The Tupelo Elvis Experience

Between semesters, my wife and I went to Tupelo, Mississippi to visit some friends who are about to move abroad for a few years. I didn’t know anything about Tupelo before planning the trip. I had to look the place up on a map just to figure out where it is. Tupelo isn’t a large or bustling city. According to the town’s Wikipedia entry, it has “a population of 37,559, with the surrounding counties of Lee, Pontotoc and Itawamba supporting a population of 146,131.” It’s a one traffic-light kind of place. It did have a mall and a Barnes & Noble, which was nice. What surprised me most, though, was when I saw a sign directing people to the birthplace of Elvis Presley. I was thinking, ‘Wow! Elvis was born here?‘ I’d just always assumed he was from Memphis, probably because that’s where he became famous.

Anyhow, we didn’t go to Tupelo to see Elvis; we were there to spend time with our friends, so when I saw the sign for the location, I didn’t mention it. But, when they suggested we stop by Elvis’ birthplace one evening, my wife and I were happy to agree. I mean, why not? It’ll probably be the one and only time we’ll ever see the place. I can’t imagine ever having a reason to be back in Tupelo. Not that it’s a bad place to be, but travel is expensive and there are plenty of places to visit in the world.

Replica of the 1939 green Plymouth sedan that carried Elvis' family to Memphis.
Replica of the 1939 green Plymouth sedan that carried Elvis’ family to Memphis.

The first thing we saw when we pulled up at the Elvis birthplace site was an old car sitting out front. On closer inspection, it turned out to be a replica of the 1939 Plymouth sedan that the Presley family drove when they left Tupelo for Memphis, which is where Elvis became famous.

House Elvis Presley was born in.
House Elvis Presley was born in.

Also close to the parking lot is the actual house where Elvis was born. It was in good shape. The only odd thing about it was the large air conditioning unit hooked up to the back of it. I’m pretty sure they didn’t have one of those when Elvis was growing up!

The house is surrounded by a “Walk of Life” which is a rounded set of paving stones with important years and events noted. Since it circles the house, I was humming the Lion King tune, “Circle of Life” to myself while looking at it. It’s pretty informative. I was surprised to find out that Elvis had a twin brother who was stillborn and that his father had spent some time in jail.

Elvis' Birthplace
Elvis’ Birthplace

The grounds are fairly nice. They’re certainly well-maintained, which is understandable. I imagine a lot of revenue enters Tupelo because of its connection to Elvis Presley.

Fountain at Elvis' birthplace with key dates.
Fountain at Elvis’ birthplace with key dates.

This fountain had plaques inset into the walls showing key dates in Elvis’ life, including his birth, move to Memphis and death.

Grove of trees around a statue of 13 year old Elvis Presley
Grove of trees around a statue of 13 year old Elvis Presley
Statue of Elvis at 13 years old.
Statue of Elvis at 13 years old.

In a grove of trees a bronze statue was set up of Elvis when he was 13 years old.

Assembly of God church that Elvis attended as a child.
Assembly of God church that Elvis attended as a child.

The Assembly of God church that Elvis attended as a child was moved to the location, so visitors could see the where Elvis received some of his inspiration. Other plaques set up around the area mentioned that Elvis was inspired by African-American music and rhythms. He was born poor, so he spent most of his time on the “wrong” side of the tracks where the poor African-Americans lived. The area was referred to as Shake Rag.

When we visited the site, the museum was already closed, so we didn’t get to look around inside. The Elvis Presley memorial chapel was also closed. I thought that was interesting, that a chapel was included at a museum. You don’t see religion mixed with much of anything these days. It was probably justified by the large influence that gospel music played in producing Elvis’ style.

We did get to look in the outhouse, but inside the door there was a plexiglass shield, probably to keep people from actually sitting down and relieving themselves.

Tupelo, Mississippi City Hall
Tupelo, Mississippi City Hall

Elvis is a pretty big deal in Tupelo, so he isn’t just represented at his birthplace; he also has a bronze statue in front of City Hall. The statue replicates a photo taken by Roger Marshutz (shown below) during Elvis’ 1956 homecoming concert.

