Artist H.C. ‘Chris’ Porter blends different styles into amazing artwork, telling important stories

Published 3:29 pm Monday, August 17, 2015

Casting aside her dream of being a ventriloquist, Vicksburg artist H.C. “Chris” Porter decided at a young age she wanted to be an artist, and with ambitions accomplished, Porter’s voice is now speaking through her art.

“I have known I wanted to be an artist since the second grade,” Porter said.

When she realized she was a terrible ventriloquiest in second grade, is when she turned to art.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Once the decision was made to drop the dummy, she said it had been her mother who was a big influence in her new path.

“Mother painted and often took art classes,” she said, “and she was constantly affirming my earliest tries at anything artistic.”

“I was not an art major,” Porter’s mother, Harriet, said. “But I did start painting in oils when Chris was around five or so.

“I also did macramé, decoupage and beads, and I always involved Chris. The first piece of art work I framed for her was a fall tree she painted when she was three or four.”

Shortly after Porter’s sister was born, Harriet said she arranged for her eldest to take art lessons from Charlene Feenan, a local artist in their Jackson neighborhood.

“From the classes I learned to draw Snoopy with perspective and make clay knickknaks from molds; it was heaven for me,” Porter said.

An artist’s education

In the sixth grade Porter entered Madison-Ridgeland Academy, and it was there she caught the attention of the school’s art teacher.

“She began to excel in art at MRA, and the art teacher, Frances Braswell, was very infatuated in Chris’ ability,” Harriet said.

“Frances Braswell was a nurturing, but seriously talented art teacher,” Porter said. “She had a tremendous reputation state-wide for her ability to create competitive artists, and with an already highly developed competitive spirit of my own, it didn’t take much for me to explore every art medium with painstaking detail, often painting and drawing through lunch.”

As if her art classes at school were not enough, Porter also began to take up photography.

“In the ninth grade, my husband gave Chris and me an Olympus camera to share,” Harriet said. “I signed both of us up for a Millsaps College enrichment photography class, and we went to try and work the camera.

“Chris blossomed, and I fell by the wayside,” Harriet laughed. “I didn’t want to fool with all the buttons, but Chris loved it.”

“During the enrichment classes I was exposed to darkroom techniques, and soon I was saving my allowance for an enlarger and searching the house for a spare bathroom to be my new darkroom,” Porter said.

With her newfound interest, she was tapped as the school’s yearbook and sports photographer.

She flourished in her school environment, and while under the tutelage of Braswell, she competed and won at national scholastic art competitions.

“The competition allows art students from different schools to compete state wide,” Porter said. “As a senior you compete for college art scholarships on a national level.”

Porter won a full ride through this competition to the University of Alabama, where she studied painting, clay, sculpture and photography.

In college, she said she was exposed and stretched to broader techniques beyond her high school achievements.

One of her teachers, Alvin Stella, would drag her to his private art studio to watch him paint.

“He stomped up and down on his canvases, which he spread all over the floor leaving his Nike foot prints all over them, purposefully,” Porter said. “I was convinced I would never paint another recognizable image. I had been lured to the dark abstract side, and I loved it.

“This experience colored my senior show with paintings full of moody layers of dark color splayed across the canvas in such a violent way it prompted my parents to ask me if I was okay emotionally,” Porter said. She said she assured them she was fine.

Rick Rush, a nationally known artist in Tuscaloosa, was another of Porter’s college influences.

It was while working as an apprentice and studying with Rush where she was exposed to the silkscreen printmaking process.

The real world

After receiving her bachelor of fine arts degree from Alabama and working for Rush for $2.75 an hour as a studio director and master printmaker, Porter returned home.

“In 1987, I returned to Jackson. I decided I had learned all I could. I was hungry and wanted to return home for food, clothing and shelter and to begin the next step of what I suspected would be a challenging and incredibly interesting path,” she said.

She started her first studio on Euclid Avenue in the basement of her grandmother’s house in Belhaven, she said.

“I established a printmaking studio and began creating limited edition silkscreen posters for different Mississippi festivals. I would paint anything or print anything to earn the $25 a month rent my grandmother charged me to keep me honest,” she said. “But I could only print on days my grandmother’s ladies clubs weren’t meeting upstairs. She said the fumes would waft up through the floorboards and create nausea, dizzy spells and general malaise when they had major decisions to make, as my grandfather liked to tease, about pie.”

Memories of her grandfather’s jokes about the ladies and their pie recipes were not the only recollection Porter had of her paternal grandfather.

“My grandfather and I used to joke that we could use the same initials on our monogram,” she said, and with that connection and the fact that Homer Conrad Porter started his first business out of the very same basement on Euclid Avenue, Chris decided that she would use H.C. Porter as her professional name.

The professional artist

In 1988, Porter moved to the arts district on Millsaps Avenue, and for 20 years she was painting and printmaking alongside more than 25 artists including Andy Young and Susan Ford.

It was during this phase of her career that Porter started an art program for children.

Midtown Jackson is a predominately black neighborhood behind Baptist hospital, and with a small community block grant of $500 Porter bought art supplies and began offering basic art classes to kids who were wandering in and out of her studio wanting to paint.

“I called it Avenue for Art, and it was through these classes that allowed me to build relationships with my community,” Porter said. “This experience shaped my life and defined the style I am most recognized for today.”

It was that style that seemed to be most impacted by the experience, bringing together her painting and her photography.

