J. Kim Sessums, Doctor of Arts
In Brookhaven, a southwest Mississippi town of about 12,500, a woman walked into an OB/GYN clinic brandishing a tool used to cut down trees. She was looking for Dr. J. Kim Sessums.
Dr. Joey Sessums, right, a pediatric dentist in Brookhaven, has a special bond with the interior designer and artist for her newly-renovated office: He’s her father.
At the front desk, she plunked down the jagged blade, startling the nurses. Then she pulled out an old photograph.
“Can Dr. Sessums paint this picture of my father’s store on this saw?” she asked.
That’s how it is for a small-town doctor who’s also a big-time artist. Sessums’ clients, and one would-be customer, have included a Pulitzer Prize-winning author, a renowned American painter, a world-famous evangelist, sports hall-of-famers, the National Park Service and a woman with a saw.
Also: Daffy Duck.
The image of Daffy lives at Ole Brook Pediatric Dentistry in Brookhaven, a clinic owned and operated by Dr. Joey Sessums, daughter of the artist.
Also adorning the office are Sylvester the cat, Bugs Bunny, Elmer Fudd, etc., plus an alphabet mural and a whimsical sculpture of a “repurposed porpoise.”
“He did it all,” said Joey Sessums, a graduate of the UMMC School of Dentistry. “The design, colors, artwork.”
The children love it, she said. And no one else could have done this. Her father was always going to decorate her office, perhaps from the moment she discovered the drawing of the chicken.
“I found it in my mom and dad’s bedside table,” she said. “He had made it years ago, when he was about the age I was at the time.” A kid.
“I asked him, ‘How could you draw this when you were so young?’”
The real question was why.
Dr. Kim Sessums checks on a family at King’s Daughters Medical Center in Brookhaven: Sarah Lyons, left, and Garrett Lyons, right, are the parents of Gannon Ridge Lyons, born the previous day, on Sept. 12, 2013.
At Pelahatchie High School, home of the Chiefs, someone had painted an image of the mascot onto the gym floor.
The artist was Howard Sessums, the school’s basketball coach and a former court standout at Mississippi College who was drafted in 1955 by the New York Knicks.
If Kim Sessums inherited his artistic skill from his father, they didn’t have much time to talk about Kim’s own future as an artist or as a basketball player, or about the future in general.
One day in 1963, when Kim was 5, Howard Sessums had been looking at some cattle before pulling his Volkswagen onto the road and into the path of a streaking truck.
“He died instantly,” Kim Sessums said.
There were two other children: Kevin, 8; and Karole, 4.
About 15 months later, esophageal cancer took Nancy Carolyn Sessums, the woman who had tried to feed them and wash and iron their clothes on her own; their mom.
The children’s new home was in rural Scott County on a gravel road between Forest and Harperville.
“People were always staring at us,” Sessums said. “I guess they thought of us as these little exotic orphan kids living with their grandparents.”
Joyce and Malcolm Britt, who ran a Western Auto store in Forest, were their mother’s parents. For entertainment they had one catfish pond, one TV channel and no money.
Over the years, the three kids learned to depend on their own imaginations, each other and Liza Minnelli.
“I grew up listening to the Cabaret soundtrack with my brother,” Sessums said. “Bette Midler was all over the house, too.
“I didn’t know that was a weird childhood. I thought everyone was doing that.”
His brother wrote plays and the three siblings acted them out.
“We would create other worlds in the back pasture,” Sessums said.
He created them, also, with pencil and paper.
Come to the cabaret.
A free-form piece honoring his parents hangs in Dr. Kim Sessums’ studio.
Larry Lugar admits he’s jealous.
“Not in the sense that I have animosity toward him,” Lugar said. “I am envious of his talents.”
As the owner of a bronze foundry near Memphis, Lugar has worked with Sessums and his sculptures for a dozen years.
“His two-dimensional work is excellent, as is his three-dimensional. He does traditional bronzes, but also more cutting-edge, experimental pieces,” Lugar said.
“He is also a great tennis player, a jack of all trades. He has done well in his medical practice and domestic life. He is one of the most talented people I’ve ever met, and I’ve met a lot of them.”
Alexa Miller, on the other hand, has never met Sessums. But she has seen his work displayed on his web site.
“Artists make art for all kinds of reasons,” said Miller, a medical education consultant who teaches at Brandeis University.
“For (Sessums), a really important reason seems to be that he wants to honor and commemorate a person’s individuality. He is able to see something in them and translate it; then, others can see it, too.”
