Pellissippi State Foundation receives civil rights-themed art donation

When Herb Rieth traveled the highways of Mississippi in 2005, he was doing so as an art teacher and as a son. Rieth was at that time serving as an art instructor in Starkville, and he frequently made the 150-mile drive to Coldwater in order to visit his mother and stepfather.

Seven years later, Reith, now an art instructor at Pellissippi State Community College, has donated a mixed-media fabric piece to the school through the Pellissippi State Foundation that was inspired by those drives.

“Savage from the Outside: An Ode to Mose Wright” is 110 inches by 119 inches.  It was created by Rieth to pay homage both to Mose Wright, the great-uncle of Emmett Till, and to the struggles for civil rights that took place in communities across Mississippi.

The August 1955 death of the 14-year-old Till and the murder trial that followed one month later served as catalysts for the emerging Civil Rights Movement.

A famous photograph of Wright testifying during the trial in Sumner—taken by photographer Ernest Withers despite a judge’s orders prohibiting photographs—shows Till’s great-uncle pointing as he identifies a defendant in court. Wright’s testimony was believed to be the first instance of a black person’s testifying against a white defendant in a Mississippi courtroom.

Rieth’s art combines history and his own firsthand impressions of the Mississippi landscape. During his visits to Coldwater, he encountered the nearby community of Savage. Rieth knew the history of the Till events, yet he was struck by the geography of the Mississippi Delta region and the area’s role as the setting for strife and, eventually, monumental change.

“Savage is just a bump in the road,” said Rieth. “That area’s flatness is only broken by running tufts of large live oaks and cottonwood trees that serve as windbreaks.

“The roads border decaying towns that lay like broken shells of a great postwar American culture. The sharp contrast in geography that I saw while driving brought home the rupture in culture that riveted the country during that hot summer 50 years before. That was the inspiration for ‘Savage from the Outside.’”

Rieth decided to donate the piece to the Pellissippi State Foundation on behalf of the college, and it is now displayed in the McWherter Building on the Hardin Valley Campus. Students, faculty, staff and visitors can enjoy the art as both a beautiful addition to the facility and as an ode to the personal stories that helped shape the Civil Rights Movement.

This is not the first time the Foundation has received an art donation. Ed Harmon, a Blount County native and art collector, gave the school 20 paintings and prints. The pieces represent the works of local artists who focus on the landscapes of the Appalachian region.

An anonymous donor also gifted five pieces of art for the Library at the Blount County Campus. Donations to the college are coordinated by the Foundation, which works to support programs that directly impact students.

“Part of our mission is to provide opportunities for life, civic and cultural enrichment,” said Peggy Wilson. “We appreciate Herb Rieth’s willingness to share his beautiful and meaningful art with the entire community, and the Foundation would certainly encourage others to contact us regarding such gifts.” Wilson is executive director of the Pellissippi State Foundation, as well as vice president of College Advancement.

To discuss the possibility of making a donation, call the Foundation at (865) 694-6528 or email foundation@pstcc.edu.

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