How one Mississippi man is creating art as a nostalgic nod to America’s dying architecture
By LaReeca Rucker
The Oxford Eagle
(A version of this story appeared in The Oxford Eagle)
Greenwood, with its rivers and dirt, farms and flatland, was a wonderful place for a boy to dream. John Willcoxon often imagined himself growing up and flying away from the Mississippi Delta.
Today, he’s trying to reclaim those memories by cutting them out of metal and nailing them to pieces of salvaged wood in an art venture called The Willcoxon Collection, a concept that marries iconic images of Mississippi life with reclaimed wood. It is a nostalgic nod to the disappearing tin-roofed barns fading from the Southern landscape.
Willcoxon’s dimly lighted garage in Oxford’s College Hill community is filled with a rolling cart that holds stacks of reclaimed wood, rectangular art pieces that he has completed, saws, hammers, a wood-burning stamp and saw dust. He works by the light of a shop lamp, shaping a cutout with a rotating blade, the image of a metal guitar inspired by B.B. King’s “Lucille.”
Then he adds two strips of wood to the back of one piece and stamps his name with a wood-burning branding tool. The guitar has been one of his most popular items because of its connection with Mississippi’s legendary Delta blues history.
Willcoxon knows the Delta well. After graduating from Greenwood High School, he briefly attended Mississippi State University, but lacked direction. “I didn’t quite know what I wanted to do initially,” he said. “I still don’t know.”
He first studied landscape contracting because nothing else sounded interesting. “I got over there, wasted a lot of money, and realized that I didn’t care anything about plants,” he said.
Instead, he took a semester out of school and went home to work in the Greenwood airport. “I started taking lessons, and just fell in love with (aviation),” he said. “It just so happened that Delta State started an aviation program the year before, and I thought, this is a win, win.”
After graduating from Delta State in 1986 with a degree in aviation management, Willcoxon spent 15 years as an analyst and manager at FedEx corporate in Memphis, getting his start in college.
“The way this particular program worked, they were looking for someone to take a year out of school, work for them, and then go back and finish,” Willcoxon said. “And I thought, ‘Heck yeah. I’ll do that in a minute.’ If you wanted to get in the heavy iron, or what we call the big Fortune 500 airline world, unless you had contacts, your resume was just going to get lost in the shuffle. So it gave me a lot of opportunity to meet people. I got to travel the world. For a Mississippi boy, I was feeling pretty good.”
Willcoxon started his career with FedEx in the control tower launching aircraft at night with as many as 200 planes coming and going in a six-hour period. It was fun, but he knew he didn’t want to work shifts and nights forever.
“I started looking into the analyst world. That’s about the time the personal computer came on the scene — Apple computers and the first generation PCs came out, Microsoft. I became really interested in those things, and I thought, ‘How can I marry the two?’”
Because FedEx is a well-oiled machine, any delay is huge. As a flight delay analyst, Willcoxon was in charge of monitoring and reporting why flights were being delayed so other managers could improve service. The job introduced him to the executive level of the company’s worldwide operations.
“It was really a wonderful place to grow up, but like everybody, you turn 40, and you start to think, ‘What do I want to be when I grow up?’ I thought, ‘Fortune 500. I don’t think I want to do this the rest of my life. I will probably go crazy if I have to go to all these meetings.’”
After leaving FedEx, Willcoxon opened his own sign business, another job he held for 15 years before becoming a workforce consultant for a staffing company that began laying off employees.
“I walked into a meeting one day, and my job and two other people’s jobs were eliminated,” he said. “It was kind of like: ‘OK Lord, where are we going from here?’ So I picked up and started over. Everybody loved this (art) piece that I had in my apartment, so I thought, ‘I’m going to make a few things like that, and when the fourth quarter is over, I’m going to start looking for a job again.’”
Receiving positive feedback from retailers encouraged him to move forward with his art business. “I started kind of being like the old wagon peddler on ‘Gun Smoke’ who goes from town to town with his wagon full of elixir,” he said. “I pull up and show them my wares.”
Since becoming a full-time artist, Willcoxon has worked to build a retail network. He carried his art to the Dallas market in June, where he picked up six new retailers.
“I gave a piece to the governor of Mississippi, and he got up and, unbeknownst to me, used it in a speech to the Economics Council a few weeks later. He re-gifted it to a guy from California, which was kind of funny,” he laughed. “His wife came through our booth in the Mississippi Market a few weeks later. I told her the story, and she said, ‘He did what?’ I said, “Don’t fuss at him. That is the best PR thing he could have ever done for me.”
Recommended by a Collierville client, in February Willcoxon appeared on the NBC home renovation show “Fix It and Finish It.”
“We got a chance to film back in September with Antonio Sabato Jr., who stars in that thing. I did a custom art piece for a couple on Memphis, and it aired on Feb. 4 on NBC, so it’s kind of nice to get a little national recognition.
“It was a custom piece that hid a window unit air conditioner. The air had to flow through the art piece, so that the air conditioner was still functional. It was fun. I really enjoyed it, but TV is not what you think it is, in a sense.”
Willcoxon describes himself as “one of those kooky left brain, right brain people, who can go back and forth across the line,” and he has incorporated many of the skills he learned in previous jobs into his artwork.
“I’ve always said that part of my unique skill set that I’ve picked up along the way is taking complex things and making them work visually. That was kind of my capstone at FedEx. I would take a real complicated, OK we’ve got a problem, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, and boil it down on the head of a pin, and say this is what the problem is, and this is how we are going to fix it, put it in a presentation that way.
