Tuesdays through Saturdays, a little after ten in the morning, Wil Cook leaves his home in Water Valley and drives over twenty miles to the Oxford Square. Along the way, he usually speaks to one of the artists he represents as director of Southside Gallery, which he opens to the public at eleven. After that, the only thing certain about his workday is its unpredictability. 
“I can come in intending on doing something and spend the entire day on another task. That’s part of what makes it exciting,” reveals Wil, who has been trusted by his mother, Vickie Cook, to manage the daily affairs of the gallery during most of the twenty years she has owned the business. 
“Upon graduation from college Wil did not plan to step into that role but did so as a necessity,” stresses Vickie. “My ownership of the gallery has been dependent on his commitment and willingness to take charge. He works with the artists, assists art buyers, hangs exhibits, packages and ships art, maintains the facility, et cetera. Although he has degrees in English and Art History from Ole Miss, his skills in managing Southside have been developed through experience.” ​​​​​​​
Southside Gallery and Director Wil Cook
Wil Cook hangs art for Carlyle Wolfe Lee and Thad Lee's show called Murmurations.
The biggest challenge to Wil’s evolution in the art business has been learning to say, “No.” He admits, “It’s really difficult to reject an artist’s submission. A lot of artists, whose work I personally like, have submitted for shows, and I’ve had to turn them down because their work doesn’t fit with what we do.” 
The nearly thirty artists who do consistently exhibit at Southside Gallery are primarily from the Southeast. “We attempt to promote as many Mississippians as we can and are lucky to have a sizeable population of superb artists here in Oxford,” declares Wil, who adds “and most of them are working in different genres and media.”
Among those talented locals is Wil’s wife, Coulter Fussell, whose acclaimed quilts made her a finalist for the 2017 SouthArts Southern Prize and earned her the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Jane Crater Hiatt Fellowship in 2019. “She exhibited her paintings here before she started exhibiting her quilts and long before we were married,” remembers Wil. “Coulter has significantly changed the way I look at art and my approach to selling it. If Coulter hadn’t been an artist, which is almost impossible to imagine, she would have been an executive at some important advertising agency. I’m convinced of this. She understands how to put on a show.” 
“I have no official role at Southside,” shares Coulter, “but my unofficial role is probably more along the lines of being Wil's enthusiastic art-nerd sidekick. We talk about art all the time. He's a knowledgeable pragmatist while I'm an experimental doer, and this combo makes for a fun and balanced dynamic at the gallery.” ​​​​​​​
Wil Cook and Coulter Fussell
Coulter Fussell stands before her quilts during the Mississippi Arts and Letters Awards reception.
There are about twelve exhibitions a year at Southside Gallery, and each one’s reception is open to the public and offers the artists an opportunity to engage with visitors and collectors. “We provide mediocre wine and excellent cheese,” jokes Wil, who believes the gatherings give a unique cast of local characters the opportunity to congregate when they otherwise would be scattered around town.     
The receptions also allow Vickie, a CPA, who usually works behind the scenes and handles the financial aspects of the gallery, the occasion to prepare flower arrangements and welcome visitors with a greeting at the door. Her concern that Southside be hospitable is rooted in her lifelong connection to Oxford. “During my childhood it was smaller and more rural. There were fewer businesses, and everyone seemed to know everyone in town. In previous years there were a variety of businesses on the Square, including hardware stores and drug stores.” ​​​​​​​
Vickie Cook greets Jere Allen.
Vickie Cook, Martha Kelly, and Lucy Banks at the Mississippi Arts and Letters Awards reception
Milly Moorhead West, who founded Southside Gallery with Rod Moorhead in 1993, has similar memories. In 1962, she was thirteen when her family moved to Oxford from Memphis. “There were still wagons drawn by horses or mules on the Square on Saturday mornings. The farmers came in with all their produce. The Square was more representative of the population then. There were stores where Black people, country people, poor people would shop,” she recollects, “The town closed down at five. No bars, no parking problem; and back then the square traffic went two ways.”
In the beginning, 150 Courthouse Square was likely a livery stable, “presumably sometime after the Civil War,” reckons Wil. “In fact, the owner of Neilson’s Department Store, Will Lewis, and another local historian, Richie Burnette, were doing research years ago and told me they thought that the first federal trial against the Ku Klux Klan was held in the upstairs gallery, probably during Reconstruction.” 
