Shadow and light are in constant play in the Memphis home of Mary Mhoon Walker, which she shared for nearly three decades with fellow photographer and her late husband Perry Walker.
Known to most of Memphis and the art world as Mary Mhoon, her name reflects the lineage of a founding Tennessee family with Welsh, French and Basque roots. Metaphorically speaking, with its celestial connotation, it takes on an even more mystical meaning. But if her name conjures up the image of an Old World master, her style is decidedly avant garde.
Mhoon made a headdress fashioned out of chicken feathers when she missed out purchasing an authentic ceremonial headdress at an art auction. “It worked on me so much, I decided to make one,” says Mhoon, a woman with an intense, almost studious gaze and pensive, searching eyes — the eyes of a landscape photographer whose terrain is often stark and spare, but imbued with a special luminosity that is, all at once, curiously enigmatic and strangely surreal.
Mhoon’s home reflects her art and the world inside that she has created. Skylights let in soft, gauzy sunlight. The walls are the color of sun-bleached bone. Large windows give a glimpse of the vibrant, lush green gardens that envelop and almost completely engulf the home, nearly hidden from the street. “I needed light and air,” says Mhoon. “I stopped being a photographer some time ago, but I will tell you that the light is almost as important as the image.”
Mhoon is straightforward about the renovation. The walls simply had to go. “It took a year and a half to pull out walls and extend them,” says Mhoon. “One of the things I insisted upon was that all of the walls would be made of wood, so I could nail something up and take something out without shrieking, ‘hole-in-the-wall!’ When you have sheetrock and wallpaper, you have to deal with that.”
There are no curtains in the entire house and that is purely by design, according to Mhoon. “People are shocked — I have one curtain in the house and that is in the bathroom,” says Mhoon.
Even the yard that surrounds the house with its abundant foliage is a work of art. The leafy enclave is art in its truest, organic sense. Wiry tentacles of azaleas sprout from the yard like protective arms.
“I planted everything,” says Mhoon, who sees the home and outdoor gardens as an extension of her art and an affinity for the natural world. The dense foliage is reminiscent of ancient oaks and elms that shielded and embraced Mhoon and her siblings while growing up in a stately Georgian mansion at Poplar and East Parkway North, several city blocks from the cloistered, tree-shaded Lombardy Place neighborhood which she now calls home.
Stepping on sturdy oak floors, Mhoon greets her interloper, welcoming him warmly into her home and out of a drenching rain. She is attired mostly in black, and explains that she will be soon attending the funeral of a family friend.
In a soft voice, Mhoon explains the interior of the former hunting lodge was completely gutted shortly after the couple purchased the home in 1980. The couple decided to knock down walls and paint the redwood-paneled walls white, to the horror of some of the locals who viewed the home as almost a shrine to the past. But Mhoon is adept at transforming icons into living, breathing works of art. She has mastered the art of deconstructing anything of pretense and artifice, and stripping them down to their pure marrow and natural essence.
Known as Redwood Lodge, the home was formerly owned by Clarence Saunders, and its tranquil surroundings afforded an escape for the Memphis supermarket chain multimillionaire whose pink marbled mansion, dubbed the Pink Palace, draws thousands of tourists each year.
In these more secluded environs, Mhoon has amassed an art collection that wouldrival any studio in New York, Memphis or Paris, where her daughter Laetitia lives. Transforming the house to suit her taste and personal sense of style, its atmosphere is spartan but evocative. Contradictions abound in the life and work of the artist.
“Hey, I’m a Memphian,” says Mhoon. “Things cancel each other out constantly. Memphis is endlessly fascinating. I had a friend say to me once that anybody can make it in New York but in Memphis it’s impossible.” The struggle to be an artist in this Deep South city against the backdrop of continual racism and strife is a challenge, according to Mhoon. But the tension can also serve as a catalyst for an artist like Mhoon, who was once jailed for her stand on civil rights during the turbulent 1960s.
“Memphis is fascinating because of the very real conflagration between black and white,” Mhoon says. “It’s almost hypnotic to me. I study it at almost level that I can.”
Decorated boxes papered-over with old newspapers, are stacked one upon another and rest atop a battered, vintage suitcase, with seemingly an open invitation to unpack and explore their contents. Mhoon researched old newspaper articles, “ran them through the computer” and printed them, distressed and “antiqued them,” and covered the boxes with what looked like scraps of ancient manuscripts. “I slept on them and buried them in the yard to make them look old,” Mhoon says.
Standing like a sentinel in a corner of the spacious, raised main gallery of the home is a prized piece of organic, abstract art, a 17-foot cactus from Arizona which she and Walker legally purchased to become a part of their permanent collection.
