The Southside Gallery rotates artists on display, such as Jere Allen's figurative oil paintings (left).
The Southside Gallery
The gallery exterior, street side. Each season, the name of the current artist-in-residence is shown on the window.
The Southside Gallery
A Rod Moorhead sculpture.
The Southside Gallery
Will Cook sits on a bench upstairs. Many large-scale paintings are displayed on the second story of the gallery.
story by Kristina Domitrovich photos by Lindsay Pace
The Southside Gallery on Oxford’s Square has been around since 1993, when now-nationally recognized photographer Milly Moorhead West opened its doors. In 2002, Moorhead left Oxford to get her MFA in Tulsa, Oklahoma; that’s when the Cooks stepped in.
Vickie Cook, an accountant in Oxford, regularly spent her lunch breaks in the gallery.
“Her office used to be down around the corner,” said Will Cook, her son and the gallery’s manager. “They’d come and eat lunch on the Square, and then she would come in here, and she bought some art from Milly when she owned it. I think she always kind of enjoyed. It was a place, where if things got stressful, this is the place she might kind of wonder into and I think kind of leave it all out (there) when she came in here. She does really enjoy art.”
When Vickie bought the gallery, her son had recently graduated from the University of Mississippi with degrees in art history and English. At first, he fought the urge to join the team. Eventually he came around to the idea, and has been managing the Southside Gallery for 17 years. His mom is still involved to this day; he said she’s “doing the hard work,” like keeping the books, since she’s an accountant, and still participates in gallery events.
But as far as curating exhibits and working with artists, that’s mostly left to Cook.
“Her objective was just keeping it open at the time, because she loves the gallery and she loves the arts,” Cook said. “But she’s been kind of hands off as far as she lets me choose who’s going to exhibit, so that’s really nice because there’s that freedom.”
The Southside Gallery tries to feature regional artists, mostly from the Southeast. Artists like William Dunlap, Charlie Buckley and Coulter Fussell. The Gallery doesn’t limit medium or genre; it’s featured artists who create ceramics, quilts and textiles, paintings, prints and more. Cook personally prefers nonrepresentational art, but he tries to ensure his personal preferences aren’t the only things making it into the gallery.
“It’s just whether or not the work will be a good fit with what we do here,” he said. “We want work that is kind of marketable to our customers. It puts you in a real difficult place, because you want to maintain a high integrity with the art, and you want to really like the work you exhibit. And at the same time, you want the work to be really agreeable to a lot of other people and for them to buy it.”
Cook said his job can be difficult, because occasionally he has to turn away artists whose work he really enjoys and appreciates, simply because he doesn’t think Oxford has the right market.
While Southside could still exhibit the work, if there’s no real interest in it, “That won’t be doing them any favors,” he said, “or us.”
Finding the equilibrium can be challenging. Art is transitional and it’s meant to be interpreted differently. Quite regularly, the Southside Gallery has landscapes on exhibit. It’s not that Cook specifically hunts these pieces down, but he said it really resonates with people and artists alike, especially in Mississippi.
“I think (Mississippi has) some really beautiful views sometimes, but we don’t have any like breathtaking landscapes like mountains or like really beautiful natural lakes, I think most of our lakes are man-made lakes here,” he said with a chuckle. “The landscapes (artists) might select are going to be something that’s maybe more sentimental or familiar, like a cotton field or a soybean field with a little shade tree. … I think those scenes are a natural draw to a landscape painter here just because that’s what’s the most readily available. I do think it’s something that we all kind of recognize if you’re from here, and it resonates with you.”
For Cook, he’s noticed art can resonate differently with him from day to day.
“Being around (art) so often, I will find work routinely like (it’s) something new,” he said. “And it might be something that’s been on display for a month in the gallery, and it might all of a sudden become my favorite work that day.”
A lifelong Oxford resident, Cook has seen the city’s visual arts expand. In fact, some of the artists featured in the Southside Gallery were finishing up school at Ole Miss around the same time Cook was. He said that’s been a really fascinating piece of his job, watching his classmates’ careers grow over the years. He hopes to see the visual arts keep growing, and Oxford getting its name on the map for its influence.
“I think when most people think of Oxford, it’s literature and for good reason,” he said. “But it’s nice to have this little small art scene, which I think is quality. And I hope in the future, there’s more association with the visual arts here, because I think it’s building a stronger legacy than it had in the past.”