For most of the building’s life, the business that occupied the space was Shine Morgan’s Appliance Store, a place where, according to photographer David Rae Morris, one might find his father, Willie Morris, on fall Saturday afternoons watching SEC football on one of their many televisions. “There are at least three photographs in my book Love, Daddy from one such game in November 1984.” Pictured with Willie that day were Oxford locals Red Smith, Charles Henry, Clyde Goolsby, and Shine’s son, Ed Morgan, who had been managing the business since 1965. ​​​​​​​
WIllie Morris stands before Shine Morgan's Appliance Store (Photo by David Rae Morris)
Ed’s son, John Morgan, who is currently the Alderman at Large for the City of Oxford, looks back at his family’s role in the community with gratitude. “I've always been so happy that my grandfather's and father's store, which was such a gathering place for people around Oxford for years, has really remained the same thing.  It's just a different type of gathering venue and different culture now than what was there in the previous four decades.”   
The Morgan’s family business lasted forty-five years at the 150 Courthouse Square location. John explains that “Dad closed the store in 1992 because of the presence of bigger chain stores like Walmart and Cowboy Maloney’s. You also must remember that in early 90's, the Square was pretty dead.” 
The building became vacant in February of 1992 but months later was converted into the Democratic Headquarters in Mississippi for Bill Clinton’s Presidential campaign. After the November election, landlord Jamie Whitten, the son of a longtime U.S. Representative, Jamie Whitten, Sr. allowed the space to go unleased until Milly and Rod Moorhead became tenants in the summer of 1993.   
Milly and Rod were artists when they decided to open a gallery on the Square. She was a photographer who had won Best in Show at Memphis Art in the Park and First Place at the Meridian Museum of Art. Rod, who moved to Oxford in 1949 when his father was hired to teach at Ole Miss, was a sculptor and a member of the Mississippi Craftsmen’s Guild. He had been showing his work at art fairs all over the state for years, but the grind of travel exhausted Rod. “I was tired of doing craft shows. In fact, I had stopped. I had a gallery in Memphis and was doing clay sculpture rather than the pottery I had done for years. But I wasn’t making enough money to live on.”
Milly Moorhead at the Meridian Museum of Art (The newspaper misspelled her name.)
Then, one day, Rod was driving around the Square when the idea of opening a gallery surfaced. The concept resonated with Milly, who knew they could keep a gallery stocked with their work and the work of friends. “We knew lots of fine artists from those days on the road. We thought Oxford needed and was ready for a gallery, a good gallery.” 
The only available location in Oxford that Milly could see such a gallery thriving was 150 Courthouse Square, so she called to inquire about the property. “My mother was from Charleston, Mississippi, as was Jamie Whitten, and his wife was my mother’s senior English teacher.” Milly confesses, “I didn’t hesitate to state the connection. I don’t know if that made a difference, but we got the building and were able to work with Debbie Little, who was handling the property.” There was also an aesthetic reason a gallery was attractive to the owner. “It was an open space already, and Whitten wanted to keep it open. He didn’t want another restaurant or office space there.”         
“Oxford was changing at that time,” observes Rod. “Many of the old stores were being taken over by lawyers and banks. Will Hickman, who managed property for Jamie Whitten, told me he did not want to rent it out to anything but a retail business— hence the lengthy vacancy.  He was worried about what was happening to the Square.”
The transformation from Shine Morgan’s to Southside was, according to Rod, “physically simple,” and the renovation was handled by Will Hickman. The brick was stabilized, and a bathroom was added upstairs. Storage was added under the stairs and in the back-office area, which also became a kitchen and the hub for staff like Gary Bridgeman and Clements Odom and “Gallery Girls” Caroline Herring, Kristin Rooney, Shannon Brown, Erin McSherry, and Rebekah Jacob. Finally, the walls were painted, and Southside Gallery was ready for its debut. 
“We had an amazing opening night,” beams Milly, “with paintings by Bill Dunlap, Jere Allen, Robert Malone, Paula Temple, Deborah Freeland, and photographs by William Eggleston, whom I had met when he had been in Oxford for the Faulkner and Yoknapatawpha Conference the year before. Rod showed his pottery and sculptures, and I showed my photographs.”
