It's easy to stand out among the red-and-blue-clad Ole Miss or maroon-and-white-covered Bulldog fans in Yalobusha County, especially if you're bouncing around in a "man bun" and a bushy beard, ducking under a blanket snapping photos on an 1852 field camera. But Yalobushians don't bat an eye at this kind of aberration.
Every July they expect to see some unusual artist out of New York exploring their particular postage stamp of the world, and maybe even participate.
That is just what the 35-year-old bearded photographer JR Larson is doing, as the participant in this year's Pinehurst Artist Residency, a program created by former Memphian and longtime New Yorker Mary Lapides.
Larson is a Brooklyn-based multi-media artist who deals mostly in film, photography, and sculpture, and who grew up four and a half hours down the road near Picayune, Mississippi.
"I knew this part of Mississippi was different, that people interact with the land differently," Larson, who also works as a cinematographer shooting commercials for companies like Rolls-Royce, says.
According to Lapides, "When I visited his studio in New York, I saw he had an immediate connection to the land, to location, and that he had a very spiritual side, and I said, 'Yep.'"
Lapides grew up in Memphis and moved to New York in 1989 as an Impressionist and modern art expert at Christie's auction house. She launched the Pinehurst Artist Residency in 2012 as a way to pay tribute to her brother Mark Lapides, who bought a 1,100-acre farm in Coffeeville, Mississippi, to cultivate it into a pine tree farm. He died suddenly of cancer in 2009 and left the farm to Lapides and her sister. Lapides spends her summers with her husband and three children on the farm.
"I wanted to do something charitable for the community in Mark's honor. He so appreciated this wild and beautiful part of Mississippi," Lapides says.
Brooklynite Zefrey Throwell, 39, kicked off the residency in 2012 with his project "Everyday Awards," in which he interviewed more than a dozen local residents and created films out of the interviews and plaques to honor their lives.
"I was walking around New York looking at all the statues honoring extremely wealthy people who most often manipulated and killed a lot of people, and I thought, Is this who we want to honor in our culture?" Throwell says.
Throwell is most recognized for his "Ocularpation: Wall Street," in which performance artists dressed as Wall Street regulars stripped down to the nude while continuing to perform as hot dog vendors, janitors, and traders. The piece is considered the precursor to the larger Occupy movement.
Two other artists have braved the North Mississippi July heat, including sound artist Andrea Ray, whose 2013 project "Waiting" transformed the local gallery Yalo Studio — where all the Pinehurst residency shows are held — into a train station and suspended time to create a sense of longing through words, sounds, and objects and reintroduced the sounds of trains along Water Valley's Main Street.
Last year, Susan Cianciolo, whose hand-sewn, customized clothing line RUN has ended up in the hands of collectors and is exhibited at PS 1 MOMA and the Centre Pompidou in Paris, created a sewing circle in Yalo Studio, where residents popped in and helped her create wall and floor tapestries and handmade flags for her show "The 8 Geometric Points of Together."
"Each has been so unique, but the constant thread that runs through it is inviting artists to be inspired by the land and community," Lapides says.
For Larson's show "HOT BLIND EARTH," he's creating a terrarium in the gallery's window using soil from each location he visited for his project, in addition to featuring five residents who regularly interact with the land.
A potter who uses his neighbor's dirt as material and fires his kiln with wood from a local mill, a man who lives with a tree growing through his house, and an organic farmer who delivers farm-fresh produce she's grown to locals are three who will be featured in the show, which also includes wet-plate collodion ambrotypes Larson shot with his large format camera.
"Everyone has been so warm and welcoming and open and honest. It's so endearing. You get into a system in New York, looking at your feet and just moving from place to place. Here it's built in that you expect it's going to take time because you're going to see people and sit and catch up over sweet tea," Larson says. "I'm grateful I came into contact with people who are so open and honest."
Throwell experienced a similar exchange.
"It's one of my favorite projects I've ever done. I now feel closer to a group of people than I ever felt. [Some of the residents] and I still email all the time. How much better can you get than that?" Throwell says.
Cianciolo has gone into business with Yalo Studio owner Coulter Fussell and is opening YaloRun, a quilting supply store which will also host workshops taught by guest artists including Cianciolo, an instructor at Pratt Institute.
She also purchased a second home just up the road from the store.
"This experience was such a milestone for me. I realized the space alone was certainly as fulfilling for me, that I could come here to do my work and be inspired," Cianciolo says.
"You could never do this in New York. There's so much competition. There are no rules here in Mississippi, nobody saying an artist residency must look like this," Lapides says.
"It's such an amazing escape, I wanted to share it so others could see how awesome it is. You hear a lot of negative things about the South. It's great when people can come down here, have a positive experience, and connect to the land and interesting people. That's something I can offer."