Creating Local Black History: Tupelo artist Billy Clifton dedicates his life to painting Black people | News
TUPELO • • For 45 years, Billy Clifton has used his gift as an artist to portray black life.
It started in 1976. Years earlier, Clifton realized he had a gift from God, but kept running away, he said. When he realized he had no reason to be here, he took stock of his own life.
“I had a conversation with God one night and (said) that I wanted to spend the rest of my life on this planet painting my people in a positive light,” said Clifton. “We had a lot of misleading information about black people and the contributions they made, whether they credit it or not.”
Clifton began spending a lot of time at the Lee County Library researching people. That period would shape the way he paints today. He started taking photos in 1981 after finding a book about using a 35mm camera to make art. He went to a pawn shop and bought a camera for $ 40. From there he took photos in the neighborhood.
“I’ve got a lot of our people at both worst and best,” he said.
He wandered around downtown Tupelo a lot, photographing buildings, many of which he still uses in his art.
Clifton, now 68, is a self-taught artist. He used a sketchpad for many years before creating his pictures, but now he gets his ideas straight onto a canvas.
“After all the stuff I’ve seen with those eyes and heard with those ears over the years, it’s very easy for me to create a work of art using just my memory,” said Clifton. “I like the idea of taking the imagination as far as possible, switching gears and going much further.”
Every painting begins and ends with faith. Whenever he begins a painting, Clifton asks God to bless his efforts. When he’s finished, he thanks him for giving him the strength to complete the piece.
In his early days, Clifton hoped to inspire young blacks by seeing a black guy taking photos. He used a picture he took on Front Street of some people on the baseball diamond who were playing that day to create a work of art. The piece that is close to his heart is his painting of North Green Street.
“Back then, black men and women had shops on Green Street and they looked into racism 100 times, but they were still manufacturing,” Clifton said.
Black history is important to Clifton and he uses his artwork to explore and appreciate the past. He said the area has a lot of history that people don’t recognize and it was “a real slap in the face for those who came before. Clifton uses his art in recognition of the deep roots of black history. The basis of his work is to show his complexity and to show how it goes “past the plantation”.
“Our story is too deep to be finished in a month,” said Clifton. “I can’t get enough of the idea, the passion I have in my art and the images I work with and the message I try to send to people who have the chance to see my work emphasize. “
It is important to know and respect black history as it requires the rise of the current generation. Growing up in Tupelo, Clifton remembers vividly black leaders like Palmer Foster, Steve Norwood, Pete Mosley, and Nathaniel Stone who encouraged young black men to stay on the streets. He believes it is time for another generation of black men and women to show young people that there are opportunities for them.
“It is dangerous not to want to know your story because 2021 will make demands on you to improve your game,” said Clifton. “What are you going to do while you’re here?”
Clifton briefly founded the Red, Black, Green Art Association in the 1980s with the aim of bringing a group of artists together for exhibitions. Nobody came to the first exhibition, but he did not allow himself to be discouraged.
The group kept creating exhibits and eventually people showed up. After a few years, Clifton focused on his own efforts rather than continuing the organization.
Throughout his life he has participated in art exhibitions in Memphis and across the state, including the Southside Gallery in Oxford, the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson, and several exhibitions at the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs. He started with the Gumtree Art Festival and joked that he had “the ragged booth” at the festival but didn’t let himself be deterred from competing with everyone else.
“I have some art too,” said Clifton. “It’s black, but I have some art.”
Earlier this year, Clifton received the Image Award 2021 from the Committee for King for his artistic contributions. Receiving the honor was another way to get recognized as a painter for 45 years, Clifton said.
“After all the exhibits and all the people I’ve met over the years, I know that it wouldn’t have been possible without the arts,” Clifton said.
Sharing your art with others is a feeling he can’t put a price on, Clifton said. He lives his dream and his life, one brush stroke at a time.
“I would never have imagined I picked up that brush in 1976. I would do it 45 years later,” said Clifton. “But I can look at my artwork and see where my time was spent. I have a purpose in being here. I know I’ll use it until God calls me home. “