Creating Local Black History: Tupelo artist Billy Clifton dedicates his life to painting Black people

Danny McArthur, Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal, Tupelo
·5 min read

Feb. 26—TUPELO — For 45 years, Billy Clifton has used his gift as an artist to portray Black life.

It started in 1976. Years prior, Clifton discerned he had a gift from God, but he kept running from it, he said. Once he realized he didn't have a purpose for being here, he took inventory of his own life.

"I had a conversation with God one night, and (said) that I wanted to spend the rest of my life on this planet painting my people in a positive light," Clifton said. "We had a lot of misleading information concerning Black people and the contributions that they have made, whether they credit for it or don't get credit for it."

Clifton began spending a lot of time at the Lee County Library researching people. That time would come to shape the way he paints today. In 1981, he began shooting photographs after he found a book about using a 35mm camera to produce art. He went to a pawnshop and bought a camera for $40. From there, he started taking photos around the neighborhood.

"I caught a lot of our people at their worst, as well as at their best," he said.

He spent a lot of time wandering through downtown Tupelo taking pictures of buildings, many of which he still uses in his art.

Clifton, now 68, is a self-taught artist. For many years, he would use a sketch pad before creating his paintings, but now he puts his ideas directly on a canvas.

"After all the stuff that I have seen with these eyes and have heard with these ears over the years, it is very easy for me to be able to create a piece of artwork just using my memory," Clifton said. "I like the idea of taking the imagination as far as I can take it, change gears, and take it just that much further."

Each painting begins and ends with faith. Whenever he starts a painting, Clifton asks God to bless his efforts; when he finishes, he thanks Him for giving him strength to complete the piece.

In his early days, Clifton hoped to inspire young Black people by seeing a Black man taking photographs. He used one image he took on Front Street of some people on the baseball diamond playing that day to create an art piece. The piece dearest to his heart is his painting of North Green Street.

"Back then, Black men and women had businesses up and down Green Street, and they dealt with racism times 100, but they still produced," Clifton said.

Black history is important to Clifton, and he uses his artwork to explore and pay tribute to the past. He said the local area has a lot of history people fail to realize, and it's "a real slap in the face to those that came before. Clifton uses his art as acknowledgment of Black history's deep roots. Showing its complexity and how it goes "past the plantation" is the basis of his work.

"Our history is too deep to just wrap ... in one month," Clifton said. "I cannot stress the idea enough, the passion that I have when I do my art, and the images that I work with, and the message I try to send to people that do have a chance to see my work."

Knowing and respecting Black history is important because it demands the current generation step up. Growing up in Tupelo, Clifton vividly remembers Black leaders like Palmer Foster, Steve Norwood, Pete Mosley, and Nathaniel Stone encouraging young Black men to remain on the straight and narrow. He believes it's time for another generation of Black men and women to show young people there are opportunities for them.

"It's dangerous not to want to know your history, 'cause it will make demands on you in 2021 to step up your game," Clifton said. "What you gonna do while you're here?"

Clifton briefly created the Red, Black, Green Art Association in the 80s with the goal of gathering a group of artists to host exhibits. The first exhibit, no one came, but he didn't get discouraged.

The group continued creating exhibits, and eventually people started showing up. After a few years, Clifton focused on his own efforts rather than continuing the organization.

Throughout his life, he took part in art exhibits in Memphis and across the state, including Southside Gallery in Oxford, at the Mississippi Museum of Art in Jackson and multiple exhibits at the Ida B. Wells-Barnett Museum in Holly Springs. He started with the Gumtree Art Festival, joking he had "the raggediest booth" at the festival, but didn't let that stop him from competing with everyone else.

"I got some art too," Clifton said. 'It's Black, but I got some art."

Earlier this year, Clifton received the 2021 Image Award from the Committee for King for his artistic contributions. Receiving the honor was another way of being acknowledged for 45 years of being a painter, Clifton said.

"After all the exhibits and all the people I have met over the years, I know that wouldn't have happened without the arts," Clifton said.

Sharing his art with others is a feeling he can't put a price tag on, Clifton said. He's living his dream, and his life, one brushstroke at a time.

"I never would have imagined when I picked up that paintbrush back in 1976, I would be doing this 45-something years later," Clifton said. "But I can look at my artwork and see where my time has been spent. I have a purpose for being here. I realize that, and I'm going to use it until God calls me home."