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A portrait and magnolia painter


A portrait and magnolia painter

Painter Meliora “Ora” Newton Gibson from Crystal Springs, born November 23, 1873, the daughter of George and Mary Purdom Newton, painted wildlife backdrops, portraits and magnolias that are well known throughout Mississippi.


W.A. Purdom, her grandfather, served as Mayor of Jackson in 1859, and her Uncle Oscar Newton founded the Newton Female Institute, a school for young ladies where she received her education that was incorporated into Crystal Springs Consolidated School in the 1920s. Her mother attended the Metropolitan Art School in Philadelphia and influenced her daughter’s pursuit of painting.


At age 17, Gibson first exhibited her works, gathering everything she had drawn and painted and selling it all -- a harbinger of success that continued throughout her life.


She taught music and art for several years, teaching two other prominent Crystal Spring artists – Robert Cook and Edith Lotterhos. In 1915, she married Stuart Gibson from Crystal Springs and settled with him in Port Gibson. After her husband died in 1935, she started painting backdrops for museums with the Works Progress Administration (WPA), including the one for the bird display at Jones County Community College in 1940, and later many others for the Mississippi Wildlife Museum during the 1950s, when she worked closely with its Director, Fannye Cook, to assure the scenes captured typical poses and the natural habitat of species.


She returned to Crystal Spring to paint for many years in the Methodist parsonage on Georgetown Street after living in Jackson for some time. She was well known for her portraits, which people commissioned, and magnolias, and won many blue ribbons and prizes. She painted the portrait of Crystal Spring Senator Pat Harrison now in the collection at the Chautauqua Visitor’s Center and drew the magnolia engraved on the tray for the silver service for the Battleship Mississippi. Her best-known magnolia graced Mississippi’s Official Statistical Register (the “Blue Book”) published annually by the Secretary of State’s office. The J.T. Biggs Memorial Library at Crystal Springs and the private collection of Mr. and Mrs. Henry Carney also display her majestic magnolia paintings with vibrant hues of teal green, red and brown. Most of her paintings are in private collections.


Gibson painted into her late 80s, and died in 1954 at 90 years old.


EDITOR’S NOTE: Throughout the 2023 Copiah County Bicentennial year, Wesson News will feature sketches of past and present visual artists, musicians, authors and photographers who are natives of the county. They will be excerpted from Tricia Nelson’s reporting in A Shared History: Copiah County, Mississippi 1823-2023 edited and compiled by Paul C. Cartwright and available through Cartwright for $25 plus $5 for shipping at 3 Waverly Circle, Hattiesburg, MS 39402. Nelson is a Crystal Springs writer who contributes to the Copiah County Monitor.


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