“As I developed friendships with my neighbors, I picked up my camera and began documenting my new friends. I soon had what I considered powerful portraits of a challenged, struggling community with a strong sense of spirituality, adaptability and strength,” Porter said. “However, with these photographs in hand I didn’t want to be just a photographer or just a painter, so I relied on silkscreen to allow me to combine the two. I silkscreened my original photograph with black ink onto paper, and then I would come back and paint directly on the paper with acrylic paint and layer in prism color pencils to add movement and details to the images.”

Documenting disaster in art

Porter has a passion for all three processes of photography, printmaking and painting, equally.

On Aug. 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina tore through the Mississippi Gulf Coast raining disaster and destruction in its path, changing landscapes and lives forever.

Following the storm, in September, Porter, along with collaborator and oral historian Karole Sessums, set out to document the returning, shocked and resilient Mississippians.

“I found myself following volunteers armed with chainsaws into Pearlington, Miss., after the worst natural disaster in U.S. history,” Porter said.

With a camera and a tape recorder, the pair collected more than 9,000 photographs and thousands of hours of oral histories, which would become the foundation of the “Backyards and Beyond: Mississippians and their Stories” exhibition.

“As an artist, but also a fellow Mississippian, I was there to give them (the up-rooted survivors) an opportunity to tell their stories visually through my paintings and audibly through their personal field recordings,” Porter said. “There is healing in the telling and the being heard,” which she said became the mantra for the “Backyards and Beyond” project.

The traveling exhibition, which premiered in 2008 at the Mississippi Arts Center in Jackson, consists of 81 paintings sponsored by collectors from more than 28 states.

“This show was created to celebrate the brave and determined Mississippians of all stripes who pulled themselves up from their bootstraps and faced insurmountable odds to stay, muck out and rebuild their lives in a place they love to call home,” she said.

Now singing the Blues

Continuing as a voice for Mississippi, Porter’s next big undertaking was the “Blues at Home” project.

“The project was conceived as I drove along Highway 61 from Cleveland. I had just finished a walkthrough of the ‘Backyards and Beyond’ exhibition at Delta State University,” she said. “The sun was setting on the Delta … and I realized I had never told the story of the sound of the Delta, the Blues.”

That’s when Porter realized how one project would lead to the next.

“I had paired my paintings with oral histories for the first time in the ‘Backyards and Beyond’ exhibition, and my idea was to do the same by documenting the living Mississippi born, predominately Blues legends, in either their home environment or, if they no longer lived in the state, someplace that was significant in their career,” she said. “It seemed like a perfect fit to pair portraits of the legends with the Blues music they had created and also to allow them to share through oral histories the textured lives they had lived for decades within the culture of the Blues.”

The project grew quickly, as did the number of people excited to join in.

“The more I talked about the project, the more excited folks became about the opportunity to experience the show, sponsor pieces and celebrate the legacy and talent of these rich lives before they become all lost to us,” Porter said.

Many of the musicians didn’t have consistent ways of communicating, she said, and finding them turned out to be like trying to grab a moving pinball. But with the help of collaborator and writer Lauchlin Fields, 30 living blues legends are celebrated in the “Blues at Home” exhibition that premiered in April 2014 at the University of Mississippi Art Museum in Oxford.

“I have had a chance of a lifetime meeting these legends of Mississippi Blues; it’s like meeting and hanging out with the children of Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Bessie Smith, John Lee Hooker and Elmore James. The living legends of Mississippi Blues today carry their lineage in attitude, experience and musical influence,” Porter said.

“Chris sees beyond the obvious, from a deeper place, from a spiritual level of the culture of Mississippi. The wonderful thing about interacting with her is there is a sence of dialogue. It was as if we were in the same band, her the collaborator and me the voice and guitar,” said Vasti Jackson, one of the 30 Blues legends featured in the collection.

The “Blues at Home” exhibition ran through early August at the University Museum, spent six weeks at the B.B. King Museum in Indianola and returned to Vicksburg for a hometown tour last year.

Along with her two traveling art projects, Porter works as a commissioned artist.

Porter’s gallery is in downtown Vicksburg on Washington Street.


About Terri Cowart Frazier

Terri Frazier was born in Cleveland. Shortly afterward, the family moved to Vicksburg. She is a part-time reporter at The Vicksburg Post and is the editor of the Vicksburg Living Magazine, which has been awarded First Place by the Mississippi Press Association. She has also been the recipient of a First Place award in the MPA’s Better Newspaper Contest’s editorial division for the “Best Feature Story.”

Terri graduated from Warren Central High School and Mississippi State University where she received a bachelor’s degree in communications with an emphasis in public relations.

Prior to coming to work at The Post a little more than 10 years ago, she did some freelancing at the Jackson Free Press. But for most of her life, she enjoyed being a full-time stay at home mom.

Terri is a member of the Crawford Street United Methodist Church. She is a lifetime member of the Vicksburg Junior Auxiliary and is a past member of the Sampler Antique Club and Town and Country Garden Club. She is married to Dr. Walter Frazier.

“From staying informed with local governmental issues to hearing the stories of its people, a hometown newspaper is vital to a community. I have felt privileged to be part of a dedicated team at The Post throughout my tenure and hope that with theirs and with local support, I will be able to continue to grow and hone in on my skills as I help share the stories in Vicksburg. When asked what I like most about my job, my answer is always ‘the people.’

email author More by Terri Cowart