Bronze statue of Elvis in front of Tupelo City Hall
Bronze statue of Elvis in front of Tupelo City Hall
Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi October 26, 1956 © 1978 Roger Marshutz
Elvis Presley in Tupelo, Mississippi October 26, 1956 © 1978 Roger Marshutz

I’m not the biggest Elvis fan. I don’t have a favorite Elvis song and I can’t remember the last time I looked up Elvis music online. Still, he’s an American classic and his music is still good. I don’t think I’ll suddenly become a die-hard Elvis fan, but I think I’ll spend some more time listening to his music and I’ll maybe even understand it better, now that I have an idea of where he came from.

The Andy Monument at Union Square

The Andy Monument at Union Square, Manhattan, New York City.

Andy Warhol, born Andrew Warhola, Jr., was an American painter, printmaker and filmmaker and a leading figure in the pop art movement.  His monument stands at the Northwest corner of Union Square outside Petco.  I’m not going to pretend to know anything about Andy Warhol, but his wikipedia entry says one of his paintings sold for 100 million dollars, so it has to be pretty good stuff.  I can’t say I like the statue though, or the building that sits adjacent to Union Square on Broadway that I was told he designed.  If you’re wondering, the bag in his hand says, “medium brown bag,” which is a reference to Bloomingdales.  Their shopping bags are brown paper bags that have ‘big’, ‘medium’ and I think ‘small’ “brown bag” printed on the sides.

“The Three-Headed Male Figure”—African Art (Kuyu)

You may remember last week I posted about the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s bizarre laptop policy.  This post is about the reason I was there.  I had to write an essay for my 100 level Art History class on either a Greek, Indian, Egyptian or Sub-Saharan African sculpture from the museum.  You’ll notice in the instructions below that it says we could write about paintings or architecture, but the professor told us to stick with sculptures in class.  It’s not a traditional essay, since there’s no real opening or closing paragraph, but these are the instructions we were given:

The paper (1 – 2 pages) should consist of four paragraphs.  It should be as follows:

Paragraph 1:  Identify the work briefly but adequately.  Start by stating that “the paper will be discussing the formal aspects and the museum presentation of the following piece”, then give the title of the work, name of artist if known –if unknown write anonymous—medium, country of origin and date.  Mention where it is located in the museum.

Paragraph 2:  Describe the work by writing a complete formal analysis.  In looking at the form you will consider the various aspects of form that are discussed in class, such as:  materials, size, texture, kind of shapes and lines, colors, light…etc.  A person who is not familiar with the pieces should get a clear idea of how they look through your description.

Paragraph 3:  Consider how the piece is exhibited (displayed).  That would include, the approximate size of the gallery (room), kind of light used in the gallery, the case where the piece is exhibited; if a painting, the way it is hung.  Mention the other objects in the room and their effect on your chosen piece.   In case you are working on an architectural piece such as a room, it will be within a larger gallery, consider its relation with its surroundings and what is displayed within it.  Do you think the display effects [sic] the piece and the visitor’s experience negatively or positively?  Explain.  If you were the curator, would you change the exhibit (display)? Yes, no, why?

Paragraph 4:  Suppose you’d like to do research on the piece.  What questions would you like to answer?  Write down any question for which an answer can’t be found by just looking at the piece.

So, those are the guidelines I was given to write this paper, and this is what I came up with:


Three-Headed Male Figure: Formal Aspects and Museum Presentation

The paper will be discussing the formal aspects and the museum presentation of the following piece: “Three-Headed Male Figure”. The work is a 19th century wood and pigment statue by an anonymous artist from the Kuyu peoples in the Congo Basin area of what is now the Republic of the Congo. The work is located on the ground floor of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in Manhattan, New York, in room 352 of the “Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” section.

