By Jacqueline Knirnschild
In 1948, a farm boy from Clinton, Mississippi stood on the Gulf Coast with his parents, stared out at the expanse of ocean and asked, “what is a ‘gulf’ and what is ‘Mexico’?”
“I couldn’t comprehend it,” artist Randy Hayes recalls. “Why were they pointing at this water? Then they told me that there was a country over there.” Roughly 70 years later, Hayes still has that same innate curiosity in the world around him as shown in his latest exhibit, Unwritten Memoir, a collection of paintings, photographs, books and other items collected from or inspired by his adventures abroad and experiences in Mississippi. The exhibition is on display through December 9, 2017, at the University of Mississippi Museum in Oxford.
Hayes is not only consumed by wanderlust; he has an eye for uncovering and capturing enchanting details everywhere he goes utilizing a unique technique of painting on top of photographs. This process results in art that is both multifaceted and powerful. “The photographs become my memory, rather than where I ate or what bus I was on,” Hayes says. “It’s more about the people I was coming in contact with and the visual things I was seeing.”
Over the years, Hayes has maintained an archive of all his photographs, often allowing them to sit for a while before using them to construct either a primary image serving as the main focus of a work or what Hayes calls the “subtext,” a gridded arrangement of images placed underneath the primary work. “Some things I can’t get out of my mind, they stay with me and I’ll know I’ll probably deal with them someday, I’m just waiting for the right moment,” Hayes says. “Turkish Eclipse” is an example of this style. Ten years ago, Hayes photographed a solar eclipse in a little Turkish town on the west coast, but only this year did he feel the need to turn that memory into a painted work. Underneath the painting of café-goers peering up at the sky through their phones, black-and-white photographs of Turkish shops, beaches, columns and statues are push-pinned together side-by-side to create a realistic multidimensional that shines light on human connectivity in moments of wonder.
Hayes’s initial inspiration for his trademark paint-over-photo method came from looking at contact sheets that contain smaller images of all the photograph from a roll of film. “Just from the film, I began to see a narrative, a story” Hayes said. “Then I would paint on top of that story.”
As a young child, long before Hayes developed his artistic style, his father would bring souvenirs home from the second World War that only further intensified Hayes’s yearning for the exotic. A little Ngulu figurine from Micronesia that particularly enthralled Hayes was incorporated into Unwritten Memoir. “To me – to a little four year old kid – I was like ‘what is this?’,” Hayes said, pointing to his photograph of the nude golden brown male Ngulu figurine standing confidently, arms on hips, framed by black-and-white photographs of Micronesian villagers on the beach with Navy soldiers.
The first time Hayes saw the Ngulu figurine as a child, he was confused and intrigued at the same time. “It made me realize there’s a whole world out there and I really need to see it,” Hayes said. After graduating from Tupelo High School, that is exactly what Hayes did. He hopped on a freighter heading across the Atlantic to spend a year hitchhiking through Europe. “It hadn’t been invented yet – but I knew I needed a gap year.”
Before he left, however, Hayes’s mother told him he had to say goodbye to his concerned grandmother. “I went to tell my grandmother goodbye and she said, ‘Randy, no Hayes have been back to Europe since we came over, there’s no need to go – you’re where you need to be’ but I said, ‘No, I got to go’,” Hayes recalls. Since then, Hayes has been to approximately 25 countries including Kenya, Mongolia, India and Japan.
During his travels, instead of buying the trinkets on sale, Hayes often surprises vendors by asking to buy an object that they are wearing or using, a few of which are included in Unwritten Memoir. “There is a woman in the desert in India who had some needlework she was trying to sell me but I asked if I could buy the tunic she had on,” Hayes said, gesturing to an image titled “Tunic/Rann of Kutch, Gujarat, India,” included in an in-progress book of photographs, Recollection Workbook. “I wanted something worn – when it got torn she would mend it and I liked all of that – rather than a new piece of cloth.’
Hayes is able to capture such visual richness because he “travels to look.” He refers to his compact 50mm Lumix camera as his ‘eye’ because “that’s how we see,” he said. “We don’t see with a wide angle or a long lens.” This approach to photography speaks to Hayes’s strong interest in “active looking”. “Often, the act of looking can become circular,” Hayes says, as shown in his 2011 painting “Kyoto Views,” which portrays a man in a light blue-striped shirt taking a photo of a woman dressed in a kimono during a festival. In the corner of the piece, there is a 100-year-old photograph of a woman holding an umbrella that Hayes found at a flea market.
“In Japan, artists often use a flashback print within another print,” Hayes says, “and I started picking up on that.”
In fact, Hayes enjoyed Japan so much – specifically the Gion district of Kyoto – that he dedicated an entire room of the Unwritten Memoir exhibit to Japanese-inspired works. “There’s a big festival in June in Kyoto and it’s just like Mississippi – it’s 100 degrees, there’s thunderstorms and the people are quite courteous like most Mississippians,” Hayes said. “So I thought, ‘Oh, I’m very comfortable here’.”
Even though Hayes is drawn to Mississippi and recently moved into a cozy farmhouse studio in Holly Springs, he is far from finished exploring and plans to travel to Morocco in the next year or so.
Jacqueline Knirnschild is an artist who travels to look, capture, understand and recreate.