MALCOLM WHITE: Mississippi nourishes artful spirit

By Malcolm White

Mississippi’s artistic heritage has grown strong and vibrant from the culturally rich soil of our great state. The music genres of the blues, bluegrass, gospel, country and rock and roll were all cultivated right here in Mississippi. In 2009, Gov. Haley Barbour embraced the mantra that our great state is the “Birthplace of America’s Music.” When visitors cruise into Mississippi from one of our neighboring states, they are greeted by big, green signs denoting the land ahead as the home of magnolias and music.
The Mississippi Blues Trail, and now the Country Music Trail, are helping put Mississippi on the national map of cultural and heritage tourism, and any visitor, or local for that matter, would be remiss to think that the only art form Mississippi mothers is music.
She’s also mother to the Rev. H.D. Dennis, who until recent years lived with his wife, Margaret, on Old Highway 61 outside of Vicksburg in a modest home turned “castle,” known to most as Margaret’s Grocery. Passersby might see him building a tower from cinderblocks and Styrofoam or catch a glimpse of Miss Margaret in her housecoat, painting posts pink and freshening plastic flowers planted in the yard. If they stopped, they’d be welcomed, “both Jews and gentiles,” into the school bus turned sanctuary, where the overwhelming beauty of Rev. Dennis’ folk art creation, as well as the conviction in his impromptu oration, might move them to visit again. Or in today’s case, provoke them to get involved in the effort to save this one-of-a-kind cultural gem.
Mississippi is mother to Elayne Goodman, a self-taught folk artist from Columbus who has a passion for pop culture. Her meticulously beaded, painted and quilted creations transform ordinary objects into highly sought after artwork. Hollywood stars like Nicolas Cage and Julia Roberts are collectors of her work, and if you dig up the November 1990 issue of Rolling Stone, you’ll find Elayne’s “Altar to Elvis” emblazoned in its pages. While Elayne has an international fan base, she is perfectly, happily at home in Lowndes County where she traverses yard sales and junk stores on the weekends, in search of the next perfect piece to transform.
Mississippi is mother to kibbie and cornbread, sitting side by side on the same menu at the Resthaven Restaurant in Clarksdale. The Chamoun family shares recipes, stories, tall tales and history with the customers, family and friends who pass through the doors at this highway side cafe. In the kitchen, three generations have learned and perfected the art of rolling grape leaves, whipping meringue and seasoning tabouli.
There is something in the water and soil here in Mississippi that nourishes the creative spirit of the people. While we might not always identify our friends and neighbors as artists, I’m certain that we all have someone in our life who cooks the perfect cheese grits, smocks baby clothes for the newborns, carves decoys for the mantle or weaves the bottoms of chairs. These talents are not taught in school (but perhaps they should be); they are passed on from the generations before and conjured by the sheer need for beauty in our everyday lives.
During this season, why not celebrate and be thankful for the folk and traditional artists in your family or community to ensure that Mississippi remains mother to many native art forms and expressions.

Malcolm White, a former Booneville resident, is executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission. Contact him at 501 North West Street, Suite 1101A Woolfolk Building, Jackson, MS 39201 or mwhite@arts.state.ms.us.