NEW ALBANY • What began 30 years ago on a trip through Mississippi became a lifelong passion for photographer, artist, musician and Nashville, Tenn. native Bill Steber. His art and photography “Spirit in the Soil: Objects and Evocations of the Mississippi Blues” will open Thursday, Sept. 8, 6 -8, at the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany.
“He is also an amazing musician, and he and Mississippi musician Libby Rae Watson will perform at the exhibit opening,” said Jill Smith, Museum Director. You may have seen him playing in the bands the Jake Leg Stompers, Jericho Road Show and HooDoo Men.
Steber, who began his career as a newspaper photographer for the Nashville Tennessean, has won many awards, has also spent time in New Albany photographing musicians Sam Mosley, Elder Roma Wilson, Leon Pinson, as well as many other Mississippi blues musicians.
“I’m showing a number of traditional documentary photographs, but for the first time since my Junior Kimbrough exhibit more than a decade ago, the show also contains artifacts and “relics” from sacred sites in the history of the blues. For instance, I’m creating a body of work on Robert Johnson using materials gathered from sites associated with him,” Steber said.
The artist gathered bits and pieces of materials on the Star of the West Plantation where Johnson’s house stood in 1938 when he died. With these remnants, he has created portraits and evocative art. “I love the challenge of making a piece of art from a limited number of materials taken from specific place in honor of an individual associated with that place.”
“I began collecting artifacts that spoke to me, rusty tools, empty snuff bottles, a mirror losing its silver, a handmade checkerboard, torn quilts and the things I collected with no specific purpose other than the preservation of their physical witness …I felt that the preservation of these humble artifacts was part of my work as a documentary photographer. It’s all about preservation,” he said.
“Bill’s work is known worldwide. His work has been featured from New York galleries to the Mississippi Delta. His unique perspective is truly an art. One wonders how in the world he captured these images. His answer to that is “people went out of their way to make him feel welcome,” Smith said.
“We are indeed fortunate to be able to exhibit his work as part of our Literary Fest with this unique portrait style mixed media pieces that reflect not only the image of the musician, but also a deeper level of telling a story. I hope people will take advantage of this opportunity to see through the lens and eyes of Bill Steber.”
In the three decades of Steber’s involvement with the Mississippi Blues, this artwork, that is a shift from his photography, is in a sense a culmination. “I feel an obligation of honestly documenting, preserving and celebrating the blues culture of the state of Mississippi, and I’ve devoted much of my creative energy towards that goal.”
“These new mixed media pieces are a continuation of rather than a departure from the straight documentary photographs in that they also preserve small slices of the story in a different form,” he said.
When visiting New Albany recently on a photo shoot for Living Blues Magazine, he rode in in a white van loaded with cameras, trays, chemicals and equipment. He set up a shoot and put his head under the tent of a century old camera and asked his subject, Sam Mosley, to hold still for a minute. Then he proceeded to develop that photo in a developer tray sitting on the ground at the museum. He ended up with a beautiful tintype of the blues musician that he later donated to the museum’s collection.
His photographs document the musicians and juke joints, churches and river baptisms, folk rituals, hoodoo practitioners, farming methods and much more about a slice of Mississippi’s culture.
A man of many talents, Steber has his work take on new and different faces and phases. “The mixed media component is indeed the culmination of everything I’ve witnessed, loved and felt about blues culture in Mississippi. But it is by no means the end. In many ways I feel like I am just getting started.”
The public is invited to see Steber’s work and enjoy his music and stories along with that of Libby Rae Watson as their roots music defined by one writer as “A revival of blues, country, Appalachia, the church, tinges of rock and rockabilly, it’s all there.”
The museum is located at 114 Cleveland Street, New Albany. For more information call 662-538-0014. The opening is Sept. 8.