Deborah Freeland describes the evening as an “exciting, dress-up occasion. A couple of smaller galleries had been tried before but nothing on this scale. Southside was the kind of gallery found only in big cities. The question most asked was, ‘Will it work in Oxford?’ It would be great for local visual artists to have a classy place to display their work, but everyone there was hoping it would attract artists from outside the region.” Deborah pauses and smiles, “It did.” ​​​​​​​
Milly Moorhead West and Deborah Freeland
The momentum from that first lively reception continued thanks, in part, to The Oxford Town, weekly newspaper devoted to local culture that was owned by the Oxford Eagle and edited at first by Chico Harris and then Rebecca Lauck Cleary. “It always promoted our openings,” attests Milly. “I was pleasantly surprised by the way the gallery was so popular when we opened. Basically, we had a giant party once a month for nearly ten years.”  
Southside’s impact created a sea change within the local art community. Ceramicist Joe Ann Allen and her husband, painter Jere Allen, moved to Oxford in 1972. She confides that at that time “It was a slow process to meet local artists outside of the University of Mississippi’s art department, and there was no outlet for showing one’s work. As a result, we had little idea that our community and region had a creative energy flowing through it. That began to change when the Moorheads opened Southside Gallery. Their focus was to promote local, regional, and state artists. That changed much for Mississippi artists.”
Southside would exhibit the work of over 200 artists during the years that Milly and Rod directed the gallery. Many were local or regional, but some, like the Hermitage Group from St. Petersburg, Russia, traveled vast distances to engage with Oxford’s culture. “They painted for two weeks or so, and then we had a show of their interpretations of landmarks around town. They painted at Rowan Oak, First Presbyterian Church, the Oxford Square—all masterpieces,” emphasizes Milly, “and all sold. The buyers had to wait until the oil dried to pick up the work.”
There were also many successful Cuban shows. “Sometimes we featured paintings, sometimes photos from the Revolution by very famous Cuban photographers, including Alberto Korda and Robert Salas. The First Cuban show, which featured many well-known artists was special not only for the quality of work but because the now-famous naïve painter Luis Rodriguez and his now-former wife, Luisa, were able to come to Oxford for the opening.”
Caroline Herring, who worked at Southside from 1996 to 1999, vividly recalls one show “when we hung a Cuban flag from the second-floor window of the gallery, and our phone began to ring off the hook with hate calls. They were so intense and constant that Milly brought in a representative from the FBI, who told us basically to quit answering the phones. We did so, and a few days later the calls stopped. The flag remained.” 
Milly points out that Southside flew the Cuban flag alongside the flag of Maryland “because that same month, we showed the work of Eric Abrecht from Townsend, Maryland. I met Eric and saw his slides on a life-changing trip to Cuba in 1996. He still shows at Southside and had a beautiful exhibition there, just last year.” ​​​​​​​
 The Cuban shows also brought colorful folk art into the gallery. “Cars and chickens made of paper maché, naïve painting, and wooden sculptures” are works Milly lists that were on display. This was in tune with a major part of Southside’s early identity. “One thing the gallery became known for was our Southern, self-taught collection.”
“Folk art was coming into vogue,” observes Rod, who when preparing for one of Southside’s early shows, sent his “twenty-year-old son off with a pocket full of cash, and he trekked through Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia and came back with work by Jimmy Lee Sudduth, Mose Tolliver, Howard Finster, plus others.  It was a great show because it confused people and put a period to the sentence that ‘Not all good art is high art.”’
 “Everyone loved the Folk Art,” avows Milly. “And the night Howard Finster came to town was a definite highlight at Southside. He played his banjo upstairs, and I was so busy selling his cutouts downstairs, I missed almost all of it.”  ​​​​​​​
The most memorable shows for Rod centered around the work of internationally known photographers like William Christenberry and Eggleston, who had exhibitions “at least twice while I was there. I think the best one was the one that had the prints from a dye transfer portfolio he did.  I think there were ten maybe.  Really vibrant color. The other one had some really difficult photographs that I loved. A broken pipe somewhere in Louisiana leaking whatever it held onto the ground. A concrete block wall. Photos that made me realize that to some extent Eggleston was an abstract expressionist with a Leica.” ​​​​​​​
Eggleston and Christenberry exhibition featured in Oxford Town
Rod identifies the most stressful show he and Milly hung was the one by Sally Mann, who came to the opening. He recollects being in the gallery hours before the reception when a police officer in uniform approached the front door. He told Rod that he was there on business. When asked about his concern, the officer stated that there had been a complaint that Southside Gallery was displaying pornography, and that he had to have a look. Rod stepped out of the doorway. The officer entered and approached every work on the walls, many of which were images of Mann’s unclothed children. Rod worriedly watched the officer judge the photographs, return to the doorway, and say, “I see no pornography here” before exiting the gallery. 
