The Incredible Journey of Horn Island: Celebrating an MCA Legacy

“It’s this precious gift of an experience that is solely unique to the MCA family. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

By Marilyn Koester, Memphis College of Art

For 35 years, Memphis College of Art (MCA) students have been following in the footsteps of American artist Walter Inglis Anderson (1903-1965) as they make a 10-day excursion to Horn Island, an uninhabited barrier island off the coast of Mississippi. This year marked the 35th, and final, Horn Island expedition for MCA.

HIHE, Cody Barnhill with Headdress contestant winner Ginger Riley (photo by Lisa Tribo)

Photos by Lisa Tribo, Don DuMont, James Carey & Others as noted

Although the closure of the college brings an end to its programs, the Horn Island excursion leaves an emotional and beautiful legacy of history, art, and memories. Horn Island’s unspoiled vistas, rich marine life, and hundreds of species of flora and fauna provided inspiration for many of Anderson’s paintings, sculptures, and writings, and have continued to inspire the work of students, alumni, faculty, and staff of MCA for decades.

Group portrait of the final group of Horn Island participants
Horn Island 35 Group Participants (photo by James Carey)

As the final year of the excursion with MCA, the trip drew alumni and artists from far and wide. The fifty-five adventurers came from cities all over the country, like Milwaukee, Santa Cruz, Chicago, and Washington D.C., and as far away as Glasgow, Scotland, to join the excursion. Some artists, like MCA alumna Megan Travis-Carr, returned to the island after years since her last Horn Island trip to experience the MCA program one last time.

Travis-Carr reminisces on what Horn Island has meant to her, and why she decided to return: “My last trip was 10 years ago for Horn Island 25 and, when I stepped back onto the island, it felt as though no time had passed. It’s this precious gift of an experience that is solely unique to the MCA family. The ever-growing community that is formed through the shared experience and love of the Horn Island trip is truly special. I’ve never experienced anything like it.”

MCA’s Horn Island program began in 1985 under the direction of Professor Emeritus Bob Riseling. Riseling recalls his long history with the island, “I first went to Horn Island in 1983 when a former student, Bill Nelson, took me to the island. I knew immediately that I wanted to have a ‘Studio L’Homme Dieu’ on Horn Island, which was a program I ran at St. Cloud University in Minnesota taking art students out of the studio and introducing them to a natural environment. In 1985, the program’s first year on the island, we started with just nine participants. We were somewhat unprepared, but survived. Since then, I have spent one hundred and seventy-two nights there and worn out eight tents.”

Horn Island base camp with a fire and tents
Horn Island Base Camp (photo by James Carey)

The regionally-recognized and accredited program is the only one that follows the journey of Walter Anderson. It has endured and flourished through the generosity of sponsorships and the Art Center, a midtown art supply store founded in 1974 that has retained a long history with MCA. Sponsors from the Memphis area and Mississippi coastal region support MCA students by helping offset the costs of their excursion, while the Art Center provides generous gift certificates for the winners of island contests. These sponsorships and donations have not only enabled more students to experience Horn Island, but they have built strong, invested ties between the program and the greater community.

In 2006, Riseling passed the director’s torch to Associate Professor Don DuMont. Having led the excursion for the past fourteen years, DuMont shares Riseling’s love for the island and its powerful beauty. “The very moment you step foot on the Horn you become transformed,” says DuMont. “Everything is raw and comes at you 100%. There are no buffers, and the island does not discriminate. It will burn you up, it will eat you up – you must surrender to its power.”

Riseling echoes the sentiment of the unpredictable nature of the remote landscape. “Days on Horn Island are an ever changing adventure,” he says. “A calm sliver-white morning may become a hot yellow-gold afternoon – or cold and gray with a north wind.”

While on the island, art comes first. Students keep a journal with daily entries of their personal experience and create island assignments, such as installation work, daily drawings, sotdae (the Korean word for a tall wooden totem with a bird on top), and, of course, the famous SPAM headdress contest in which participants make elaborate headdresses out of found objects. When not making art, the Horn Island adventurers explore the island, engage with members of both their group and other island visitors, exchange ideas, and participate in island traditions that serve as catalysts for their creativity.

