WRITTEN BY RACHEL BURCHFIELD | PHOTOGRAPHED BY JOE WORTHEM
A Tupelo artist expands his vision of making art accessible not just to others with traumatic injuries and disabilities, but to the entire community.
William Heard, founder and director of OurArtworks in Tupelo, has spent nearly 20 years turning the worst experience of his life into his life’s work. His latest endeavor is an outdoor art space in Mill Village that will complement his Tupelo studio.
Heard’s journey began 19 years ago when he was in his last semester at Mississippi State University. Just a couple of months shy of graduation, in March 2000, Heard was a backseat passenger in a car that fishtailed on a gravel road and ran head-on into a ditch. Heard, who was not wearing a seatbelt, was thrown forward on impact. The back of his head hit the windshield, breaking his neck and paralyzing him for life.
Hospitalized for the next six months, and left without the use of his legs, toes or fingers, the one activity that Heard found gave him joy was art — especially painting, which he experimented with a couple of times a week as part of his rehabilitation therapy. He continued to paint after he was released from the hospital, but soon depression reared its ugly head and he stopped.
“I wasn’t into it anymore, and I quit,” Heard said. “I didn’t know what to do with my life. My future was bleak.”
Several months later, fighting depression and battling anger over what the crash had done to his life, he caught a late-night airing of the 2000 movie “Pollock.” In it, Ed Harris plays painter Jackson Pollock, known for his abstract drip paintings. The movie changed Heard’s outlook forever.
“After watching that movie, a lightbulb went on,” Heard said.
With a renewed sense of purpose, Heard began experimenting with his own version of Pollock’s drip technique. First he tried spoons, controlling the drip by holding it with a Styrofoam ball. Then he began experimenting with anything he could find around the kitchen — pans, bowls, cups. Eventually he began to feel hopeful again. Painting really gave him back his joy.
Heard realized others with traumatic brain and spinal cord injuries could feel the same therapeutic benefits he experienced from creating art. He set up shop in his mother’s studio space in Tupelo, teaching art, inviting in friends he made while working at LIFE of Mississippi, a statewide nonprofit that empowers people with disabilities.
“I needed to do something, in a sense, to keep busy,” he said.
Armed with a grant from the Mississippi Department of Rehabilitation Services that continues to this day, OurArtworks was born. Now, 13 years later, OurArtworks has opened a second location at Mill Village, on about two acres of land donated by Melissa Pounds. Heard and Pounds met when Heard was working on wood furniture in the front yard of a home across the street from what is now OurArtworks’ second outpost. Pounds, who owned the land, told Heard “If you can do something with it, y’all can have it.”
And do something, he did. With the help of the community, the Mill Village location opened in April. It features not only art — think painting, clay, and ceramics — but also craft projects such as jewelry, beading and woodworking. Eventually, visitors to this outpost will also be able to garden and practice yoga, and Heard has plans to build a stage on the property where local musicians can play. There will be chickens to feed and picnic tables under big trees where people can stop for lunch in between projects. Both locations are open not just to people with a disabilities but to anyone who wants to come join in the fun.
“At our outpost, we want to fit as many people as we can,” Heard said. “The studio can only fit so many people. We had 50 or 60 people recently, and we had to go buy extra chairs.”
The Tupelo studio will continue to be open Tuesdays and Fridays, while the Mill Village location is set to be open seven days a week as a safe place to create art.
“There are a large number of people in the area with developmental disabilities,” Heard said. “This is a place they can enjoy. It is also a place for the community, for anyone who wants to participate and wants to see what we’re doing.”
Heard said he expects the Mill Village outpost to serve thousands of people with disabilities.
“It means the world to them to come and be themselves, to laugh and enjoy great art, to eat popcorn and snacks,” Heard said. “They love their work and love coming. You see so many smiles — they look forward to it each week.”
Heard said he remembers his darkest hours in the hospital, when creating a piece of artwork felt so monumental — and he wants to give the same gift to others.
“It’s just a feeling of accomplishment,” he said. “I remember when I was first starting out painting, even my first painting in rehab, I was just so glad to do something; to just have the independence of creating something on my own was such a good feeling. I had the opportunity arise to do something to help other people — helping other people helps me just as much as it helps them. If I can help our community, that’s what I must do.”