“That Sally Mann show cost a lot to get, and I sold one photograph to a friend,” Rod laments. “It was still worth it. I never thought Southside was going to make a lot of money. I felt like my job was education in a way.”
“It’s weird, but from the beginning,” traces Milly, “I didn’t worry about the money. It was about the quality of the art, always.”  ​​​​​​​
Milly and Rod’s devotion to showing exceptional and challenging work undoubtedly stemmed from them both continuing to be working artists. Milly won the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Photography in 1996 for her work about the Mississippi Delta. Rod continued to make sculptures and began to land major commissions from Ole Miss. “Robert Khayat was Chancellor then,” notes Milly, “and he asked Rod to do three statues for three locations on campus. Rod did the Saint Francis of Assisi-like statue on site of the Paris Yates Chapel, the Cellist and Violinist statue in front of the Gertrude Ford Center, and finally, the James Meredith statue with the symbolic walk-through door, located between the library and the Lyceum.”
But the workload disrupted Rod’s focus on Southside. He learned that “you really can’t be a gallery owner and make art at the same time. The art I made, I made while AWOL from running the gallery.” 
As Rod shifted away from the gallery, he and Milly drifted away from each other. They divorced in 1998. “When the judge found out we were planning to continue in business together,” confides Rod., “he said something on the order of ‘Good luck with that.’ So, I sold my share of Southside to Milly.”
Replacing Rod’s contributions to the gallery’s operations took a team effort. He had created hand-crafted invitations for openings, hung the art on the walls, and been vital to sales. But for the next five years Milly continued to show exceptional work through her own creative will and with the help of her devoted staff. “Decisions were ultimately mine, but I depended on the opinion of others,” Milly admits. “Gary Bridgman was especially intuitive and a fantastic marketing person. Shannon Brown could hang art better than anyone else I knew. All of us were salespeople. We had to know the art, the artists, and their stories. And most of all, we all tried our best to make sure that every customer was made to feel special.”
Wil Cook and Rod Moorhead discuss a work of art on the piano.
Wil Cook and Rod Moorhead
“Milly ran Southside beautifully and allowed us access to all matters pertaining to the business, which in retrospect was a great gift from her to people who worked there,” insists Caroline Herring, who earned a master’s degree in Southern Studies from Ole Miss during her Southside years. She was also a singer and guitarist in a bluegrass band with Bryan Ledford, Wendell Haag, and Dave Woolworth called the Sincere Ramblers.
“They had their CD release party in the gallery,” exclaims Milly. “They were also the first Thacker Mountain Radio Band."
It may be possible that Bryan Ledford and I hatched our plan about Thacker Mountain in the Southside Gallery office before meeting with Richard Howorth,” imagines Herring. “I remember that Brian and I met with Richard and asked if we could use the Off Square Books space for a radio show, much like the one that Peyton Hooper had run at Blind Jim’s, a bar just above Southside and Off Square Books. Richard said he would agree if he could use half the show for writers. We all said, ‘Yes,’ and the rest is history.” Herring believes the proximity of the art gallery and bookstore, “as well as the books and the art, and our association with Southern Studies, helped make the show happen.”   
“Being only a few doors apart, the two businesses naturally have served to support each other and amplify the purpose and value of both,” affirms Richard Howorth, cofounder of Square Books and mayor of Oxford from 2001 to 2009. “Throughout its presence in Oxford, Southside Gallery has discovered and promoted worthy art and artists from Mississippi, Oxford, and the world beyond—in the way that Square Books has endeavored to do the same with books and writers.” Before leaving, Howorth adds, “Wil has done marvelous work making Southside a distinctly great gallery in this part of the world.”
