall. 


In each painstakingly done piece, past and present meet in "cutaway" vignettes, hinting at life as Lyons envisions it may have been throughout the years. Each rendering represents 60 to 100 hours of work.  


"When you look at the drawings from a distance, you see the building," the artist points out, stepping across the room with a print, "but when you look close, you see the story. They''re really architectural narratives." 




Back in time  


After studying The Dispatch exterior at night, Lyons'' decided to depict it in an evening scenario. A game of pool is in progress; a piano player tickles the ivories while a genial barman converses with a customer. In the basement below, the artist exercised creative license and added a hanging figure, drawing from the death Imes had referenced.  


A second-story cutaway suggests the business offices of a more modern era, but outside, a vintage auto cruises down Main Street. Festive bunting decorates the building, and two mischievous boys have dared to climb to the roof to shoot Fourth of July fireworks. 


"Like any long-established small-town newspaper, The Dispatch has a rich internal history," said Imes. "This business attracts vivid characters, and we''ve had our share. I think each of them has left a little bit of themselves here; you can feel it when you walk the halls of this old building, and you can see some of it in Tracie''s painting." 


Heavenly inspiration  


In a city replete with historic sites, Lyons had little trouble finding more subjects for her series. The Gothic beauty of Annunciation Catholic Church, with a cornerstone first laid in 1863, intrigued her.  


"I just love that church," she smiles softly, crossing her hands over her heart. "You walk in and there''s a sign saying, ''Please be quiet; people are praying.'' You can hear the water (from the baptismal font), and the light is coming in through the windows ... it''s so quiet and serene. It makes you feel like you want to kneel down and pray right then." 


That reverent appreciation inspired the care Lyons took with a side-view rendering of the previous sanctuary. Centuries meld in a depiction of Irish gypsies donating a statue of Saint Patrick to the church, an event passed down in church history. 


Inside the front entrance, a young woman nurses a wounded Civil War soldier, alluding to Columbus'' role as a hospital town during the conflict. At the altar, a priest in green robes -- the priest wore green when Lyons attended a service last year -- serves his parishioners. Symbolic doves soar among the high arches. 




More Columbus drawings  


Other glimpses of the past surface in drawings of Corner Cottage (circa 1833) on Fourth Street South and MUW''s Shattuck Hall. 


Jennifer Locke, of Corner Cottage, showed Lyons a framed pane of glass with "Sarah J. Cunning-ham, Columbus, 1835" etched in it. The pane prompted the artist to include the ghostly figure of a small girl floating near an upper window with a missing pane.  


"For Shattuck Hall, I decided the building must have been a dorm," Lyons says. "My grandmother went to MSU in the 1940s and ''50s and was familiar with the W. She told me how guys would go there to visit the girls, and I put them on the lawn. She also told me the girls dressed in blue, and at meals would hold up one finger for tea and two for coffee; Behind one set of windows, students are dining. Behind others, one is ironing, some are in art class." A cutaway of Shattuck''s attic space shows two students sneaking away for a forbidden smoke. Each minute scene gives life, whether past or present, to the static structure.  


Lyons is currently working on a drawing of The Globe store on Main Street and plans to keep going after that. 


"I''d like to eventually have 12 to 20 drawings to help me get into grad school," she explained. The inquisitive artist is also busy with commissioned work including renderings of First United Methodist Church and private homes. 


"My favorite moment is after I finish the work and people are looking at it, and I can feel they get lost in their own thoughts. I can feel it kind of moves beyond just a drawing. Maybe they remember things they did or family stories that parallel something in the picture.  


"People think what a building is now is somehow more important than what it was. But it''s not really; it''s equal. Its past life was just as important to the people who used the buildings then. Maybe with the drawings, I can do a little something to keep appreciation of the stories alive."

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.