By Lizzie McIntosh
Years of clay live in every wrinkle, crease, and indentation of Bill Beckwith’s hands.
He thinks in proportions — the responsibility he holds to teach young sculptors what he learned from those who trained him, the measurements of every face he passes on the street.
His face is gestural, like those he sculpts. Round glasses frame his oval face, acting as a balance to the wrinkles that rest on his forehead. When he says something difficult, he scratches his beard and grimaces. His glasses almost grimace with him. He has a gray ponytail that sneaks out beneath a worn Harley Davidson hat.
Sculpting has not been easy.
“I’ve pretty well wrecked my body,” Beckwith says.
His shoulders and knees bug him; his thumbs are “almost done,” as he puts it. He has nerve damage and messed up lungs. The physical demands of working with bronze monuments are taxing, and Beckwith is the first to admit it.
“I’m 67,” Beckwith says. “I know I’m slowing down.”
* * *
Beckwith begins each piece with extensive research. He gets to know his subjects with the intimacy and confidence he feels as their creator. He knows every inch of their being. Every fold in their clothes, every hair that falls on their forehead, the corners of their faces that reflect light.
Photographs and handwritten notes cover a board on the back wall of Bill’s studio. There is research he has gathered for a new series — a commentary on the culture war of the 1960s based on his favorite pieces by Rodin, with activists and hippies posed in the same positions as some of the master's most notable works.
A bronze bust of Eudora Welty greets visitors inside the studio’s doors.
His sculpting process requires immense patience. He starts by building an armature out of wire, molding clay onto that, then making a rubber mold. From that, he makes a wax followed by another ceramic shell mold into which he pours bronze. The bronze is then hand-chased to put detail into it.
A large-scale piece takes a year to complete.
* * *
Leon Koury, the son of Syrian immigrants, found an unlikely home in the Mississippi Delta. His parents owned an old corner grocery across the street from Doe’s Eat Place in Greenville.
As a teenager in the 1940s, Koury went over to local writer William Alexander Percy’s house and asked him to critique poems he had written and illustrated. Percy read the poems but noticed the illustrations instead.
A few days later Koury found a large shipment of oil clay on his doorstep. Will Percy had taken it upon himself to buy the boy clay, and Koury never stopped modeling.
Percy introduced Koury to more than clay. He introduced him to the finer things in life — classical music, classic literature, political ideology.
Will also introduced him to Malvina Hoffman, a well-known sculptor from New York who had studied under Auguste Rodin.
Koury became Hoffman’s protégé and worked with her in her studio in New York. He went on his own to create large-scale works. He did well in the big city: He met Einstein, socialized in the right circles, created portrait heads of prominent governors, made an entry for the World’s Fair. Later, Will Percy would refer to Koury as a genius, a sentiment many echoed.
But somewhere along the line, he got a call that took him home to the Delta. His father was sick, and he came back to Greenville to help him die.
The Delta boy returned home and was there to stay.
* * *
Beckwith remembers Mississippi bubbling with tension in 1966. The Vietnam War was aflame, and the state was entrenched in horrific conflict over the Civil Rights Movement. Teenagers were itching to get out, to make a difference. The inner workings of the state were unsettled and heavy like the humidity that weighed down the outside.
Leon Koury offered his studio to a group of teenage boys from the junior high in town. Maybe because they needed a space to shake their hips and play rock-and-roll, but maybe because he could relate to young Delta boys with dreams bigger than the town they found themselves in.
They were admirers of John Lennon and Mick Jagger and needed an escape. And they found it in the studio of Koury, a Syrian-American sculptor in Mississippi.
Among the boys who hung out in the “sculptor’s pad” was young Bill Beckwith.
Beckwith ambled into the studio that had dust circling and clay fragments stuck to the floor and tools he had never seen before. Bronze portrait heads lined the walls. It wasn’t much different from the studio he now works from in Taylor.
At age 14, Beckwith became an apprentice in Koury’s studio.
“When this group of young radical activists started hanging out around his studio, he became our mentor in a lot of ways,” Beckwith says. “He kept us on an even keel.”
He taught the boys about books and music and guided their political thinking — much as Will Percy had done for him, one Delta boy to another.
Beckwith reminisces about Koury “holding court” in his studio, serving coffee not just to the boys he mentored, but also to the likes of historian Shelby Foote, writer Ellen Douglas, and Ben Wasson, who had been William Faulkner’s literary agent. Koury was like Gertrude Stein except his studio was in the Mississippi Delta, not a salon in Paris.
At Koury’s studio, Beckwith found his calling. He just didn’t know it then.
* * *
In true Kerouacian fashion, Beckwith left the Delta behind on graduation night. He had gotten kicked out of the last exam of his senior year because his hair touched his ears and his collar. He went home, cut his hair off as close as he could, put it in a bag and took it to his principal.
“I took my hair out of the bag and I said, ‘There it is.’ Just let me the hell out of here,” Beckwith says.
