By Maude Schuyler Clay • Photography By Don Beard
This story was republished with permission of Delta Magazine
Arthur Chesley Pearman III lives out on a country road near Shawin a rambling country house that sits near Porter Bayou. Originally settled by the Peacock family around 1900, there were once 50 families living here with their own church, commissary, lumber mill, and brick-making shop. Today there’s an extant but overgrown cemetery next to where the church once stood, and a sand pit back in the woods, which was used to build Highway 448. Chesley stays pretty much isolated in one part or another of what has been since 1926, the “Bubba” Ely farm.
A house literally full of paintings, most of the rooms of the old Ely farmhouse have been turned into places to paint, write and record. Every surface—on easels, propped on windows, tables and chairs—is covered with drawings and paintings. The smaller barn next door functions as a seasonal painting studio, as it is easier to load up materials there to drive into the fields or to the Sunflower River. Chesley says a guy he knows shot “40 or so moccasins from one spot in an hour and a half” over on Porter Bayou, so he doesn’t go out there much to paint. He prefers the Sunflower River, and the Mississippi, where he also paddles his kayak. “It’s going fast, but there are still parts of it isolated, wilderness, almost like it’s been for hundreds of years, where you still can see a bear swimming, a litter of wild hogs trailing behind a sow, and a rattlesnake 13 feet long, as big around as a man’s thigh.”
Chesley’s part-time gig is bartending a few nights a week at Cleveland’s Airport Grocery, but he spends virtually all his time out in the country painting. He is also working on a novella. He often speaks in mesmerizing riddles, channeling the voice of a wise old sage as he says things such as, “At this point in my life, I’ve realized that I’m only attempting to rewrite and illustrate ‘The Greatest Story Ever Told,’ using the people here in place of Biblical characters and using this place as the Holy Land…’ ”
His great-grandfather, William Lafayette Pearman, was one of the founders of Cleveland before the turn of the last century. Pearman, a cotton farmer, was nominated to run for the legislature, accused his opponent of slander and then challenged him to a duel. All this “ancient family history” is in A History of Bolivar County among other places. He adds, with a laugh, “What the dead people have said, of course, is a little hard for them to speak for themselves. People may be adding a large dose of fiction. The rest is my opinion. I don’t think it’s hard to tell the difference.”
William L. Pearman sent Chesley’s grandfather, Arthur Chesley Pearman, to school in New York in the 1920s. When his grandfather came back to the Delta he “never wanted to do much other than drink whiskey, gamble, hunt, and chase women.” Chesley’s dad, Arthur Chesley Pearman, junior, was, among other things, a drummer who played in a jazz band with Lee McCarty. His mom, Lois, was a “hard scrabble country girl, a beauty” from the hills of Carlisle, who was educated in a Catholic girls school and was part Choctaw and part French. “All the mixed blood—my mother’s country roots and my dad’s country club roots combined to contribute to my insanity.”
By the time Chesley was in the eighth grade, his dad had pretty much lost everything. In high school Chesley was marching to the beat of a different drum and in the “bad boy” rebellious spirit of the day, he became part of a local rock band, The Nomads. He went to Ole Miss in 1972, but didn’t last long there. Fancying himself “a Hemingway,” he moved to New Orleans, where he worked on boats and in shipyards and later joined the Army. He trained as a scout recon and was selected to go to Officer Candidates Flight School, but says he ultimately “couldn’t hack it.” Many of those years were spent fighting serious drug and alcohol problems. Between stints in Oxford, bartending at Jackson’s George Street Grocery, classes at Millsaps College and trips to Mexico, he kept ending up back in the Delta. A lot of the ‘80s and early ’90s he spent running around with his musician friends Charlie Jacobs and Duff Dorrough of the legendary band The Tangents. Charlie had moved to New Orleans to pursue a music career in 1996. After Jacobs died there in April of 1997 from heart failure and the hard-lived rock’n’ roll lifestyle, it was a profound wake-up call. “We weren’t bad people, but we were bad off and it buried two of us,” Chesley adds.
He started painting with Duff. “I can’t emphasize enough the importance of those years with Duff,” Chesley says. “Time and time again, he said things that were focused, concrete, so on point. Out in the Delta fields with only our paints and easels, we’d be painting and talking about painting, our lives, our losses, our loves. Every single time, Duff would say, ‘Let’s go smear a little paint and see if we can grasp even a tiny bit of this immense beauty that God has placed before us.’ Duff was so intent on loving God through all kinds of people.”
He also began painting and studying with artists Sammy Britt and Gerald DeLoach, both of whom had been to Providence, Rhode Island, to study under Henry Hensche, a student of Charles Hawthorne, who was in turn a student of William Merritt Chase. [Chesley earned a teaching degree in English and art from Delta State University in 2002.] Chesley and DeLoach too would sit and talk about nothing but painting for hours. Sammy Britt, Chesley says, was reluctant to have that much to do with Chesley when he returned to painting after abandoning it years earlier. “My choice was to take the lessons and techniques Sammy taught and learn them, or walk away. Sammy told me that if I stuck it out there might be some hope for me as an artist.” DeLoach and Britt’s technique of dissecting light and shadow, called the Color Block method, encourages the painter to paint only what he sees and set aside emotion to study the composition.
While Chesley respects and gained knowledge from this method of working, his own goal in painting is closer to 1950s abstract painter Mark Rothko, who attempted to achieve and experience spirituality through the pursuit of light and color composition. Other notable influences are Edward Hopper and William Christenberry. Chesley’s paintings are made using water miscible oils, creating a transparent gouache (wash). They look like watercolors, but are actually done by layering thin coats of water-based oils. He will paint anything, but his main subject is the landscape.
He likens most artists’ work to a Baptist preacher yelling from the pulpit, but prefers “the smoky incantations of the priest.” He writes and records songs in all genres, but listens mostly to jazz, a major influence, but loves country, blues and soul, “the old blues, country, and soul—not this neuvo music of today that is all surface and no substance,” he says, citing Hank Williams, Coltrane, Robert Johnson, Thelonious Monk, Mose Allison and Otis Redding. “All of us fish the same river,” the artist notes. “We just sometimes use different bait to catch all kinds of fish.”
After a marriage and a son that had caused a detour from painting, he threw himself back into painting, writing, and recording [most notably with Cary Hudson and George McConnell], working on the creative genres he loves in the place that he loves. His novella, Shrines & Monuments Of The Southern Martyrettes, is about a painter in The Delta who survives addiction and despair and achieves redemption through painting. It will center on The Delta and the two women he truly loves who brought him back to his painting and taught him what love really means.
Stories are what the Delta is to him: an old story retold over and over by different tellers of the tale. He believes that in some few Delta artists, their work is a very “Delta” thing, closely linked to the way they perceive personal history and the land. As his friend and mother of his childhood friend Charlie Jacobs, Rosemary Jacobs told him, when he asked her why his feelings seemed to shift so much whenever he came back to The Delta: “Because you’re home, Chesley,” she said. “Everyone feels that way when they come home.” His paintings are the visual proof of home, Chesley’s own way of creating a unique artistic home.
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