Richard Howorth at the reception for David Rae Morris's Love, Daddy exhibition
For Wil, the admiration is mutual. “Richard is a visionary. He’s done nothing but make this town a better place, as both a businessman and mayor. I don’t think the importance of Square Books can be overstated. It’s honestly made the Square what it is today. We have collaborated with them for some book signings and joint art exhibitions, including an installation show celebrating Square Books’ fortieth anniversary in 2018. We must have hung five hundred or more posters in the gallery. More recently, we exhibited photos from David Rae Morris’s recent book, Love, Daddy: Letters from My Father, which featured photos by David Rae and letters from his father. This was special for me because I was a big fan of Willie Morris as a kid.”
David Rae’s first exhibit at Southside was with William Dunlap in 2001. “He had the front of the gallery, and I had the back.” The photographs on display came from the book he made with his father called My Mississippi, which was published a year after Willie’s death. The gallery was still under Milly’s direction at the time, but she was readying herself for a transition. ​​​​​​​
David Rae Morris and Milly Moorhead stand beside a photograph of Willie Morris at the Love, Daddy reception.
“One morning I was having breakfast with Vickie Cook, who was my friend as well as the gallery’s CPA,” recalls Milly. “Vickie has a great eye for good art, and she was also a great customer. I mentioned that I was thinking of selling the gallery, and she was very interested to be the first to know if I decided to sell.” 
That decision became easier to make the following year, for in February of 2002, Milly met Rest West, who worked for the National Indian Gaming Commission in Oklahoma. He would soon become her fiancé, and she made plans to attend the University of Tulsa and earn an MFA in Photography.  
Vickie bought Southside Gallery in November of 2002. Helping with the ownership transition was Dunlap, who had been asked to speak at a luncheon in Tupelo. “He invited Vickie and me to come with him,” cites Milly. “He wanted to introduce Tupelo art collectors to the new owner. I said a few words, then Vickie said a few words, and Bill made it clear that he could not imagine his work in any better place in Oxford.” Milly reasons that it was “kind of a perfect closure for me, because his work was front and center for that first opening in 1993, and it still is a vital part of Southside’s collection.”
Twenty-one years later, Dunlap’s faith in the Cook’s ownership has been rewarded. “Wil has done wonderfully and has a real vision for the gallery, which continues to grow,” he proclaims. “I generally come to Mississippi for funerals and football games. It’s nice to have an exhibition every year or so and see old friends, many of whom have become collectors.” 
Dunlap’s exhibition last spring with painter Robert Marsh has proven to be one of Wil’s favorite shows during his time at Southside Gallery. “It wasn’t the show alone that made it so memorable for me, though,” measures Wil. “Bill and Robert had an artists’ talk with students from the university art department the morning the show opened. Bill, as always, was candid and animated over the course of the lecture. It was especially joyful to see the reaction the students had to Bill’s stories and lessons about living the artist’s life. I took some pictures of him with them, and they were all smiles, clearly hanging on to every word.”
“Robert and I got out of graduate school at Ole Miss together in 1969,” replies Dunlap. “So, it was a real pleasure to have students from the art department come for an early morning hit of caffeine and sugar, coffee and donuts.” ​​​​​​​
William Dunlap and Robert Marsh Speak to UM Art Students. (Photo by Wil Cook)
William Dunlap and Robert Marsh Speak to UM Art Students. (Photo by Wil Cook)
Wil is mindful about the relationship Southside maintains with the Ole Miss art department and the University Museum. “Well, I’m on the museum board, so I hope we’re on good terms,” he laughs. “We try to work with the art department whenever possible. We’ve hosted several exhibitions featuring work by art department instructors and even some of their students.”
One of those student exhibitions was Vitus Shell’s Bring That Beat Back: The Sound of Drums, the Streets, and the Heart in 2008. It was Shell’s MFA thesis show, and with Wil’s approval, he transformed the gallery. “I painted on the walls in the gallery and painted on the front glass. We covered the front glass with paper, and he never complained. He had confidence in what I was capable of doing.”   
“That might have been Vitus’s third show here,” remembers Wil, “and it was a big transition for him, because the works he made in the past were less detailed, and the figures in them looked like they were from the early 1900s.” Wil pauses and points to a gallery wall where a line of Shell’s paintings were displayed. “And in the thesis show the figures were more individual and contemporary. They posed with hand gestures. His models were these young guys, his cousins, and friends from Monroe. One of them was an Ole Miss basketball player named Jermey Parnell.  I feel like he left a safety zone and brought some of his collectors out of their comfort zones. The conversation he was having with his audience changed. By abandoning the pastoral work that he had begun to build his career on, Vitus was taking a big chance in moving away from what he had been able to sell in the past.”   