“To us, it looked like something that should have been in the Louvre,” Mhoon says admiringly. “I think it’s beautiful because it’s woven. We bought it off a nurseryman in Arizona. The nursery had a special license to sell dead stuff, so we bought it.”
The hand-carved statuary of a Mexican priest with its peeling paint, scarred face and flecked eyes stands by, ready topronounce last rites on the cactus at a moment’s notice. The vaulted ceiling soars to more than 20 feet at its apex. The “bones” of the home arch upward and give the sensation of being suspended, almost floating on ever-rising platforms.
Two staircases in the main room, as if the double helix of the home’s DNA, appear as if they have suddenly become disentwined, and wind separately to Mhoon’s studio on the upper left and her late husband’s on the right. There are objects of a primitive, ceremonial nature and religious expression throughout the home. Oddly enough to Mhoon, they are more of a curiosity, a fascination with the mystical superstitions of others than any innate, personal belief system. Still, these sacred objects have a strong allure.
“I find the symbols of religion fascinating,” Mhoon says. “Such as the cross. It’s powerful. It’s a powerful symbol.” Mhoon is more of an active observer of the natural world than simply a curious spectator or impassioned curator of objets d’ art.
“I like destroyed things,” Mhoon says as she caresses the well-worn Spanish leather of a vintage, Mid-Century Barcelona chair. Two other chairs, with simple, clean lines in the style of craftsman Gustav Stickley, are set in a conversational style. Rustic, with slight nicks and scars in the grains of the wood, the chairs evoke a certain charm and simple elegance.
Mhoon, like her works of art, is a survivor, who has emerged after seven decades of an eventful life, with an inner grace, strength and resonance. A mother of four grown children, a civil rights champion and a patron of the arts, Mhoon is a citizen of the world.
“I spend at least two months abroad in all kinds of places,” Mhoon explains.
There are echoes of the ancient Mayans among treasures and artifacts in her collection. She recounted a visit with husband Perry to rural Chiapas in southeast Mexico.
“We stayed in a 17th-century convent and the Mayans would come out of the jungle,” Mhoon says. “They did not speak Spanish. The men and the women have the same hair and dress. The hair is black with their bangs straight. They wore a kind of tunic that comes down a little below the knee.” Religious icons from Portugal, Mexico and Russia adorn the walls of the dining room, which includes a built-in bookcase. In the adjoining bedroom, tortilla pans from rural Mexico fan out across the bedroom wall, constructed of French pine.
Mhoon is a self-reflective and contemplative person. Books nearly spill out from the wrap-around bookshelves in a side reading room, just off the main entryway. It’s a spacious reading nook that looks out onto the gardens and street beyond.
Much like placing favorite books upon the shelf from a voluminous library, she amasses art and then pares down her collection to the very essence of what she chooses to create and display. Mhoon says her husband was more a minimalist whose eye saw the beauty of the primitive and often colloquial.
“The New York Times pointed out my husband was more of a minimalist and I was more of a throw-it-all-on-the-wall person,” says Mhoon. The two artists, while true opposites, artistically speaking, were in perfect balance and in harmony with one another. There is a black-and-white photo of Perry Walker on the mantelpiece, one of two which were created by woodworker Steve Crump and “whacked to look old.” That rugged spirit and sense of raw emotional honesty that was a hallmark of Perry Walker’s life and art still pervades the home. Perry Walker is famous in art circles for the Saint Paul Spiritual Holy Temple, also known as Voodoo Village, the subject of at least one volume and a soon-to-be-published book.
The couple were at ease in the art world. Their home hosted the likes of fellow photographers William Eggleston, Murray Riss, William Christenberry and others.
Handcrafted necklaces in the form of dried flower garlands hang on latticework like wilted Queen Anne’s lace in the morning sunlight against the backdrop of dripping rain outside. There is a certain fragility to the necklaces as they hang motionless, just waiting to be worn by some shaman or priestess.
Our interview ends in Mhoon’s kitchen. We sit at a simple, unvarnished pine table which Mhoon purchased for $25. In the truest sense that Mhoon is a native Southerner, winding up in the kitchen is a perfect end to our conversation. It is always said that sooner or later, Southerners always wind up in the kitchen. The subject suddenly turns to wine and food. The rain has stopped. The sun breaks through the Memphis sky, sending ribbons of sunlight cascading down through the overhead skylights. For an artist like Mary Mhoon, the light never truly goes away.
Keeper of the Light
Light and airy, the once dark redwood-paneled interior of a handsome 1920s-era bungalow in historic Lombardy Place comes alive with the artwork and collection of its owner, Mary Mhoon Walker
Home | July 2017
Story by Robert Lee Long | Photos by Brian Anderson