Beckwith hitchhiked to California — a spiritual experiment to leave the constricting environment he felt he had outgrown in Greenville.
He held a 1-A draft classification for Vietnam, making him free game for the army, the next to go. With a moral objection to the war, Beckwith had some hard decisions to make.
Beckwith stayed three months on the road. Once he reached California, he got mugged three times in San Francisco, then moved back south, to Florida. He became a roadie for a band there and was lucky enough to see Jimi Hendrix and the Allman Brothers in their prime. After he felt he had been away from home long enough, he returned to Greenville.
“I went 6,000 miles, left home with about $50, and I guess I sort of found myself,” Beckwith says.
The Delta boy decided he wanted to go to school.
* * *
Beckwith completed his bachelor's and master’s degrees in sculpture at the University of Mississippi. During a graduate assistantship, he built a foundry at Leon Koury’s studio. His plan was to run the foundry and take in work to be poured for other artists’ sculptures, in the hope the work would fund his own.
Beckwith quickly realized how difficult it was to make a living as an artist in Mississippi. He noticed the rarity of full-time studios operating in the state. Beckwith sought advice about the viability of working as an artist from success stories — ceramic sculptor John Hamrick, glassblower Susan Ford, and ceramicists Lee and Pup McCarty.
Beckwith got married in 1972 and lived with his wife in a small cabin on a river. They lived off food they grew and earned money mostly off of wholesale, yard sales, and auctions. Or they bartered.
Then, Beckwith and his wife moved to Taylor. They bought the house next to Taylor Grocery, a landmark for its fried catfish. At the time, the house in Taylor was unlivable. It was “a horrible shell of a building from 1897,” as Beckwith puts it.
“I worked here in Taylor and kept the foundry growing in Greenville at the same time,” Beckwith says with a heavy sigh. “I slept in the studio with no bathrooms three to four nights a week. It was hard.”
Beckwith’s son was born in 1991, and around the same time, larger public commissions started heading in his direction.
He made five large bronzes for the Jackson Airport, which led to commissions for life-sized bronzes of children for Methodist Rehab Hospital, which in turn opened doors for other commissions.
Beckwith had made a name for himself.
* * *
The floodgates opened. Even larger pieces were commissioned. Beckwith molded, crafted, and created statues of B.B. King and Elvis Presley, even a piece for the Gettysburg National Military Park.
During that time, Beckwith made his most famous piece, the bronze of William Faulkner that sits in front of City Hall greeting passersby in Oxford.
Once business picked up, Beckwith started using a professional foundry with a crew instead of pouring everything by himself. He would model in Taylor and pour in Atlanta.
Somewhere along the way, the University of Mississippi asked him to teach. A mixture of loneliness from long nights by himself in the studio and a desire to somehow pay his mentor back led him to accept a position. Beckwith enjoyed teaching at the beginning. He found being with the students energized him. He could share the things he loved about sculpture.
After a while, due to shifts in the art department faculty, he was asked to teach the introductory class for 3-D design. For Beckwith, it got old fast.
“It became so monotonous to teach beginners, who didn’t know a hammer from a saw, that I became mentally unchallenged, bored,” Beckwith says. He also felt burned by the university, which handed out millions in large-scale commissions but never gave him a chance at one.
“I had a career, a name, a resume, and I felt like I deserved one of those commissions,” Beckwith says. His admission comes with a painful wince, followed by a long pause.
“If I’m going to do the dirty work for you and teach sorority girls how to not have a mastectomy on a band saw, then give me a chance at one of those. You know?”
At 62, after 18 years of teaching, he had had enough.
* * *
So, here is Bill Beckwith, sitting in his studio that he has outgrown. He is putting the finishing touches on a new studio down the road. His studio was too small, and Taylor Grocery got too big.
He’s been working on the new studio for a while now. A bout with cancer, the death of close family members, and the economy crash interrupted him many times. All those interruptions, he now wears in the lines on his face.
Beckwith is finishing one commissioned bust and starting to model new pieces, but his biggest project is completing the new studio.
“We’re putting up the last door on the side wall today, putting a loft apartment in the upstairs, and it’s just about ready for sheetrock and paint,” Beckwith says with a more hopeful tone in his voice.
The front room of the new studio occupies 2,500 square feet. He plans to teach private lessons there. Just like Leon Koury did for him.
“Well, Rodin taught Malvina, Malvina taught Leon, and Leon taught me,” Beckwith says. He says he feels he owes the world of sculpture a debt.
In some ways, Beckwith has gone through the same process his monuments do. He has been taken from, added to, refined and polished. He has creases and rough spots from those who have hurt him and the hard seasons of life he was poured into, just like the thick and resilient bronze he pours into his molds.
When he came to Koury, he was just that — a mold ready to be shaped and refined and poured into.
“And now it’s my responsibility,” Beckwith says, “to pass on what I’ve learned.”