Many viewers of the “Famous Faces and Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement” exhibit at Square Beans Coffee in Collierville assume Elizabeth Scism is African-American.
The woman who drew the portraits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Ida B. Wells, Malcolm X and about 20 mostly African-American subjects is a 40-year-old white woman who teaches English and creative writing at Collierville High School.
“In a way it’s good to see that you don’t have to be African-American to be interested in these stories that go with these faces,” Scism said.
A native of Bennettsville, S. C., Scism began drawing as a child. “My mother’s got a photograph of me sitting down getting ready to trace Raggedy Ann so that I could re-color it the way I wanted to.”
Her drawing of rock star Jim Morrison was the first portrait she did that she liked. “One of the big draws is whether or not someone’s got an attractive face. Jim Morrison does. He’s got a beautiful mouth, beautiful eyes, great hair.”
She did the portrait from a Rolling Stone magazine photo. “The great classic pose where he’s got his arms out. It’s from that photo shoot. He’s just looking all pouty and cute.”
Scism did a drawing of Elvis, but she didn’t like it. “It was so bad I ripped it up and threw it in the trash. It was horrible. It was the young Elvis and he ended up looking like that vampire kid on ‘The Munsters’. A cross between Elvis and whatever that kid’s name was. Eddie.”
She got kicked out art class at the University of South Carolina for drawing a picture of Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing in mid-air instead of paying attention to her teacher.
Scism got her undergraduate degree in English from Wofford College in Spartanburg, S. C.
In the early ‘90s she moved to Memphis, where she got her master of fine arts from Memphis State University, now University of Memphis.
She stopped drawing while in graduate school. That continued after she got her job in 1996 at Collierville High School. “You can’t really be a teacher and have a whole lot of hobbies going. At least not an English teacher.”
A photo of Emmett Till from The Commercial Appeal sparked her interest in drawing again after 15 years. The contrast of Till’s green eyes and dark lashes was one of the things that captivated her.
And, she said, “I don’t think I’d ever drawn a black person before Emmett.”
Scism decided to do a Civil Rights Movement exhibit, but she wanted to include people who weren’t as well known as King. “I went to the library and went to the section on Civil Rights and went from there.”
Her subjects include Henry “Box” Brown. “He mailed himself to freedom. With the help of an Abolitionist, he put himself in a box, mailed himself to Philadelphia and that’s how he escaped slavery.”
One of the most haunting pictures is of young Virgil Ware. “Virgil was killed the same day as the four girls in the Birmingham church bombing. He was riding the handlebars of his brother’s bike.”
Ware was shot “for no reason” by a young white Eagle Scout.
Claudette Colvin “refused to give up her (bus) seat nine months before Rosa Parks and I’d never heard of her.”
Not all Scism’s subjects are African-American. Abraham Lincoln and John Brown are included. Another, Viola Liuzzo, was a white woman who worked in the Civil Rights Movement. She was killed in a Ku Klux Klan shooting while giving African-Americans a ride in her car after a march.
Most of Scism’s subjects share a common feature. “Determination. I think they’re all determined people.”
“Famous Faces and Unsung Heroes of the Civil Rights Movement” at Square Beans Coffee at 103 Center in Collierville through Feb. 27. A “Meet the Artist” reception will be held from 5 to 6 p.m. Saturday Feb. 20.