The show was what Shell describes as “hip hop, the South, and where we stand in the world, visual Southern rap” and it caught the attention of the art world. "It was a catalyst for a lot of things. The summer that I graduated, I got into Skowhegan, one of the most prestigious residencies in the country. I was also in an MFA show where I received $15,000 through the Joan Mitchell Foundation and Cue Art Foundation in New York for the work I was making at the time.”      
“I was happy for him,” recollects Wil. “Vitus did everything on his own, but we were really proud to host him.” 
Shell still exhibits at Southside, partly because of his friendship with Wil that was born the years he was in graduate school. “Me and Wil were like brothers, and his mom looked out for me, so Southside was part of what kept me sane even being there, because coming to Oxford from Memphis and coming from Monroe was a culture shock.”   
Wil’s memory of their friendship is equally strong. “Vitus is a little bit shy when you first meet him, but he’s got a good sense of humor. So, he was easy to talk to and get to know. We spent a lot of time together. We spent a lot of Sundays and Saturdays watching football and drinking beer.” 
“When I first moved to Oxford,” recalls Shell, “Wil was just becoming the gallery director. Being friends, I got to meet collectors firsthand, have conversations with them, and see what they collect. Wil would show me works before they went on the wall, and I got to meet other artists that showed at the gallery and go to dinner with them. I got to meet more artists that were alumnus through Wil than I did from the art department.”
The intimate view into the day-to-day life of a gallery was an eye-opening experience for Shell. “From the outside, you think of the gallery spaces as being these perfect systems, and when you work inside them, you see that it is not always perfect, but what matters is getting the job done, and that is what Wil has done since I have been working with him. He gets the job done.”
Vitus Shell's MFA Show at Southside Gallery (Photo by UM Art Department)
Vitus Shell's MFA Show at Southside (Photo by UM Art Department)
Vitus Shell’s Hey. Baby Baby Cmon (Photo by UM Art Department)
Charlie Buckley can attest to Wil’s willingness to deliver for his clients. “I painted a four-by-twelve-foot painting of the Oxford square, and a couple bought it for display in their skybox at Vaught Hemingway.” Buckley takes a deep breath. “The elevator was too short to handle the painting, so we had to walk it up around the ramps. Once you get to the south end zone skyboxes the stairs get incredibly narrow. Making the turns, we had to dangle the painting over the edge of the exterior staircase several times until we could finally get it into the box.” Buckley notes that “the winging was probably seventy-five pounds or more, so we had to create a custom installation contraption. Thankfully, it worked, and years later I've seen it still hanging and unmoved in the same box.”
“A lot went into hanging that painting,” laughs Wil, “but not as much as went into painting it.” 
Buckley’s paintings have been on display at Southside Gallery since the spring of 2007. “I was experimenting with plastics and layering, and Wil was absolutely open to exhibiting the nonrepresentational work. That was a joint show with Ashley and Ginny Chavis. Since then, my gallery work has shifted to landscapes, treescapes, stacks, and floods, but I still attempt to experiment with materials and textures.”
Charlie Buckey and Vitus Shell
Charlie Buckley and his work during the COVID-19 pandemic
Wil’s love of variety is a key carryover in vision that has made Southside Gallery’s presence seem timeless, even having multiple directors over thirty years. Another factor in this consistency is that there have been many artists who have bridged the gap between ownership like Maude Schuyler Clay, Ron Dale, and Blair Hobbs.   
“Oh my,” gasps Hobbs. “I can’t remember when I first showed at Southside. Maybe twenty-six years ago when I first moved here? One of my favorite shows was with my mother. I showed wall art, and she showed her stunning papier-mâché chairs. She meant everything to me as an artistic influence, so having a show with her was magical.” 
Hobbs reminiscences that “writers dominated the artistic culture” in Oxford in the 1990s. “Barry Hannah and Larry Brown were still with us, and Tommy Franklin and Beth Ann Fennelly were new to the area, so the writing community was big and strong.” 