Dr. Helen Barnes discovered Sessums when he was a student of hers at the School of Medicine in the 1980s.
“If someone is sick in my family, if I’m mad, frustrated, I can walk around a gallery and get a quieting, soothing feeling,” said Barnes, UMMC associate professor emeritus of obstetrics and gynecology, and one of the first African-American women to practice medicine in Mississippi.
“That’s what I get from Kim’s drawings.
“He can feel the need a person has. He could walk down the street and see somebody and it wouldn’t matter how bedraggled and dirty that man is, if the man looked down, Kim would say hello to him. He would listen to him.
“You see that compassion in his art.”
In particular, Sessums’ sculptures of Andrew Wyeth, Billy Graham and Eudora Welty capture something a photograph can’t sometimes, Lugar said.
“His images are certainly recognizable, but there is also a depth of feeling there. And that is rare.
“And I cannot figure out how he hangs out with people as different as Andrew Wyeth and Billy Graham.”
In the studio behind his home, Sessums created this clay model of the trophy that honors the late Kent Hull, the Greenwood native who starred as an offensive lineman for Mississippi State University and the NFL’s Buffalo Bills. A model of the Kent Hall Award was presented in September to the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum in Jackson, which commissioned it. A bronze sculpture, created from the clay work, will be awarded each year to the state’s top collegiate offensive lineman.
The Rev. Billy Graham was in a bad mood. The time was 1997, in the aftermath of President Bill Clinton’s Monica Lewinsky scandal.
The evangelist had publicly forgiven the president, which had produced a flood of hate mail that made Graham jumpy.
Perhaps that explains what happened next.
When Sessums arrived at Graham’s cabin in North Carolina, Ruth Graham still had not told her husband about the commission. The ice Sessums had to break that day was the size of a glacier.
Watched closely by Graham’s body guard, Sessums began wielding his sculpting knife. He had already worked up a clay model from photographs, and, somehow, every feature was in its proper place, as Sessums recalls. Except for two.
“I said, ‘Rev. Graham, I’m going to have to cut your ears off and move them.’”
The guard gave a start; when Sessums looked up, Graham was sitting there with both hands over his ears.
“I said, ‘No, Rev. Graham; the sculpture’s ears.’”
The glacier melted.
This detail from Dr. Kim Sessums’ monument honoring African-American Civil War soldiers reveals the fighter on the left looking ahead, toward a better future.
For the three children, rural life in 1960s Mississippi did have its rewards: the warmth of homemade quilts; backyard fishing; butter beans they picked themselves.
But they were also fed a diet of the popular attitudes of the day, and they found them to be as twisted as their grandmother’s hand, marred by a stroke.
“There was a culture in rural Mississippi where it wasn’t understood that all people were the same,” Sessums said.
He saw separate bathrooms for blacks and whites, and the crumbling homes of field hands whose windows had no glass and whose children had no shoes.
In spite of what he calls the “meager setting” of his youth, it was lush compared to theirs, he said. Later, as an artist looking for subjects worth his time, he remembered them.
There is a sculpture standing in the Vicksburg National Military Park and commissioned by the National Park Service: a monument to U.S. African-American troops who fought in Vicksburg during the Civil War.
A wounded soldier, his head down, stands between the supporting arms of a fellow soldier and a field hand. The second soldier, his chin up, looks ahead, while the field hand stares back through the vacant windows of the past.
Eudora Welty was not optimistic about sculptors. She had gotten ahold of a bad one once and so was reluctant to try them again, as if they were oysters.
This is the atmosphere Sessums walked into, inside the Jackson home of one of his favorite writers – the woman whose gifts and personality he would try to distill into a chunk of bronze.
One day, in the future, he would create a free-form, multi-media portrait of her that featured a zebra skin – “because Miss Welty stands out from the herd. She’s not a quarter horse; she’s a zebra.”
On this day, the zebra was leery of being turned into a bust – until she heard about her sculptor’s medical background. As it turned out, she had once lived next-door to some medical students; she loved it when they threw parties.
As Sessums worked on the model, Welty asked him how he found enough time for his medical practice and for his art.
“I told her the art was created between pap smears,” Sessums said.
“She said, ‘That’s great. I think we should call the bust Between Paps.’”
Sessums had read her books and stories; now, they were reading each other.
It was Barnes who introduced Sessums to Welty. The physician and writer were friends.
That meeting would lead him, eventually, to North Carolina: The mother of Sessums’ pastor knew Ruth Graham and had seen Sessums’ bust of Eudora Welty. She recommended him.
