Finding the Art
These self-taught artists have embraced their creative gifts, pursuing careers in the field and sharing their work with the public at arts festivals near and far.
Written by Leslie Criss | Photographed by Joe Worthem
Artists of myriad mediums who take part in the arts festival circuit are in preparation mode. It’s been a while coming — two years to be precise, thanks to a COVID-caused festival hiatus. The time’s finally coming for them to pack and unpack their canvasses, pottery, jewelry and more, display it under an open-air tent in a town square and meet art appreciators in small towns during festival season.
Depending on the size of the festival, the number of artist booths varies. Gumtree Art & Wine Festival in Tupelo is planning for more than 60 artists to be on hand this year; Oxford’s Double Decker Festival is planning for about 180.
One thing is clear, Mississippi is (and long has been) home to a vast amount of artistic creativity. Here are just a few artists who are glad to see festival season returning and how they developed their creative pursuits:
Skylar Sloan discovered her creative side very early, and it manifested itself in some unique ways that likely drove her parents, Carol and William Sloan, slightly crazy.
“As a creative kid, there was never a dull moment in my brain,” said the Saltillo-born Sloan. “I always hid scissors so I’d know where they were — I liked to cut my own hair.”
The 20-year-old artist is in her third year of a five-year program in architecture at Mississippi State University. Looking back, Sloan said she can’t recall a time when she was not drawing or doing some sort of art, first with crayons or water-based markers. She did her first painting as a fourth grader.
“I was working on a project on Paris, France,” she said. “My mom bought me a beret and I decided I wanted to be an artist from France.”
Sloan had no private art lessons. Instead, she watched YouTube videos and learned how to draw faces and flowers. In fifth grade, she was in a gifted art class and also took general art classes in middle and high school.
She often entered the annual Gumtree Museum of Art-sponsored art competition and took home gold stars for her efforts.
When she was a senior at Saltillo High School, Sloan entered the Gumtree Museum of Art-sponsored portfolio competition, which was a scholarship competition. Her entries included several acrylic self-portraits, a smaller self-portrait painted in acrylic over pennies and several works done in graphite pencil. She won first place.
“I was over the moon when I found out I had won,” she said. “My art teacher, William Thornton, said in his 16 years, no one from Saltillo High School had won first place.”
Sloan could not participate in the Gumtree Art & Wine Festival this year because of school commitments.
Though she chose to study architecture, she’s not planning on giving up her art.
“At the moment, with school, I don’t have a lot of time for it,” she said. “But I miss it when I’m not doing it. I’ve always felt the need to create in general.”
Though Sloan said no one influenced her art directly, she does have a favorite artist: Canadian artist Elly Smallwood.
“Her work is beautiful and raw,” she said. “I love her work.”
Originally from Holly Springs, Noel Jones now lives in Olive Branch where he works full time as a continuous improvement manager for Memphis businesses.
He came to his art later in life. In his earlier years he produced and recorded music, so he was always in touch with his creative side. The art — primarily abstracts — came about by happy accident seven or eight years ago.
“I took the wooden door from a computer stand and just started putting paint on it,” Jones said. “I asked my nephew Jeremy Wilkins, ‘what do you think of this painting I got from Pier 1?’ He told me he really liked it. And I’ve been painting ever since.”
The 50-year-old Jones paints mostly in acrylics because it dries quicker. If he had to wait for the paint to dry, he would have time to think about the work and that’s not his way.
“When I create, I get out of the way,” he said. “I don’t think about the next color I’ll use or the next move I’ll make. If I do that, I’m getting in the way. When I paint, it’s a journey and I never know exactly where it’s going to go.”
Jones is self-taught. To him that means there are no rules to follow when he creates. When he paints, he uses whatever may be nearby — cloth, sticks, brushes, paper. And his inspiration comes from a plethora of places.
“It might be the line of a song or I might be watching a movie and notice a wall or a setting that inspires a painting,” he said.
He’s also inspired by his wife of 23 years, Angela, and their 13- and 18-year-old sons.
Jones plans to have a booth at the 2022 Gumtree Art & Wine Festival and has been working on paintings to display and sell. Three of his paintings grace the entryway of a new hospital in Olive Branch.
“I’m trying to leave my stamp on the earth,” Jones said. “And when I paint and someone has a painting hanging in their home or business, that’s what’s happening. I am leaving my stamp, part of my history.”
Visit noeljonesart.com to see Jones’s abstract art.
Blake Gore always appreciated art, but he didn’t create art until 2017 when he saw a drawing challenge on Twitter. The challenge: to produce and share a 1-inch x 1-inch drawing each day for a month.
“I knew I could do anything for a month,” said the 41-year-old Gore.
People saw his small drawings and wanted to buy them. A surprised Gore began to hone his new craft for which he had no formal training.
Gore grew up in Houston, Mississippi, and attended Tupelo High School. He and his wife, Lori, met at Ole Miss, where he studied English and political science. These days he does career coaching as well as his art in their home in Virginia.
After he’d worked for a time on his little pieces of art, Gore became aware that the size of his work might have an effect on his hand and his eyes.
“But there are things I can do,” he said. “I take regular breaks. I learned to hold my pen loosely instead of white-knuckling it — I do have a very large callous. I use very bright light. I wondered if I might go blind doing this, but I don’t even wear glasses.”
The tiny art seems to be a perfect fit for Gore, who is a noticer of details.