Hobbs reckons that strength was due to the existence and passion of Square Books, which was able to “sell, celebrate, and market their products. In time, Southside grew the same kind of care for its artists. I’ve never known a time in Oxford where the visual arts community was this alive and inspiring, and that happy growth is because of Wil, Vickie, and Coulter. People used to come from all over just to visit Square Books, now they weave from that storefront into Southside’s.”
Maude Schuyler Clay and Blair Hobbs during their artists' talk
Painter Carlyle Wolfe Lee knows the route from the bookstore to the gallery well. In 2004 she moved to Oxford from Baton Rouge. “For seven years, my studio was just across the street. Between drawings and paintings, I would routinely go to Square Books for coffee and browsing, Bottletree for soup at lunch, and Southside to see art and visit with Wil.”
“I spend a lot of time alone here,” proclaims Wil, “so phone calls, emails, gallery visitors, et cetera can change the course of my day fairly easily.”
“When the gallery door opens,” smiles Carlyle. “Wil usually pops out from behind his desk. Wil tends to know what is happening in town. He is probably reading something interesting and likely has a thoughtful take on the current show.” She goes on to praise Wil and the gallery’s “quiet presence that makes collectors and visitors comfortable focusing on artwork.” She holds that part of what creates the calm are the “white walls and open layout that put the emphasis on the exhibited artwork.” She and Wil put the space’s potential to good use for her show in 2014 called Their Line Has Gone Out Through All the Earth.
“It was about time and seasons,” states Wil. “The work was on display chronologically. It wouldn’t have worked any other way.” 
The exhibition consisted of one oil painting and one-hundred unframed drawings of the plant world. The plan was to make it seem like a seamless garden across the gallery, so Wil installed over four-hundred screws into the walls, and they held the papers up with magnets. He also allowed Carlyle, like Shell years earlier, to paint on the front windows. ​​​​​​​
Carlyle Wolfe's Their Line Has Gone Out Through All the Earth though the windows
Carlyle Wolfe at the hanging of Their Line Has Gone Out Through All the Earth
While the gallery is aesthetically malleable, depending on what it needs to be for the art on display, Carlyle declares that it is not generic. “It is not a white cube that could be anywhere. Southside is a physically beautiful space. The front floor-to-ceiling and wall-to-wall window frames an interesting view of the Square and passersby from inside and frames an eye-catching view of exhibitions from outside especially when it glows at night. Like the other buildings on the square, the gallery belongs to Oxford. The brick arch in its center and brick walls upstairs were likely made from local soil. Visitors can feel the building’s age and sense that it has a story.”
City Grocery and Southside Gallery
Indeed, it does, and the people who buy the art there have stories, too. On December 8, 2022, I stood near the cheese and cracker table at Southside during the reception for Blue Christmas, a group show that featured work from thirteen artists, including eight of my photographs. One of them was a closeup waterscape that I captured at dusk. At the top of the image was the sinking sun’s refection, which skipped across the surface until the lip of a wave blocked its glow. This formed a dark blue beneath that peak that reached a near-black at the bottom of the frame. Wil hangs shows with color and thematic flows, so that photograph was placed beside a painting that was titled Over the Raft. It was a large, vertical portrait of a pale-faced and curious young woman. A deep black pigment surrounded her like a night sea. It was created by Jere Allen, another bridge from that first show thirty years ago. ​​​​​​​
Blue Christmas through the windows
Jere Allen's Over the Raft at the Blue Christmas group show
Jere’s wife, Joe Ann, stood nearby, and Wil said, “Joe Ann, have you met Thad Lee? He’s writing an article about the history of Southside.”
“You are?” 
“I am. Do you know any stories about this place?”
She replied, “I do,” and then told me a story about an encounter she had had at the gallery when Milly was still the owner. A young woman from California had come into the building seeking information about a painting she had purchased years earlier. “Milly suspected it might be a Jere Allen painting,” remembered Joe Ann, “but she had another customer at the time and wanted me to see if I could help solve the mystery.” After hearing the description of the painting Joe Ann confirmed that it was the work of Jere Allen. Relieved, the young women then told Joe Ann how it came into her possession. 
“She married her childhood sweetheart and only love right after finishing college. They had three children in quick succession.” Joe Ann explained that “During those years the young woman was an at-home mother and housewife. Then, her life was instantly thrown into emotional and financial turmoil when her husband tragically died.” 