Kristy Sessums was on that trip with her husband. She sat in the kitchen, visiting with Ruth, while, in another room, Billy Graham clenched his ears.
Kristy and Kim Sessums have four children and have been married for 35 years, ever since they were in college, following their romance at Forest High School.
Behind their home, in the building converted into a two-story studio, Sessums has produced some of his best-known portraits, including such home-grown sports figures as Dave “Boo” Ferris, Johnny Vaught, Bailey Howell and, most recently, Kent Hull, an All-Pro center who died two years ago.
Many of those figures reside in Jackson, in the Mississippi Sports Hall of Fame and Museum.
As Sessums worked on these pieces and others, he and Kristy would talk sometimes; she’d bring him a screwdriver or a can of paint or a dab of criticism.
“I never say I don’t like it,” she said. “I may say, ‘I don’t quite understand what it is.’ Or that it isn’t quite right. I don’t know if it helps him, but he keeps asking.”
One of her favorite pieces, “Mugwump,” is a sculpture of a man and a mule at cross purposes.
“I don’t know why I like it,” she said. “I just do.”
Sessums may have been born an artist, but medicine grew on him.
After high school, his interests in architecture and basketball led him from Mississippi State University, where he was a walk-on, and then to Belhaven College (now a university), where he was recruited to play.
His interest in making ends meet led him to hospitals. He found work as a patient transporter at the old Doctors’ Hospital in Jackson, a job that may not have paid much, but it did pay off.
“I was intimidated by the amount of knowledge needed to become a doctor,” he said. “But I became intrigued at the interaction between physicians and patients.
“I thought, ‘I can take care of people.’”
Along with his art and photography courses at Belhaven, he dived into more science classes as well. He found a job as a surgical tech, and in 1980, he found himself in medical school.
While enrolled at UMMC, he made extra money by drawing portraits and sketches. He visited art museums, read books about art. But it was on a trip to South Carolina that he became married to it.
“I was on a residency interview,” said Sessums, who finished medical school in 1984.
At the Greenville County Museum of Art he took in the world’s largest public collection of watercolors by Andrew Wyeth, who often painted subjects with their backs to the viewer.
“I can do a portrait of you and it won’t even show your face?” Sessums said.
“It had such an impact on me, I couldn’t sleep that night. I knew I was going into medicine, but I also knew I wasn’t going to give up art.”
Dedicated in February 2004 at the Vicksburg National Military Park, the nine-foot tall bronze sculpture was the first National Park Service monument to honor African-American Civil War soldiers. It commemorates the service of the 1st and 3rd Mississippi Infantry and all Mississippians of African descent who participated in the Vicksburg Campaign.
By the late 1990s Sessums’ reputation had spread at least as far as Chadds Ford, Pa.
That’s how Sessums came to be sitting in the same room with his idol, who had commissioned his own bust.
When Andrew Wyeth saw the completed sculpture – “The Road Less Traveled” – he told Sessums: “‘We’ve done it. I think we’ve really got something here. This is why I waited.’”
Wyeth died about a decade later, several years after Welty.
The ministry of Billy Graham remains as intact as the ears on his head.
Sessums’ brother Kevin is now a prominent magazine writer and editor, and the author of the book Mississippi Sissy, an account of their childhood. He lives in San Francisco.
Karole Sessums, their sister, runs a company that designs and builds websites for other companies. She has a home in Jackson but lives on the road.
Their brother found his place in Brookhaven, a town so small that no one was delivering babies when he arrived in 1988 – which is one reason he settled there.
He and his fellow resident at the time, Dr. Steve Mills, had wanted to go where they were needed. Once their Brookhaven OB-GYN Associates opened, other specialists followed.
Sessums is there to stay in spite of his fame as an artist, a fact his patients finally realized.
“I can do art anywhere,” he said.
Kristy Sessums calls it his “release valve.”
“Medicine is very stressful,” she said. “But he doesn’t have to make a living with his art, so it gives him an outlet to explore whatever he wants to.
“There is no pressure. I believe it’s an escape for him.”
What he can’t escape, in a way, is the 1960s.
“I still have a hard time getting over that,” he said. “I would like to say that in 2013 it’s changed, but I see patients who grew up in houses where no one cared if they went to college.
“I see patients who had multiple sex partners by the time they turned 15.”
If art won’t allow him to escape from his past, it can, at least, help him confront it.
Inside his studio, you can’t miss the sculpture: an amalgam of newspaper clippings about Howard Sessums, a twisted ironing board and a brilliant splash of blue color.
“Ironing things out and looking for a piece of blue sky” – this is what he calls it.