“The art is really funny because the presentation skills translated into the graphic design skills in the sign business. The sign business skills translated into the computer processes that I used in art. When you see your career kind of across the spectrum, even at the time you didn’t know you were learning something you would use later, it’s kind of like, ‘OK. This is kind of cool.”
Willcoxon’s art is simple, but tells a story about the American South.
“I tell people because it’s iconic, if you don’t glance at it and see what it is, then I missed. I missed on a couple of pieces. I tried to do the Ruins of Windsor down near Vicksburg and it ended up looking like a cow head.”
He started with guitars, then added crosses and animals. Lately, his art has been market-driven.
“I’ve got a lot of people who will say, ‘Oh, I love your stuff. Isn’t that cute?’ Yeah, but are you willing to pay for it? The left brain part of me starts taking over and going, “I’m trying to make a living. How do we put together a product that sells?”
After creating a few Mississippi-shaped art pieces, Willcoxon began working on metal cut-outs of all 50 states. Then he added iconic shapes inside them, like Mississippi cotton. Others resemble William Faulkner, University of Mississippi campus buildings, flora and fauna.
“I always say Mississippi is really four small states,” he said. “The Delta is one. You’ve got North Mississippi east of I-55 down to Jackson. Then, Jackson to Hattiesburg is kind of that Pinebelt area. And everything below Hattiesburg is kind of like a whole another planet because of the New Orleans and Mobile influence. The coast is a whole different world, but at the same time, there’s still a cohesive Mississippi.”
What design will he create next? “I have ideas rattling around in my squirrel-cage brain,” he said. “Probably a railroad trestle. I want to do a cotton-picker. I always said I would never do a deer head because I thought that was the cheesiest thing. But you know, it’s one of my best sellers. A fish is big throughout the Delta (because it’s) catfish farming country. Cotton. I would like to take another shot at the Ruins of Windsor, out from Port Gibson.”
Willcoxon said he hopes to honor his parents name with his artwork. “I’m not naive enough to think the reclaimed wood thing will last forever,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a pet rock, but décor changes, and people’s tastes change. I’ll adjust, and I’ll do something different.”
There’s another factor in the popularity of reclaimed wood — the disappearance of barns and historic structures across the United States.
“If you look across the landscape of Mississippi, how many dilapidated barns, shacks and structures that go back to a way of life are disappearing,” he said. “I think people want to hang on to a piece of that.”
Bill Gatlin, an architectural historian and National Register of Historic Places coordinator with the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, said old barns in Mississippi are a vanishing resource.
“Once, all of our power was either human or animal,” Gatlin said. “We had to provide shelters for our horses and mules. As we have gotten away from having to do that, we have given those over to machines.
Gatlin said many parts of Mississippi, like Tupelo and Oxford, once had an active dairy industry, and there were barns associated with that.
“These are not buildings that necessarily adapt to a new life,” he said. “Barns are not that amendable. But one man’s eye sore is another man’s historic artifact. We consider them to be artifacts because they tell us a story about how we used to live.”
According to the Illinois-based organization Barn Keepers, barns were the most important structure on a farmstead, often surpassing the farmer’s own residence in the quality of construction and size. Gatlin said the design of a building often evokes power.
“You would expect a bank to evoke stability and permanence,” he said. “You wouldn’t necessarily want a bank in a trailer or a Katrina building, because it doesn’t give you that,” he said. “Courthouses and post offices were good examples of this in a place like Mississippi, where government officials were trying to make sure that Mississippians respected the structure of the federal government. You wanted them to evoke a sense of power.”
Barn Keepers said barns provided shelter for livestock, storage for grain and hay, a place to keep tools and equipment and a site to perform various work activities. Barns also sometimes “doubled as centers for social activities, such as barn dances. Erecting the barn was a social event too, and ‘barn-raisings’ offered a welcome break from the isolation of everyday life.”
The organization was formed to promote the documentation, restoration and preservation of these vanishing landmarks of the rural countryside.
The National Barn Alliance is also coordinating preservation efforts to save America’s historic barns by encouraging documentation through surveys and photography of historic barns and other rural structures.
Willcoxon is now creating art inspired by his life in rural Mississippi that began in Greenwood.
“Greenwood was a wonderful place to grow up,” he said. “We had rivers. We had dirt piles. But the Delta is a farming region, and as an old buddy of mine used to say, there’s really only two classes of people in the Delta — there’s pickers and planters. And we were pickers. So if your dad doesn’t own a thousand acres at this point in life, and it’s passed down to you, and you farm it, you don’t really have a reason to be there, because there’s no businesses there.”
Willcoxon’s father was not a farmer. He was a “tinkerer, a musician, an electronics guy, and one of the most brilliant underemployed people I ever knew.” When he retired, he became an artist who crafted folk harps.
“I always loved to watch him tinker with stuff,” Wilcoxon said. “I have to give credit to him having an influence on me in the repurposing. (I grew) up with Depression era parents who saved everything because they were afraid growing up that you weren’t going to have it.”
As the old saying goes, you can take the boy out of the Delta, but you cannot take the Delta out of the boy. That is evident in the metal memories that Willcoxon attaches to salvaged wood, many born in Greenwood where his parents scrapped and saved.
“Everything that is Delta cotton-related is all Greenwood. Tractors. Anything rural. Even the blues piece. I have a church. It may look like any church, but that is the church that Robert Johnson, the blues singer, is buried behind. There’s tie-ins to all of it.”