The “Three-Headed Male Figure” is a free-standing, carved wood statue of a partially nude male figure. The statue is cylindrical and appears to be carved from one solid piece of wood. The figure is standing upright, in an erect, rigid posture. The statue’s feet are large and rounded, extending backward from the rear of the leg as far as they do forward. The legs are cylindrical and smooth and are disproportionately short compared to the rest of the body. The lower portions of the legs are covered by sets of raised carved wood lines that resemble simple torques. The arms are narrow and are carved flat against the torso, which is highly cylindrical and lacking in natural definition. The front and back of the torso are covered with an assortment of geometric patterns, as are the upper portions of the legs. A toggle shaped pattern covering the upper legs circles the whole form, but leaves the genitalia exposed in the front. The geometric patterns across the abdomen are mostly rounded, with shapes that include circles, curved lines similar to hills, and beaded areas which are also clustered in circles. The rear of the torso is covered in one pattern of lines with points that extend downward on each side of the spine. The patterns are carved from the same wood as the rest of the statue and are raised from the surface, in relief. They are carved deep enough to provide areas of shadow in the pattern, depending on how it is positioned in relation to a light source. The head of the statue is oblong and taller than natural. The cheeks and foreheads are covered with carved decorations. The features of the faces are carved deeply, with hard, strong lines. The faces are arranged so that one is pointed forward and the other two are angled backwards just behind each shoulder, with no gap between each face. Large portions of the statue were originally covered in white and red pigments. Some of those pigments still remain on the tops of the geometric designs on the upper legs and torso, as well as on portions of the faces.

The statue is positioned in a medium sized gallery room, which is filled with other African art pieces. The pieces are all contained in glass display cases which, in most cases, allow for viewing from all four sides. There are no external windows in the gallery and all of the lighting is artificial. Compared to the Greek and Roman gallery, the lighting is dim, with most of the light being focused on the individual pieces. The lower lighting in the room and the focus of the light sources on the pieces invites the viewer to more seriously consider the artwork on display. The positioning of the lighting also allows for the geometric patterns on the pieces to have areas of shadow, which adds to the viewing experience and gives the pieces more depth, emphasizing the three dimensional aspect of the sculptures. The “Three-Headed Male Figure” is positioned in the center of the rear portion of the room, in its own glass case, with multiple light sources illuminating the statue’s three faces. In addition to focusing the viewer’s attention on the pieces, the artificial lighting in the room protects the wood of the art pieces from sun damage and reduces the damage that could be done to the remaining pigments. The gallery the “Three-Headed Male Figure” is positioned in gives it context. The room is quiet, and the spotlight-style lighting greatly adds to the enjoyment of the viewing experience. The smaller pieces, which are grouped together in large display cases, are well positioned, but to improve the overall experience of viewing the sculptures and other large items in the room, benches could be added, so viewers could sit and reflect.

To better appreciate the “Three-Headed Male Figure”, it would be helpful to have a more thorough understanding of the piece’s background and use. African art is functional, so without understanding what it was used for, you can’t truly understand the significance of the art. To further that understanding, research into the traditions and culture of the Kuyu peoples, and other native peoples in the area, could lend insight into what the sculpture was used for. It would also be interesting to know who in the society made the piece: a professional, a priest, a family member, or the person (or persons) for whom the piece was intended to be used. Besides knowing how it was made and what it was used for, it would also be helpful to know how it was originally displayed in the community and whether or not the people that used it interacted with it, or if it was only viewed. Lastly, it would be worthwhile to find out if similar statues are still used by the native peoples of the region, or if the practice has died out completely.


The paper wound up being 2.5 pages, double spaced and in a 12 point font, which was also required.  The paper hasn’t been graded yet, but when it has, I’ll add that to the new “Essays (Graded)” page I added to this blog, which can be accessed from the tab bar under the header.

And now, the moment you’ve possibly been waiting for.  What does this “Three-Headed Male Figure” actually look like?  (Click on the images to see larger versions).

There’s a lot of fascinating stuff to look at in the Met, and I’m very much looking forward to my next trip there, where I can simply look and enjoy, without having to consider how to write a paper about the sculptures, though I think I will be able to appreciate them more, now that I have a better understanding of how these items are made and what they were used for.


Pegashoes, an artistic recreation of Pegasus using the soles of shoes.

This artfully rendered version of Pegasus, the mythological flying horse, was created by students (I imagine the art majors) from the University of Santo Tomas and is on display in Gateway mall in Cubao, Manila.

I thought it would be fitting to post this today, as a scheduled post, since I’ll be flying myself, likely somewhere above Alaska or the nearby Pacific Ocean when this goes live.

Fare the well, Philippines.  I’ll write a longer post about my final impressions of the Philippines later.