By Annie Rhoades
Growing up the son of a farmer in small-town Mississippi during the Great Depression, George Wardlaw (MFA 55), acclaimed artist, sculptor, painter, silversmith and jewelry maker, never dreamed he would be where he is today.
“Art as we know it today simply did not exist in my limited culture growing up,” Wardlaw said. “During the big depression in North Mississippi art was the furthest thing from consideration – survival was the major concern.”
Having a love of art from the time he was a young child, Wardlaw gleaned an affinity for colors, shapes and patterns from his mother’s quilting as well as drawing in his spare time.
“My visual exposures closest to art-related activities came for my mother’s quilting where color, pattern, shape and organization played a significant role,” Wardlaw said. “My mother was also a seamstress and made many garments, especially dresses. I was deeply intrigued by the patterns and their shapes and the fact that combined they formed a three-dimensional object, again with colors and printed patterns. I also did a lot of drawing with a friend in school, but there were no art classes or projects. I never saw an original piece of art until I entered art school.”
A native of Baldwyn, Wardlaw (MFA 55) attended Baldwyn High School but didn’t receive his high school diploma until May 2015. In 1945, two months prior to graduation, he joined the U.S. Navy where he served for approximately one year.
“During World War II, when I was in the eleventh grade and turned eighteen, I volunteered for the Navy primarily to avoid being drafted into the infantry,” Wardlaw said. “I served in the medical corps thinking I would like to be a doctor but found I didn’t particularly like being around hospitals and sick people. The fact that I did not pursue the medical field was perhaps my greatest contribution to society.”
After being discharged from the Navy in 1946, Wardlaw returned home to work on his father’s cotton farm when one day fate and good fortune aligned.
“I was walking down the street in Baldwyn and happened to meet Charles Gentry, a high school friend,” Wardlaw said. “He was in his first year in divinity school and inquired about what I was doing and asked if I was still involved in drawing, and I said, ‘yes some.’ At that point he convincingly suggested I go to art school. He said there was one in Memphis and encouraged me to check with the veteran’s administration in Tupelo. I got in my car and drove directly to the VA office.”
Within two weeks Wardlaw enrolled in the Memphis Academy of Arts (Memphis College of Art) to pursue a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree.
“During my second year at the Memphis Academy, I was fortunate to have a young enthusiastic painting teacher from New York City, Ben Bishop,” said Wardlaw. “One day in the painting studio he approached me from the back, looked over my shoulder and said, ‘George, that is a fantastic painting, and it should be in the Non-Objective Museum of Art in New York.’ Wow – what a huge ego trip for someone who, just a year earlier, was a cotton farmer.”
After receiving his B.F.A. in 1951, Wardlaw quickly gained a national reputation in metal work, jewelry and silversmithing. In January 1952 he was asked to join the faculty at Ole Miss to establish and teach a metals program for the Art Department. It wasn’t long before he decided to pursue a Master of Fine Arts degree at the university.
“I enrolled in the M.F.A. program in 1953, which was a new program in its first year, and continued to teach until 1955,” Wardlaw said. “I was one of the first to graduate, and the same was true for the B.F.A. at Memphis Academy of Arts. I must be a trailblazer.”
Wardlaw credits two artists in particular that largely influenced his life during his time at Ole Miss.
“One of the early and most significant breakthroughs in my work happened at the University of Mississippi,” Wardlaw recalled. “This was the result of working closely with two visiting artists: Jack Tworkov, painter and David Smith, sculptor. They were both part of the abstract expressionist movement in art. They directly and personally introduced me to what was happening in one of the most significant art movements this country had ever experienced. Both made extremely valuable contributions to me personally and to my career.”
Wardlaw also credits William Faulkner, who was awarded the Nobel prize for literature in 1949, with influencing both his work and many artists both in Oxford and around the world.
“His acceptance speech in 1950 for the award was a masterpiece and a huge inspiration for me as a beginning young artist,” Wardlaw said and then quoted from Faulkner’s speech. “‘I feel this award was not made to me as a man, but to my work – a life’s work in the agony and sweat of the human spirit, not for glory and least of all for profit, but to create out of the materials of the human spirit, something which did not exist before.’”
Currently hosting two exhibitions in Jackson including a retrospective 1954-2014 at the Mississippi Museum of Art and a gallery exhibition at Fischer Galleries, Wardlaw continues to be an active artist painting daily.
“I have another show opening on July 22 and running to the end of August at the Maine Jewish Museum in Portland, ME,” Wardlaw said. “At age 88 I think I am currently doing some of my best and most original paintings. My continuing desire is to make work that did not exist before and, at the same time, to make work that has the potential to capture one’s attention and imagination and to be intellectually and spiritually relevant by uplifting the spirit.”