Another requirement: no cell phones or mobile devices. “I believe that one must disconnect in order to reconnect. That is what the island can provide—the chance to get away from routine daily distractions, to look inward as well as outward, to focus on one’s surroundings,” says DuMont, “That’s when the creative transformation takes place.”

Alumnus, MCA Student Achievement Coordinator, and “HIHE” (Horn Island Headdress Emeritus) Cody Barnhill emphasizes DuMont’s sentiments about shutting down those devices and unplugging. “Off island life is often not in tune with the natural world. We have artificial light at night, temperature control, and a constant stream of superfluous information flowing to us through our various devices,” says Barnhill. “On Horn Island, those ties are severed and I can begin to think about my place in the world again.”

Found object assemblage of shells at Horn Island

This is perhaps the most importantoutcome of the Horn Island program. Participants don’t just create art on an island; they take a spiritual journey. “Horn Island is magic. Walter knew what was up,” says Travis-Carr. “The literal feeling and presence of Time itself feels different on the Island. It accepts you for who you are, where you are, who you were in the past, who you will be, and allows you time to reconnect with yourself, which in turn gives nutrients and attention to the inner artist.” The artists leave the island transformed, having surrendered themselves to the unique spell of Horn Island.

Students drawing in the sand at Horn Island

In karmic moments, the island seemed to bring the program full-circle in this final year. In addition to the numerous alligators on the island, one in particular came to visit. DuMont famously wrestled an alligator to remove a trap from its snout on Tuesday, June 5, 2007 (it’s not a date he will ever forget).

That same alligator with a long scar on its snout returned to share the island with this year’s participants. Later, while walking down the beach, DuMont ran into a gentle- man with his wife and grandchildren. As it turns out, that man was the captain that brought the islanders out on their very first excursion in 1985. “That is the wonderful thing about this program. It’s not contained to a classroom,” says DuMont. “There are participants from all over, especially from the coast, who have supported us with open arms.”

Photograph of an alligator coming up on a beach at Horn Island
The Return Visitor, By Amanda Nalley

As in past years, the trip concluded with a wonderful banquet at Scranton’s Restaurant in Pascagoula, MS, courtesy of Richard Chenoweth, owner and long-time Horn Island sponsor. Upon returning to the mainland, the Horn Island artists renew their creative process with vigor to create artworks inspired by their island journey. The span of artwork and the variety of media employed are impressive. Sculpture, ceramics, charcoal, paintings, digital work, and more soon cover the gallery walls at MCA for the annual, and highly anticipated, Horn Island exhibition.

Lagoon Looking West (left), By Don DuMont, and Lizard, By Stephanie Bray

In addition to college gallery exhibitions, MCA and the Horn Island program naturally have an intimate relationship with The Walter Anderson Museum of Art (WAMA) in historic Ocean Springs, Mississippi. Founded in 1991, WAMA is a nationally-accredited art museum dedicated to the preservation and celebration of Walter Anderson. This summer, visitors can experience The Sound & the Gulf: Memphis College of Art Horn Island Retrospective, on view through September 28. The impressive exhibit features thirty-four years of artwork inspired by Horn Island from MCA artists and adventurers, and will be traveling to MCA this fall from October 11 to November 3, 2019.

Prior to that exhibition, Memphians and beyond celebrate the final Horn Island exhibition of works at MCA, Horn Island 35, on view from August 19 to October 4 with a reception on Saturday, August 24 from 5:30-8:30pm in Rust Hall within Overton Park. The Reception is free and open to the public, so don’t miss your chance to try Bob and Don’s famous barbeque SPAM while exploring the engaging and varied artworks inspired by this year’s voyage.

While MCA’s annual Horn Island expedition comes to an end, the legacy of that program will endure. Decades of impressive artwork, years of stories, and memories of the connection between a beloved institution and a remote island continue. “With this year’s group being so committed and in sync to the island vibe, I expect that we will have one unbelievably creative exhibition coming this fall,” says DuMont. “I can’t wait to see what transpires. It’s been an incredible journey.” <>

Marilyn Koester is the Communications Manager & Title IX Coordinator for Memphis College of Art. The print edition of this article appears in Style section of the August Summer issue of StoryBoard Memphis. Print edition layout by Don DuMont. MCA begins its final year in service of Memphis’ arts students starting this semester, 2019.

Island Northside, by Megan Travis-Carr

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