Perhaps because he is self-admittedly “nosey,” perhaps because he spent so many years working in a field outside of his true passion for art, attorney-turned-artist Cecil Humphreys has a fascination for artists’ studios, for the types of spaces they choose to inhabit and the ways they organize these spaces to facilitate their creations.
“Whenever I’m looking at a book about artists, if there are pictures of their studio in there I’ve always been fascinated and just studied the pictures,” Humphreys said. “The things you can learn from looking at their studios. You can learn about their techniques, about how they practice their craft.”
Now Humphreys has given his interest a focus with the publication of Memphis Studios: A Visual Tour. With photographs by esteemed local photographer Murray Riss and interviews by Humphreys, the coffee table book captures in stunning detail the workspaces and habits of 29 of the region’s top visual artists.
Artists featured in the book are: Dale and Brin Baucum, Tootsie Bell, Yvonne Bobo, Jim Buchman, Nancy Chearis, Maysey Craddock, Tim Crowder, Carol DeForest, Wayne Edge, Beth Edwards, Brantley Elzey, Catherine Erb, Joyce Gingold, Pinkney Herbert, George Hunt, Andrea and Larry Lugar, John McIntire, Annabelle Meachum, Lester Merriweather, Carl E. Moore, Greely Myatt, Veda Reed, Jeanne Seagle, Dolph Smith, Carroll Todd, Tad Lauritzen Wright, and Humphreys.
The book was released in November just in time for the holidays.
“It was one of the most popular local books of the holiday season,” said Eddie Burton, general manager of the bookstore Novel, where he estimates they have sold more than 150 copies. “Our customers would come in and ask for it by name.”
Humphreys’ own studio is tucked away discretely — almost hidden — along a busy stretch of Highland Avenue in the University District, between the Goodwill store and Discount Muffler and Brake. Originally built as an icehouse, the garage-like commercial building was home to the AAA Safe & Lock Company when Humphreys bought it nearly 13 years ago.
Humphreys grew up in the University District. He is the son of the late University of Memphis president Cecil C. Humphreys, Sr., namesake, among other things, of the law school from which the younger Humphreys graduated. The family lived in the school’s old president’s house at the corner of Patterson and Walker avenues and as a child young Humphreys would regularly hike down to the Highland Strip to buy comic books at the drug store. Even as an adult Humphreys doesn't live far from the district where his family has had real estate since the ’60s.
For a decade, Humphreys worked to transform the old AAA space into a studio. When he retired three years ago from Memphis firm Glankler Brown after more than three decades of practicing law, it became his new full-time office. Now he keeps regular hours designing, casting, welding, and shipping the distinctive decorative bronze bowls and fixtures that have made him one of Memphis’ most respected artists. With a small courtyard and plenty of storage for works like the giant planters that will soon dot the intersection of Highland and Walker as part of the University Neighborhoods Development Corporation’s TIF-funded street improvements project, it is a large, rambling space where the artist labors alone save for an elusive rat that recently invaded.
“I can’t ever imagine leaving here,” said Humphreys, who has emerged in recent years as a driving force behind the UNDC, where he currently sits on the board. “It will probably eventually get filled up, but for now I have more room than I need.”
To one side of his studio in a large room reserved for welding sits the last pallet of copies of Memphis Studios. The book’s path to fruition was a long one. For years it existed only in Humphreys' head, but as he saw more and more Mid-South artists die, he became more committed to documenting the creative lives of the ones who remained.
“There are a lot of artists who have died in the past 10, 15 years that it would be nice to go back and look at how they worked and what their studios were like,” said Humphreys. “I thought it was important to capture images for a lot of older artists in the city who might not be around 10 years from now.”
Humphreys contacted noted Memphis photographer Murray Riss, who immediately saw the value in the project and signed on.
“It struck me as a great idea because I thought of it as a form of history that we were recording,” said Riss.
The pair quickly agreed to feature a dozen of the area art scene’s éminences grises like painter Veda Reed and painter/bookmaker Dolph Smith and then supplemented that list with younger established artists like Pinkney Herbert and Maysey Craddock, whose careers reflect not just the wide variety of visual arts in Memphis but also the diversity of workspaces.
“The book was never intended in any way to reflect who I thought were the best or my favorite artists,” said Humphreys. “It was about the spaces.”
Predictably, most of the artists lived and worked in Midtown Memphis, long the hub of the city’s arts scene. But the project also took the pair Downtown; to East Memphis; Eads, Tennessee; West Memphis, Arkansas; and rural West Tennessee.
Some of the spaces surprised them. When visiting esteemed multimedia artist Tim Crowder, who in manner and work would seem a model of nonconformity, Humphreys was bewildered to find himself in a very unassuming suburban cove.
“I never would have expected this from him; he seemed like a Midtown guy,” said Humphreys. “But he had a very, very deep backyard, and sunk in the very back of this yard, surrounded by bamboo, was this studio that seemed of a different time and place.”
Once they gained entry, Humphreys and Riss were struck by the generosity of all the artists.
“It was amazing to me that from one artist to another they were so open,” said Riss. “These are private spaces. That’s their inner sanctum. That’s where they do their private thinking, their private creating, their private expressing. And they let us in there — me with my camera — and they let me take my pictures and ask questions that on most other occasions would be imposing or breaking certain limits of decency.”
With the book finally on shelves, Humphreys is hopeful that the project of documenting local artists’ studios is not over. The original idea was to make this an ongoing archival project overseen by the Memphis College of Art, with any money raised by the book going to help shore up that flagging institution. But with news that MCA, where both Humphreys and Riss sit on the board of trustees, is closing in 2020, the future of the project is up in the air.
Memphis Studios actually underlines how missed that institution will be. Almost every artist in the book, which is dedicated to the “faculty, staff, students, and supporters” of MCA, has some sort of connection to the 83-year-old college.
“I don’t think most people have realized how much it has contributed to the city,” said Humphreys. “I think the true value of the college is only going to be recognized after its gone.”
But despite this looming loss, Humphreys says the experience of creating this book actually gave him guarded faith in the future of the arts scene in Memphis.
“I think the local arts scene is really strong,” said Humphreys, pointing to things like a seemingly inexhaustible stock of affordable spaces ready to be turned into studios. “That’s been a big factor, but I think the biggest factor is there are a lot of artists who were educated here who stayed here. When that is limited by the removal of probably the major art program in the city, I don’t know how that will sustain itself.”