“I’m the one everyone comes to if they have a splinter they can’t fine,” he said, laughing. “I love the small size for so many different reasons. I’m a bit of a minimalist myself. My kids laugh at me because I have about three T-shirts I cycle through.
“Most of the time there is more in less. I ask myself before I start, ‘What can I do in this square inch to make the most of it?’”
These days, Gore is gearing up for festival and art show season. He’ll be in Oxford for Double Decker.
“I’m going to be everywhere,” he said. “From Double Decker to D.C., Atlanta, all over the place. We have a lot of flexibility since we’re homeschoolers.”
The Gores are parents to Vera, 9; Caleb, 10; Hattie, 13; and Ella, 15.
Gore’s ideas for his art comes from everywhere, even suggestions from people at festivals.
“I love Mississippi-themed things and, of course, Ole Miss stuff,” he said. “I love trees and nature — I can see the Appalachian Trail from our doorstep. Sometimes things never occur to me: I’ve been asked if I draw teapots, or a certain kind of bird.”
The timing varies from piece to piece — from a couple of hours to 25 to 30 hours. And Gore doesn’t work exclusively on canvas. He’s used lots of different surfaces, including acorns, candy wrappers, leaves — he loves the idea of sustainability. Most of his work is pen and ink, done with a pen nib of .15 millimeters.
“I use so little ink,” Gore said. “In fact, I probably have enough for the rest of my career right now.”
He sometimes uses alcohol ink or watercolor, colored pencils, gel pens, but rarely acrylic. He owns some “seriously tiny” watercolor bushes, and once he made a brush from the bristle off a toothbrush attached to a tiny stick. Gore still has it.
As much as he loves creating his art, Gore loves making people smile and watching them find enjoyment in what he does.
“I’ve sold pieces to people in places all over the world,” he said. “So I get to engage with people in all these different places. I sometimes have to use the translate Tweet function, but it’s really neat.”
Visit blakegore.com to see his miniature art.
When Barbara Eaton attended grades 1 through 12 in her hometown of Nettleton, no art classes were available. So, she took music and learned to play piano; she was a cheerleader and played tennis. She found ways to do art, even without formal instruction.
“I had an older sister who liked to draw,” she said. “When I was a small child, I’d sit on the couch and draw with her. And I always did everybody’s posters when we were growing up.”
In addition to her older sister, Eaton likely inherited some of her artistic creativity from her mother who was a gifted seamstress.
“She made all my cheerleader outfits, my wedding dress, my clothes and even my blue jeans, until I started rebelling,” she said.
When she was getting ready to head to college at what was then Itawamba Junior College, Eaton’s father encouraged his daughter to become a secretary or a nurse, but she had another idea. She had already discovered her passion and it was art. She got a scholarship to IJC and majored in art. Later, she attended Ole Miss where she worked on degrees in art education and English.
After graduation, she began teaching art to high school students.
“There was still no art in the public school system, but some schools were getting grants for a gifted art program,” Eaton said. “I taught gifted art to eighth through twelfth graders.”
When public schools began realizing the importance of art education for all students, Eaton was elated. Before she retired in 2010 after 30 years as an art teacher, she taught fourth through sixth graders at Lawndale.
“Every student there (about 600) got to take art,” she said. “And I had every one of them.”
When Eaton paints, she prefers oil. She learned about oil painting in high school when she checked out a book from the school library. In oil, she has done commissions and portraits of her grandchildren. She even taught oil painting in gifted art.
Eaton, 64, has taken part in Oxford’s Double Decker Art Festival once before and has been a frequent participant in the Gumtree Arts Festival — at least once with her paintings, but several times with her Clay-Tunes.
The beginning stages of Clay-Tunes likely began when Eaton was teaching clay work to her students. Rather than throwing pots, the students sculpted forms which were hollow in the center. As a member and board member of the Mississippi Art Teachers Association, Eaton had attended a conference workshop once where an artist was teaching how to make a small whistle with one sound.
Later, Eaton started experimenting with the small, one-sound whistle. She found that with three holds — depending on their size and combination — the whistle would produce eight sounds.
“Combining sound with form gives me joy,” she said. “My whistles combine a lot of different things that give me happiness in this one piece. Some of the first ones, the sounds were pitiful. They have come a long, long way.”
Eaton loves the look of surprise when people walk by her festival booth, see her whistles, then hear her whistles. She often comes up with a theme for her festival work, but for the 2022 Gumtree Art & Wine Festival, she may forgo a theme.
“After the past year or so, I just think we all need a little distraction,” she said. “I may just go in all different directions rather than stick to one theme.”
The ideas for Eaton’s colorful, whimsical Clay-Tunes come from just about anywhere — from nature, her cat, little animals with human characteristic. One idea came to her on the tennis court while watching her tennis partners running around the court.
“I suddenly pictured these little dancing mice in flowing dresses,” she said. “If an idea stays in my head and I can’t let it go, I might get up in the wee hours of the day and night and create — because I can, now that I’m retired. My brain never stops.”
When it gets to be festival season and Eaton decides which festivals she will do, she creates a calendar so she can stay on schedule with how may pieces she will create each day before the festival dates.
“I give myself weekends off, but if I miss my daily goal, I have to work on weekends to catch up,” she said. “I try to stay on schedule, though. I have to have time to play tennis, sit in the sunshine and, of course, spend time with my four grandchildren.”
See more of Eaton’s work by searching “The Art Shack by Barbara Eaton” on Facebook.