Ferris was born in Vicksburg, Mississippi, in 1942, grew up on a farm outside town, and began documenting his friends and community at an early age. Between the fifties and the late seventies, he captured—in photographs and on tape and film—the stories, the songs and music, and the spirit of Southern culture during Jim Crow and the fight for civil rights: among his subjects are musicians James “Son Ford” Thomas, Sonny Boy Watson, Lovey Williams, and Fannie Bell Chapman, and the writers Barry Hannah, Alex Haley, Alice Walker, and Robert Penn Warren. Best known as a folklorist, Ferris founded, with the filmmaker Judy Peiser, the Center for Southern Folklore, in Memphis, in 1972; in 1979, he became the founding director of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi, where he taught for nearly two decades. In 1989, he coedited the Pulitzer Prize–nominated Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and, in 1997, was named chair of the National Endowment of the Humanities.
But in 1977, Ferris had the famous Southern writer Eudora Welty on 16mm. And not only Welty, but three other Mississippi artists: Pecolia Warner, a quilter in Yazoo City; Ethel Mohamed, an embroiderer in Belzoni; and Theora Hamblett, a painter in Oxford. Ferris put these four portraits together in the twenty-four-minute film Four Women Artists. Before she was a fiction writer, Welty was a journalist and photographer. “I would see something I thought was self-explanatory of the life I saw,” she says of the images she produced, before reading a portion of her story “Why I Live at the P.O.,” from 1941, in which Welty uses spoken word to drive the narrative. That story was inspired by one of her own photographs, of a woman ironing behind a post office. (“Not that it isn’t the next to smallest P.O. in the entire state of Mississippi,” the story’s narrator complains.)
The film’s other women confirm Welty’s introductory claims: that telling tales, through oral and visual culture, is a way of elaborating on and sharing knowledge, experience, and pleasure.