Art had always been a part of Lawson King’s life.
His grandmother, Marcella Small, was a longtime ceramics instructor at Delta State University, and even as a young child moving through the Indianola public schools, he found a deep connection with the arts.
A career in it, however, didn’t seem to be in the cards early on.
“As a kid, I never really thought I could be an artist,” King said. “In school, we didn’t have art classes, and I didn’t know very many artists, other than my grandmother.”
Today King is one of 42 artists who are presenting in the 2021 Mississippi Invitational at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson.
King’s journey to this stage, however, wasn’t an easy one.
At the age of 3, King lost his father, an Indianola police officer named Lawrence (Larry) King, to murder at the hands of one of his fellow officers, Michael Taylor.
The 1994 shooting left King and his two siblings without a father.
Taylor is still serving a life sentence for the shooting, without the possibility of parole.
King proved to be a resilient child, often using art as an outlet, but without accessible formal classes, exhibitions and galleries at his disposal, he didn’t consider pursuing it as a vocation.
After his tenth-grade year at Gentry High School, King applied and was accepted to the Mississippi School for Math & Science in Columbus.
“Then I started taking art classes at MSMS, and that was a lot of fun,” he said. “I really enjoyed it, but I still didn’t take it seriously, because all my friends were kind of smart. They were going to be engineers and economists and make a bunch of money. So, my brain was like, how do I make money? And it wasn’t art.”
King eventually took a degree in psychology from the University of Mississippi, but when he began applying for graduate school, he realized this was not the field of work that was going to make him happy.
Soon after, King’s grandmother was teaching art classes through Delta Arts Alliance in Cleveland, and when she fell ill, she asked him to fill in on her behalf.
When King started to teach elementary school kids art, he knew he had found his passion.
“That experience kind of reinvigorated the creativity and the inspiration part,” King said.
King would eventually enroll as an art student at Delta State, working under sculpture professor Michael Stanley.
“I didn’t know what kind of sculpture I wanted to make, but I wanted to do sculpture,” King said.
On September 14, 2015, King was in the Fielding L. Wright Arts Center at DSU when he and several other students started receiving text messages stating there was an active shooter on campus.
In what would become a national news story, police confirmed that a fellow DSU professor arrived on campus that Monday morning and shot and killed history professor Dr. Ethan Schmidt in Jobe Hall, which was right next door to the arts building.
“We found out there was a person, so we had to go on lockdown,” King said. “All of the people in that building were locked into one room for about six hours. There were police with guns everywhere, police with AR-15s. There were all these rumors about second shooters at the high school, rumors about hostages, rumors about the shooter moving around. There were an incredible amount of ridiculous rumors that weren’t true. It was just really scary, really heavy, just sitting in that room, thinking, ‘Is this shooter going to come in here? What are we going to do if the shooter comes in here?’ It was very surreal. It was a massive weight, a heavy cloud, right in that room with us.”
King said the event itself warranted an artistic response, but the more research he did on Schmidt, the more he felt a connection to him and his family.
After discovering Schmidt was an expert on native American history, King decided that his sculpture would be a broken arrow, a sign of peace.
But there would be more to connect King with Schmidt.
“As I’m creating this piece, and I’m researching Ethan, I realized that I taught with his wife,” King said. “She was a kindergarten teacher at Pearman, I believe, where I would teach art to the kids… That made me even more attached to the work, and then I found out that he had three young children.”
King was reminded that he and his two siblings had been left without a father because of gun violence two decades prior.
“He had three young kids, and now these kids are growing up without a dad, and I just felt even more connected to the family, even though they had no idea what I was doing on my own,” he said.
The piece King called Broken Arrow would eventually be called “Ethan” by Schmidt’s family, he said.
“It’s really powerful to me to know that his family calls the sculpture Ethan, and this thing I was compelled to make has given these people some peace and some kind of closure. It’s incredible to me,” he said.
The 12-foot steel and rope sculpture was added to the Hazel and Jimmy Sanders Sculpture Garden, a public art display along Sharpe Avenue in Cleveland, and has since been installed permanently outside of Jobe Hall.
King was the inaugural recipient of the Matthews-Sanders Sculpture Garden Fellowship, which funded the fabrication of his BFA thesis works, which were steel sculptures that were put on exhibition in Mississippi, Michigan and Indiana.
Since Broken Arrow, King has become passionate about public art, which he says can be beneficial in art deserts like the Delta.
“By putting art in public places, anybody can come as they are and as they please, and they don’t have to feel intimidated, and they can have whatever experience they want to have,” King said.
Starting on August 14 and running until November 7, King’s artistic works will be on display at the Mississippi Museum of Art, along with 41 other contemporary artists working in the state.
The work he is displaying in Jackson features a hand with a balloon.
“It is a symbol for anybody reaching for something or letting something go,” King said. “To me, that kind of represents the life condition or the human condition of decision making, day-to-day relationships or decisions. Do you want to hang on to this thing or let it go?”
Aside from his upcoming stint at the museum, King is currently producing art in Clarksdale as part of the Coahoma Collaborative.
He also received an Artist Fellowship Award from Mississippi Arts Commission.
This follows a two-year study under Detroit-based sculpture artist Ray Katz.
As far his long-term future is concerned, King is keeping an open mind.
“I’m here for a little bit,” he said. “I’m not sure what my next steps are. I trust the process.”
King will make his Mississippi Invitational debut on Aug. 14, and he will participate in a panel discussion that morning at 10 a.m., exploring the themes of the exhibition: resilience, reckoning and reflection.