She was overcome with shock and terror for the future of her children. She told Joe Ann that she was “lost in insecurities,” and that the only thing that gave her hope was a college degree in K-12 Education. In the town where she lived in California, a high school English teacher was experiencing health issues, so a job as substitute teacher became available. The pay was not good, but she took the job. The young woman revealed to Joe Ann that she lived in a state of constant self-doubt but persevered through the school year. Then, the teacher who had been sick retired, and the school offered the position to the young woman. The responsibility scared her, but her family needed the income, so she accepted.
What the young woman didn’t know was that a grant to attend the Faulkner Conference in Oxford, Mississippi, had been awarded to the retired teacher, which then was transferred to her. “This woman had never been out of her home state, never flown on an airplane, never traveled alone,” recalled Joe Ann. “She was nervous about taking this step but felt she had no choice but to make the trip.”
A group from the Faulkner Conference invited the young woman to have lunch on the Square. Afterwards, someone in the group suggested they go into the art gallery. Joe Ann said, “She had never been in an art gallery, had never had an interest in art, and felt she knew nothing about art, but she followed along.”  
When the young woman stepped inside 150 Courthouse Square, she saw a painting hanging on the back wall, and she described the impact to Jo Ann as “having the breath knocked out of me.” She walked to it and stared at the portrait of a pale-faced and curious young woman, surrounded by black. Soon tears rolled down her face. “She felt the painting was telling her story. A story in which she was a survivor,” explained Joe Ann. “A story that affirmed she was going to be all right. She had never considered buying a piece of art, but she had to have this painting.”
Milly worked with the young women to make it affordable. After a down payment and financing agreement, Jere Allen’s painting was shipped to California where the young woman hung it directly across from her bed. “She described how upon waking each morning she sat up in bed with her eyes closed so that when she opened them, the first thing she saw was this painting.” Joe Ann learned that “for her it was more than canvas, paint, and image. It was her story, her life.”
I was deeply moved by this account. Not only because it was compelling and tender, but also because it helped me to pinpoint what it is that Southside Gallery does best, which is give opportunity. You don’t have to make a special trip to the gallery to get there. You just have to be on the Oxford Square. There, happenstance awaits, for the storefront and all the treasures inside the gallery are invitations. One doesn’t have to enter to enjoy and be enriched by the artwork, but some, like the young woman from California do take the chance to step face-to-face with a work of art that belongs to them. The possibility is alive every day the gallery is open. What a wonderful opportunity for us all?
When I think about that, I marvel at the efforts of Milly and Rod to create the business. I marvel at Vickie and Wil who grew the business that survived both the Global Financial Crisis of 2007 to 2008 and the Covid-19 pandemic. I marvel at the artists who have supplied the gallery with work that now hangs on walls around the world. I marvel at the Oxford community that has supported and kept the flame burning. I marvel that landlord Jamie Whitten, Junior imagined a future Oxford without a place like Southside Gallery on the Square, realized how terrible that would be for the community, and leased the space on manageable terms for thirty years.  
Happy birthday, Southside Gallery. We wish you many more.  ​​​​​​​
Carlyle Wolfe Lee adn Thad Lee at the Reception for Murmurations (Photo by Ashleigh Coleman)
Jere Allen, Vickie Cook, Carlyle Wolfe Lee, and Jo Ann Allen at the Mississippi Arts and Letters Awards reception
Wil Cook and Milly Moorhead West
Adrienne Brown David and family at the reception for Unnatural History 
Adrienne Brown David's Journal on display at the Reception for Unnatural History
Guests at the reception for Blair Hobbs and Maude Schuyler Clay's Memory Path exhibition
Guests Leaving the reception for Unnatural History
Vickie Cook, Andy Howorth, Maude Schulyer Clay, Melissa Ginsberg, and Tom Howorth
Jimmy Thomas and Martha Kelly at the Mississippi Arts and Letters Awards Reception
Maude Schuyler Clay and Bill Dunlap (Photo by Langdon Clay)
Ron Dale and his work at the Mississippi Arts and Letters Awards Reception
John T Edge Speaks to Coulter Fussell at the reception for Unnatural History
Milly Moorhead West and Charlie Buckley
Robert Malone and David Rae Morris before a photograph of Willie Morris
The Mississippi Arts and Letters Awards reception
The Mississippi Arts and Letters Awards reception
Jack Barbera stands behind his pottery at the reception for Unnatural History.
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