Walking into Tupelo artist BIlly Clifton’s apartment, one hears sounds of ambient futuristic music from decades past bouncing off his walls, adorned with his art. He calls it his space music.
“I’m letting those creative juices flow,” said the tall, thin, black man with gray braids falling over his forehead, standing in the living room behind a large canvas. “I have my space music going. That music takes my imagination out there. I’m able to change gears.”
He was staring at a partially blank canvas, half filled with the beginnings of a building and a few outlines of people.
“On this piece, we’re in the planning stage,” he said. “I’m just letting those juices flow and the imagination run wild like I do with a lot of my pieces.”
The acrylic paint sits on a canvas he built.
“I started off with oil a long time ago and it definitely takes too long to dry,” he said. “I decided acrylics won’t be the thing to hold me back.”
The process starts well before the first idea for a painting or the inspirational music.
“The first thing to do is build the frame for the canvas,” he said. “If you’re in this thing called art and have a lot of money, you can have someone make you a frame, but when money is tight, you come up with ways to keep the cost down.”
Clifton said he picked up a paint brush in 1976 to try and occupy his hands and his mind and hasn’t looked back since.
“I was so inspired after realizing God blessed me with this gift that I had to take inventory of my life,” he said. “I was running wild with no purpose, just occupying space. It’s like this, if God blesses you with a gift, man, and you realize you’ve been blessed with that gift, it’s up to you to run with that gift or reject that gift.”
Clifton said a lot of the young people he sees now in the community he grew up in let their gifts go undiscovered or undeveloped because they are jealous of other gifts and too concerned with consuming, not enough with creating.
“The reason I deal with community in my art is, there is a little area called Green Street in Tupelo, and there, black men and women had their own businesses and worked hard for themselves and the community,” he said. “The mindset of those that came before us was doing something for themselves and of themselves. With all this technology we have now, we’re less productive as people, but we still want to sing ‘We shall overcome.’ How are you going to overcome if all you are going to do is sing the song and then sit back down?”
Clifton is passionate about his community and said he wants to remind people it still takes a village to bring up the next generation.
All of his paintings featuring a community of characters also feature a small white sign, held up by some of the characters, that reads, “Stop the Killing.”
“Family is everything, and in the society in which we live today there is a breakdown of the family structure, a bad breakdown,” Clifton said. “It just hurts your heart man, some of the things being reported on TV. There isn’t a bill or law that congress can pass to stop the senseless violence, we need to have a dialogue in our communities and that’s what that sign being held in my paintings is.”
Clifton’s art is distinct and simple at first, but the people in each painting are so intricately detailed they appear to each have a story to tell.
Some of his paintings show North Green Street or a similar community, but most of the paintings portray a desert landscape around an oasis with buildings painted from a flat perspective.
At first glance, the work appears to be featuring a primitive downtown area but a closer look reveals the stars of the paintings are the intricately decorated, almost living, characters moving through the towns.
The self-taught artist said he will spend anywhere from three months to a year working on a painting before each person is detailed to his satisfaction.
The paintings are obviously influenced by traditional African art and modernized by Clifton’s passion for his local community.
His work can be seen and purchased at www.3sistersmrf.com/Clifton.
Story by JB Clark // Photos by Adam Robison