Opening of Bill Steber exhibit another ‘first’ for Union County Heritage Museum
Visitors from around Mississippi and from several other states came to New Albany, Thursday, Sept. 8, to view the opening of a major exhibit by artist Bill Steber.
Steber’s “Spirit in the Soil: Objects and Evocations of the Mississippi Blues” had its premier Thursday evening at the Union County Heritage Museum.
The exhibit will hang at the museum through November. From here, the exhibit will go to the Sheldon Museum of Art in St. Louis.
Evoking memories and preserving history of Blues greats
A native of Nashville, Steber is a writer, artist, photographer and musician. Driven by his love of blues music and a fascination with the unique culture of Mississippi, Steber started photographing faces and places and assembling the thousands of “gathered objects” more than 30 years ago.
Steber has visited New Albany many times, including trips here to photograph blues musicians Sam Mosely, Elder Roma Wilson and Leon Pinson.
“I’m showing a number of traditional documentary photographs,” said Steber. “But, for the first time since my Junior Kimbrough exhibit more than a decade ago, the show also contains artifacts and ‘relics’ from sacred sites in the history of the blues. For instance, I’m creating a body of work on Robert Johnson, using materials gathered from sites associated with him” Steber said.
Steber gathered bits and pieces of materials on the Star of the West Plantation, where Johnson’s house stood in 1938 when he died. With these remnants, he has created portraits and evocative art. “I love the challenge of making a piece of art from a limited number of materials taken from a specific place, in honor of an individual associated with that place,” he said.
“I began collecting artifacts that spoke to me: rusty tools, empty snuff bottles, a mirror losing its silver, a handmade checkerboard, torn quilts, etc. I collected the items with no specific purpose other than the preservation of their physical witness. I felt that the preservation of these humble artifacts was part of my work as a documentary photographer. It’s all about preservation,” he said.
A well known and multi-talented artist, musician and preservationist
Besides enjoying Steber’s visual art, those who attended the Thursday night opening at the Union County Heritage Museum enjoyed his considerable talents as a musician. He sang, played the guitar and harmonica and, most uniquely, created hauntingly sweet music using a fiddle bow and a common handsaw. Playing with Steben were musician/vocalist Libby Rae Watson from Pascagoula and drummer Sam Rorex of Murfreesboro, Tennessee.
“Bill’s work is known worldwide. His work has been featured from New York galleries to the Mississippi Delta. His unique perspective is truly an art. One wonders how in the world he captured these images. His answer to that is ‘people went out of their way to make him feel welcome’”, said Jill Smith, Director of the Union County Heritage Museum.
Beside those from Tennessee and local Union County people, the “Spirit in the Soil” opening at the Union County Heritage Museum also drew folks from Brooklyn, NY, Houston, TX, Muscle Shoals, AL, and from Oxford and Water Valley in Mississippi.
Bill Steber plays the saw:
More about Steber and “Spirits in the Soil: Objects and Evocations of the Mississippi Blues”