A documentary filmmaker will visit Pontotoc County over the coming months, researching, collecting stories, and interviewing those who knew the late artist, M.B. Mayfield.
John Reyer Afamasaga is working on a documentary tentatively titled “Door Ajar,” which he plans to debut at the Oxford Film Festival in February.
The title refers to the janitor’s closet, inside the art department at Ole Miss. From 1950-51, more than a decade before James Meredith officially integrated the university, Ecru native M.B. Mayfield sat in that closet, listening, through the open door, drawing, painting, and following along, because he could not sit with the other students.
In a sense, Mayfield was Ole Miss’s first, black student.
“Mayfield’s story is just incredible, and it deserves to be told,” said Afamasaga, a native of New Zealand, now living in Oxford. “It works on so many levels.”
Like his art, affectionately termed “primitive,” the picture of Mayfield’s life, as a black man, in rural Mississippi, in the early 20th century, is not of one, seamless piece. Anecdotes from family and friends play a vital role in creating a kind of historical collage, Afamasaga said, and he is enjoying the work.
“I’m certain that many people knew him personally, were inspired by him, and have stories to share,” Afamasaga said.
As a poor, country boy, who made his own paints from vegetables and flowers, Mayfield had little exposure to the wider world, much less to professional art. His talent might never have been discovered if not for a chance meeting in 1949 with Stuart Purser, founder of the Ole Miss Art Department.
Driving through Ecru, Purser noticed some sculptures sitting on a porch. Intrigued, Purser stopped to inquire, thus beginning a friendship that greatly enriched his life and Mayfield’s.
Purser arranged for Mayfield to work at the university as a janitor, and made it possible for him observe lessons—from afar.
Mayfield passed away in 2005, at the age of 82, but his work still adorns homes and offices, especially around Pontotoc County.
Mayfield’s painting “McDaniel’s Cotton Gin,” graces the Pontotoc home of Bob and Claire McGee. In it, a fair, blue sky overlooks a bucolic scene, with young boys eating watermelon amid wagons nearly toppling with snowy cotton. Even the gray tin of the gin seems to sing with life in Mayfield’s cheery vision.
Claire’s mother commissioned Mayfield to paint the gin, which is in Evergreen, and belonged to Claire’s father. The family gave Mayfield photographs to go by, and he added a few details.
“My mother-in-law thought M.B.’s price was too low, and she gave him considerably more than he asked,” said Bob McGee, smiling appreciatively.
“People are just blown away by Mayfield’s story, which includes themes like the Civil Rights Movement, the riots in 1962, and so many other fascinating circumstances,” said Afamasaga. “The story really speaks to me, and, as I follow M.B.’s life, I’m meeting great people.”
Contact Afamasaga at firstname.lastname@example.org.