SENATOBIA, Miss. – In his obituary, John Osier, a beloved Northwest Mississippi Community College English instructor was described as “a quiet, private, common and remarkable man.” The published author of four novels and numerous short stories and magazine articles, Osier was a “household name” around Northwest for the 35 years he taught at the college.
In 1993, Osier was honored by the Senatobia Chamber of Commerce as “Higher Education Teacher of the Year.” That was also the same year an 18-year-old freshman, Jared Spears, sat in Osier’s summer creative writing class and dreamed of becoming a writer like his teacher.
Although writing was not to become Spears’ career, he drew inspiration from Osier that has helped him in not only his own teaching career at the University of Mississippi, but also in his career as an artist and sculptor.
When Spears was approached by Osier’s widow, Barbara, and asked to sculpt the monument for Osier’s grave, he jumped at the chance.
“I told her that I had known John and had admired him,” said Spears, who teaches design and drawing in the UM Department of Theatre Arts. “That made this whole project pretty special to me. Just the serendipity of it all. ”
Spears is no stranger to Northwest. He spent his first five years living on the Senatobia campus. His father, Gary Lee Spears, who served the college as registrar for many years, is in his 11th year as president of the college, and his mother, Marilyn, spent 26 years as an early childhood technology education teacher and was director of the program for many of those years.
As a child, Spears was well acquainted with renowned Northwest potter Lane Tutor, who allowed him to practice and explore art in his studio.
While at Northwest, Spears was a member of Les Fauves Art Club, a Northwest recruiter, president of the Northwest Players Club and a member of Phi Theta Kappa. He acted in several productions on the Northwest stage and also worked on the crew as well.
Spears received an Irene Ryan Acting Award nomination and a scenic design award. He was a member of the Northwest Hall of Fame, the highest honor a student can receive.
“A bunch of us kids from Senatobia High School tried to get a jump on things and took the creative writing class in the summer from Mr. Osier,” Spears said. “I just thought he was cool, and that is the only way I could have described it back then, but it was so much more than that.
“He knew his material so well and he knew how to put it out there in such a way that we could understand whatever he was trying to teach us. He was such an inspiration and had such a command of the classroom. I still do things in my classroom today that I learned from him.”
Her husband would be pleased to know that he had made a difference in some of his students’ lives, Barbara Osier said.
“Although teaching was a way to pay the bills and still have time to write, he truly enjoyed teaching and sharing his love of literature with his students,” she said.
After graduating from Northwest, Spears attended Delta State University and began studying art.
“I got a classical art education there,” Spears said. “You learned not only how to draw, but how to see. You cannot draw anything that anyone else can understand unless you can truly see the world as three-dimensional objects in light and shadow and reality. It’s a real tool that they gave me and it is something I use as a teacher today.”
Spears received his bachelor’s degree in sculpture and printmaking from DSU in 1999. In 2000 he moved to Taylor, a thriving arts community, and decided to pursue his master’s degree from Ole Miss. He earned his MFA in scenic design in 2005 and joined the full-time faculty after graduation.
A video documentary featuring Spears’ traditional stone-carving techniques is housed in the Rinzler Archives of the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for Cultural Heritage and was featured as part of the 2005 Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C.
In 2010, he and several colleagues received a Special Achievement Award from the Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters for the multimedia collaboration piece, “The Passions of Walter Anderson: A Dramatic Celebration of the Mississippi Gulf Coast Artist.”
Spears and his younger brother, Daniel, have played together in various musical groups over the past 15 or so years.
“We like to play ‘ole timey’ regional music,” Spears said. “We play music from the early 1900s with an emphasis on instrumentation – big groups with horns and strings. I play guitar and sing. We really lean toward folk, jazz and early rock and roll with an improvisational bent.”
On a visit to Taylor, Lane Tutor and his wife, Susan, visited with Spears and saw that he was sculpting a three-dimensional monument for another family. Impressed with Spears’ work, Susan Tutor mentioned the monument to Barbara Osier, who contacted Spears and asked him to consider the project.
“I think Barbara and her son, Wes, were comfortable with me and pretty much gave me carte blanche,” Spears said.
He presented his idea in drawings and maquettes to the Osiers. They liked what Spears had planned for the monument and agreed that he was the one they wanted to complete it. The sculpture took about a year to finish.
“I like the direct nature of carving stone,” Spears said. “I think I am more exacting and deliberate in my approach. I have an agenda when I start.”
For this project, Spears carved a limestone slab, which is recessed into the granite monument. The bas-relief is no more than an inch at its deepest. He worked with Mike Sanders of Batesville to create the base of the monument. He also created the lettering.
On the top of the monument is a Celtic cross.
“The reason Wes and I chose the Celtic cross was that John loved Ireland,” Barbara Osier said. “I told Jared about the cross that John bought for me in Dublin on my birthday. He took a picture of it and that is the cross on the monument. That just shows the care and thought that Jared put into this project.”
Besides representing Osier, the monument also reflects characters from his novels, Spears said.
“The figure in the foreground is John, wearing the driver’s cap he often wore in later years,” Spears said. “I think John always identified with his characters. In each of his novels, the central character always seeks refuge in an old building or a hideout in the woods.
“So it’s kind of an archetypal image of a man going on to the beyond. I wanted it to be timeless and stylized.”
Spears also used rounded forms, drawing inspiration from the Works Progress Administration’s art deco reliefs found on the old Senatobia High School Auditorium, in the monument.
The artist is working on a monument for another family and hopes to continue to carve these types of projects, but he thinks that the Osier monument will always be special because of his relationship with the family and with Northwest.
“It’s a stately looking monument that I am really proud of, and I think the family is too,” Spears said. “It is in a beautiful place in the cemetery, not far from where he lived, which I think is kind of special.”
“John loved art, and that is one reason that my son Wes and I wanted this special monument to him,” Barbara Osier said. “I feel that Jared captured John’s spirit and what he was about.”