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In the weary posture of a grandmother picking cotton, Leo McGee sees the shoulders of a giant.

But not everyone feels the pride that wells up inside him when he looks at his collection, "Cotton in My Hands," more than 100 paintings and prints chronicling the work African American men, women and children sweated out in Southern cotton fields.
Where he sees ancestors carrying success to children born long after their labors have ceased, others see a part of history they would prefer to ignore, even erase.

"I've turned down offers to show the collection because there's risk in viewing it in isolation," said McGee, TTU vice president of academic affairs and a professor of education. "Most reactions would be negative if there were no historical perspective or personal feelings expressed."

Personal feelings rising to the surface drew McGee to the first picture he bought in 1982 from an art exhibition near Knoxville's World's Fair site. Embarrassment, shame, anger and grief burst to the surface as he looked at stereotypical images. But a warm sense of pride and joy jostled its way past the bad feelings, eventually taking their place. 

"The worse job to have in the South in those times wasn't ditch digging, it was cotton picking," he said. "And I began to see the most emotional and influential images of my own life reflected in the people. Grandmothers, mothers, children -- all working for their very existence."

McGee wasn't sure he was ready to share this breakthrough, and he wasn't sure others would be ready or willing to appreciate the images. Maybe not even his family. So he hid the painting from his wife, Gloria, until he could find the appropriate time and way to talk about hanging it in their home. 

"I don't remember my response to the first one, but I do remember the first time I felt a connection with the images," said Gloria McGee, a professor of curriculum and instruction who works with young children. "It was of a child sleeping on a cotton sack in the field, and her features were not exaggerated as ones you see in many prints."

Visitors to their home have given mixed reviews of some of the art displayed. Most are complimentary or neutral; a few, including a relative, have taken offense.

McGee's smile reveals the growing comfort he feels with his memories and his stance on displaying the art. 

"It's maturity on my part, I suppose," he said. "I've even started calling the upcoming exhibit our 'coming out' party."

The McGees point out that it is significant the gallery exhibition take place on Tennessee Tech's campus.

"A college campus is the place to entertain and discuss differences in thoughts and attitudes about art and issues," said McGee. "Tennessee Tech has been such a large part of our lives, and this show opens another chapter to our experiences here."

Even now he wonders if saying a few more words will bring him to tears of remembrance. 

"Everything I learned about discipline, hard work, focus, caring, honesty, dependability -- all that came from those fields," he said. 

"To those students who have come and gone with great accomplishments and great opportunities ahead of them," he said, "I want to stand up and say 'You are standing on the shoulders of giants.'"

"Cotton in My Hands" will open Feb. 5 in the Joan Derryberry Art Gallery in Tennessee Tech's Roaden University Center and will run through Feb. 28. The McGees will give a gallery talk at 11 a.m. and a slide lecture at 3:30 p.m. in the RUC's Alumni Lounge.