Striking Mural by ‘Founding Father’ of Mississippi College’s Art Department Returns Home
Before he had become an internationally celebrated artist, before he was first called the “Founding Father” of the Mississippi College Art Department, even before he had completed his first professional commission, Samuel Gore was a paperboy.
Delivering the news in the Van Winkle area of Jackson on his way to school, Gore’s first customers each morning were Dr. and Mrs. Hardie Hays, Sr. The kindly couple made an impression on the young student whenever he came by to collect for the newspaper. Gore and members of the Van Winkle Baptist Church shared fellowship with the Hays’ family and other local Methodists until they constructed their own building on land donated by Dr. and Mrs. Hays – the Van Winkle United Methodist Church.
Many years later, church leaders commissioned an art student to paint a large mural to be displayed in the Methodist church. Tragically, the student died, and Gore was asked to produce the painting in his stead.
By now a revered faculty member at MC, Gore ordered a large canvas, obtained permission to set up in Provine Chapel, and spent a year working on the enormous 8-by-16-foot oil painting using students from the Holy Land as models. He completed the striking mural in 1954, entitled “Christ the Great Physician,” which hung in the church sanctuary for nearly seven decades. At the time, Gore told a reporter the painting was done in memory of “one of the guiding spirits in the founding of the (Van Winkle United Methodist) church” – Dr. Hardie Hays.
“I look back and still see myself as Dr. Hays’ paperboy and the active community at Van Winkle and active Scout troop doing good turns and hiring out to cut lawns and sack groceries on Saturday,” Gore wrote years later to Deborah Hays Bryant, former first lady of Mississippi and the Hays’ granddaughter. “Dr. And Mrs. Hays always had a paper to get caught up on before going to work.”
“Dad researched diligently and put his heart into every work he did here, wanting to be accurate artistically, historically, and Biblically,” said Gore’s daughter, Dr. Judy Gearhart, an MC graduate, artist, and former University of Mississippi Medical Center professor. “When he painted or sculpted, he prayed. He prayed for those that would view the work, and prayed for the story to continue to be told.
“This is his legacy through his art on campus.”
On Easter Sunday 2023, the Van Winkle United Methodist Church had its final service, so Gore’s masterpiece wound up where it had originated – back at Mississippi College, which was just as the late artistic genius had intended, according to his daughter.
“Dad hoped that if the time came for Van Winkle Methodist Church to move or close, that it could find a permanent home somewhere on the campus of Mississippi College,” Gearhart said. “He was very sensitive to the church’s local ministry and its intent to have the painting be a part of their worship experience as long as possible. He discussed his wishes with the church years ago.”
Randy Jolly, instructor in the Department of Art at MC and Gore Galleries director, said it was important for the Christian University to honor the legendary Art Department chair’s wishes.
“Dr. Gore had always wanted it on campus,” Jolly said. “We had worked with the church and the donors of the painting for several years and finalized the gift last spring. We are grateful to all who worked on this project.”
“Dad had been so worried about potential damage to the painting when or if it was ever moved,” Gearhart said. “The Art Department and Campus Operations did an amazing job and would have made Dad proud.”
The mural now welcomes visitors at the entrance to the Baptist HealthPlex at MC, a stunning reminder to all who enter the sliding glass doors of the premier health and fitness center that Jesus Christ is truly the greatest physician.
“When I see those on the ‘Christ the Great Physician’ painting, I think of Christ’s healing others physically and spiritually,” Gearhart said. “But I also believe Dad put forth a challenge in his works. This one challenges us to follow Christ as a healing force in the world.”
It’s a sentiment that makes the piece’s placement in the Baptist HealthPlex all the more effective, Jolly said.
“The committee chose this spot because we felt it was an appropriate building since it houses many of our medical-related classes and is the theme of this piece,” he said. “I love how the work greets our visitors to the HealthPlex and is a testament to MC’s strong Christian faith.
“Since this piece has been placed, we have had more visitors to the (Gore) Galleries. They have been very complimentary of the painting and always relate to the strength of the message. I have been stopped several times in Clinton and asked about the painting, always receiving compliments on how it impacts the visitors.”
Jolly said plans call for a bronze plaque relating the unique history of the work to be posted alongside the painting in the HealthPlex.
“I am thrilled with this work and that MC has this treasure in our collection,” he said.
Gearhart said she is pleased that her father’s work will continue to be shared with others after the Van Winkle church has closed.
“I understand that Van Winkle United Methodist Church has played a significant role in the lives of many, including the families of Governor and Mrs. Phil Bryant,” Gearhart wrote in a letter to congregational leaders she recently unearthed. “I’ve learned that the grandparents of the First Lady of Mississippi, Mrs. Deborah Bryant, donated the land on which the church was built. My father has a passion for the mission of his artwork, and he sincerely hopes that Van Winkle UMC will have the longevity to enjoy and be inspired by the painting for years to come.
“I think this is one of the works of which my father is proudest because of its history and connection with the (Van Winkle) congregation.”