Tornado takes Carey's art collection off the wallsApril 18, 2017 | In the Press
Rick Wilemon stands in a nondescript storeroom, surveying dozens of slim, cardboard containers.
"What you're seeing is 1,200 pieces of the Carey art collection in boxes," the William Carey University graduate assistant says. Until recently, the artwork was hanging on the walls or stored safely away in the vaults of Carey's Sarah Gillespie Museum and Lucile Parker Gallery.
That all changed on Jan. 21, when the tornado that hit Forrest and Lamar counties struck the museum and gallery.
Wilemon was one of the first on the scene at both locations.
At the Gillespie Museum, he couldn't believe his eyes.
"In the tornado, the front doors were compromised and wind and rain came in and there was standing water in the gallery and in the vault," he said.
Curator Pam Shearer said it was unbelievable that the doors would be damaged.
"They are these huge, massive, European wooden doors, and one of them was split vertically," she said.
Over at Lucile Parker, which is located near campus on Tuscan Avenue, the front of the museum had been blown inward and the roof had been sucked off. Water was coming in on the artwork.
"In the gallery, there was a show up by John Armistead — mainly landscapes — oil paintings and watercolors," gallery director Ed Ford said. "Rick was able to get all the pictures in immediate danger out of the weather."
There were 700 pieces of art in the gallery, much of it stored in the vault, which had water running down its walls. Wilemon, Ford and a group of volunteers removed the pieces as carefully as possible because the building was in danger of collapsing. It eventually had to be razed.
"We had a relay of lots of helpers, and I went into the vault and picked the most important pieces," Ford said. "We got the best things that were there, and we left the next tier for the next trip."
The artwork, which included valuable paintings by Mississippi artist Marie Hull, along with watercolors, oils, portraits and photography, was transported to its temporary home at Lauren Rogers Museum of Art in Laurel. There they were dried out and inventoried. About 100 were damaged.
Ford took a chance and grabbed the hard drive of the museum's computer. He dried it out, and it worked. On it was the entire catalog of the museum's works.
He and Wilemon made many return trips to the museum, sneaking in after they were told it was no longer safe to enter. They even saved about 50 LED track lights, valued at $2,500, because they had been so hard to find initially.
"It was worth the effort to save them," Ford said. "If the building started creaking, we would run out."
Ford also found something in the vault he didn't know he had — a piece of music from 1347.
"It was one of those things I had never taken notice of," he said. "It was framed as if it was a mass produced thing, but it was this medieval manuscript on parchment (written) by monks in Spain."
At Sarah Gillespie, Wilemon had been the first to enter after the tornado. He was aghast to find the famous painting "Spring" by Hull on the floor.
"As you approached the steps, you could hear the water," he said. "I just opened the door to a chaotic scene.
"The first thing I see is 'Spring' off its easel."
By the next day, Wilemon, Shearer and a team of volunteers had a plan of action.
"We used cars, trucks, trailers to load up the art and take it to safety," Wilemon said. "To empty a vault of 600 to 700 pieces is monumental stuff, but we knew we had a collection that was irreplaceable."
The art was taken temporarily to Lauren Rogers where it was spread out to dry. Out of 680 pieces, about 25 were damaged.
All of Carey's artwork is now stored at a secure location in Hattiesburg, except for "Spring" and the medieval manuscript, which are on display at Lauren Rogers.
The artwork that was damaged is not beyond repair. The works only need to be rematted and reframed.
For now, the museum and gallery are closed. Ford said Lucile Parker will most likely reopen in a building on campus at a date as yet undetermined. The Sarah Gillespie Museum is under repair and could be open in the fall.
The closure of both is for now a loss that is felt on campus and in the community. Ford said Carey's art students will miss the eyes-on experience provided by the Lucile Parker Gallery.
"The first purpose of the gallery is for art students to see real art," he said. "The next purpose is to show university collections and bring in people from outside the university."
The Sarah Gillespie Collection is made up of works by Mississippi artists.
"It represents the history and culture of the state of Mississippi for the duration of the 20th century," Wilemon said. "It's the largest collection of its type, known to exist, by Mississippi artists in the 20th century."
Wilemon said it will be good once again to hang those paintings for all to see.
"We're missing being able to open those massive wooden doors and go in and have our beautiful works of art on the wall," he said. "Right now, there's a hole in our art heart."