Artist comes almost home for award|Andrew Bucci produces ‘modernist gems’

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 27, 2009

JACKSON — Andrew Bucci was among the last of hundreds of attendees to step on an elevator at Galloway United Methodist Church that led to a post-event reception capping off the 2009 Mississippi Governor’s Awards for Excellence in the Arts.

“Brevity is the soul of wit,” Bucci said on the short ride to the second floor, clutching one of the glittering “diddly-bo” guitars crafted by Mississippi bluesman James “Super Chikan” Johnson and given to each of six honorees at their award at the ceremony. “But, I really didn’t know what to say.”

Indeed, following the likes of novelist John Grisham and jazz vocalist Cassandra Wilson on the dais made the self-effacing Bucci — reluctant to accept the award in the first place — feel a little like the “end of the parade,” he told several hundred gathered at the downtown church.

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A resident of the Washington, D.C., area for more than 50 years, Bucci gave a nod to his home state in his brief acceptance speech.

“The award is reflective of the very priceless quality of the arts in Mississippi,” Bucci said. “I thank y’all very much and I’m greatly honored.”

Bucci, 87, was honored by the Mississippi Arts Commission for his five decades of work in the visual arts, a recognition the Vicksburg native had turned down once before but accepted this year.

As he cleared the ranks of fans — each of whom received small slips of paper with his autograph — family members gushed with pride and a little bit of awe over an art career that has touched multiple disciplines, including oil, watercolor and needlepoint.

“He’s considered a giant in the modern era,” said a niece, Margaret Bucci. “He came up in an era when that was cutting-edge.”

Though Bucci graduated from St. Aloysius High School, his first art class came under impressionist Mary Clare Sherwood at All Saints’ Episcopal School. His studies continued under Mississippi artist Marie Hull in Jackson and continued through his pursuit of an architectural engineering degree at Louisiana State University.

Bucci studied at Academie Julian in Paris while stationed there in World War II. Training as a meteorologist in the military paved the way for him to land jobs with National Meteorological Center bureaus in South Carolina and Washington, D.C., — something of a day job when considered in light of his artistic achievements.

“He gets art down to its bare essentials,” artist and master of ceremonies William Dunlap said of Bucci’s work. “Just modernist gems.”

Bucci has said his works contain a certain balance of abstract and realistic influences. His collection appears in galleries worldwide, including the Smithsonian Museum of American Art, Brown’s Fine Art and Framing in Jackson and Cole Pratt Gallery in New Orleans.

His works appear to reflect how most describe him — sharp, modest and diligent.

His oldest brother, Don, 89, said his brother’s talents began with a simple love — doodling a drawing or two “on all the napkins.”

“He’s a very modest, very unassuming type of guy,” said Dr. Bob Bucci, one of Bucci’s three brothers. “He’s very worthy of the award.”

The commission has honored artists from Mississippi since 1988. Recent past recipients of the Lifetime Achievement Award include musicians Bo Diddley and Charley Pride.

Grisham, who was honored for literary achievement, read from a foreword he wrote for a recently published biography of longtime Delta State University baseball coach Dave “Boo” Ferriss, for whom he once tried out for a roster spot.

The best-selling author cast his role in the pantheon of Mississippi artists as one of chronicler.

“There’s so much material here,” Grisham said. “Our history is unique, it is colorful, it is complicated, at times sad, tragic, tumultuous, violent and bloody. Somebody has to record all this. Somebody has to write about you and I’m lucky to have that job.”

Wilson, who lives in Woodstock, N.Y. ,but returned to her native Jackson to record “Loverly,” a collection of jazz standards that won a Grammy award Feb. 8 for best jazz vocal album, stressed the importance of researching one’s ethnic roots as a way to connect with his or her art, particularly for African-Americans, and how her own career trajectory has ended up in familiar environs of late.

“I have always been in search of the music. I have been traveling and had to move away from Mississippi reluctantly to learn about jazz. And the interesting thing about my journey is that it’s always brought me back here.”

Several groups were honored with awards, signified by Johnson’s unique guitars fashioned from cigar boxes and dowel rods.

The University of Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra in Hattiesburg was recognized for leadership in the arts.

The WINGS Performing Arts Program of the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport, which does dance and theater productions with young people, received an award for arts in education.

An award for excellence in visual arts went to the Wolfe Studio in Jackson. Elizabeth “Bebe” Wolfe, daughter of the center’s late founders Karl and Mildred Nungester Wolfe, accepted the award.

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Contact Danny Barrett Jr. at dbarrett@vicksburgpost.com.