I moved to Mississippi from New York five years ago when my dad, musician Mose Allison, received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the governor’s office in Jackson, Mississippi.
I work for the Department of Rehabilitation Services, and we have an office I happened to be visiting in Cleveland, Mississippi. That day in Cleveland, I ate at the Starving Musician’s Bakery, stopped in on the Bank and later saw a friend at the Direct TV/Security Store. In each of these locations, I noticed strangely beautiful paintings on the walls at each location, all signed by a Mr. Kinney. Something about the vivid colors, the technique and the uniqueness in these paintings struck a chord with me. I had to have one of these paintings. So, I made it my mission that weekend to find this Mr. Kinney. Seems everybody knew him, but nobody knew where he lived or how to reach him.
The following day, I got an early start and was determined to find Mr. Kinney. I drove 125 miles back to Cleveland. I got a lead on his neighborhood, then his street and then to his house. He was not home. A kind neighbor, Ruben Smith, offered to drive with me to visit his local haunts. Eventually, I was successful in finding Mr. Kinney. We were introduced. I gave him a down payment on a painting and just a few days later, he called me with a completed painting. It was a gleaming nighttime scene of Po’ Monkey’s Lounge. It was beautiful, and I needed to know more about this artist.
The following week, I arranged for another visit to sit and talk to Mr. Kinney at his home in Cleveland. This is what I learned.
Melvin Kinney grew up in Rosedale, Mississippi. He was from a family of 12 children, five other brothers and six sisters. He was drawing when he was in grade school. He described to me the day he was in the Oak Street Store in Pace, Mississippi, and noticed an older white woman sitting in the back, painting on an easel. He was drawn to her. When asked by the woman what he was doing, little Melvin replied, “I make pictures, too.” That woman was Mrs. Dooley Miller whose husband ran the store. Mrs. Dooley took a keen interest in young Melvin, buying him canvas to paint on and pushing him along with words of encouragement. Melvin told me, “She was my inspiration; she put me on my way.” It wasn’t long after that, he was selling paintings to locals including, TY Trice, the principal of his grade school there in Rosedale.
After graduating high school, Melvin spent time living and working in Oakland, California, and many years in Milwaukee, where he had a brisk business pin stripping and painting on fast cars and tricked out motorcycles. When his girlfriend got pregnant, they decided to move back to the Delta, closer to his family and where it was a safer environment to raise a child.
“I live a fantastic life,” Melvin tells me relaxing in his make shift livingroom/art studio in Cleveland. He is a people person and everyone in town seems to know him. Together, Melvin and I strolled downtown along Cotton Row. We went into Abraham’s Clothing Store, the Delta Meat Market, 10/24, The Bakery, Jane’s Frame Shop and more. Each store we walked into, we received a warm reception followed by conversation and comradery. They all had Mr. Kinney’s original paintings proudly hung on their walls.
Melvin Kinney loves people, and he loves to paint. I felt fortunate to have shared part of my afternoon hanging out with Mr. Kinney. He is a conversational entertainer and a very special and unique artist that only the Mississippi Delta could have produced.
By John Allison
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