RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON: Next Van Gogh from Tishomingo County

Louise Bonds discovered a sweet spot on the Tennessee River where she’d often go with her husband to look for rocks. She didn’t find ordinary rocks, but smooth stones that evolved into sleeping tigers, Siamese cats, schoolhouses – all manner of meticulously detailed, painted critters and structures.

Rocks are not her only canvas. Louise paints on paper, tiles and gourds with water colors, acrylics and oils. She paints lilacs and Indians and trains and whatever moves her or doesn’t move, almost anything but portraits.

“I’ve wanted to paint since I was a child, but we didn’t have the money to pursue something like that,” she said.

As an adult, about 25 years ago, she took half a dozen art lessons and wet a brush. She hasn’t stopped painting since.

My Mississippi Hill Country county of Tishomingo has many dedicated people like Louise, working away at their respective art or craft, the end result never seen by others. We are not known here for our fancy galleries and guilds, symphony orchestras or fine bookstores.

That doesn’t mean there’s not talent.

Not so long ago, Joyce Park, an Iuka salon owner, took a trip to the Gulf Coast, the opposite end of the state, polar opposite in many ways. She spent her holiday wandering through the small galleries and creative shops that line the streets of Ocean Springs, Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian.

She brought home a painting, a pot and an idea. Unlike most of us, Joyce doesn’t go off and get inspired, then get over it. She doesn’t talk an idea to death. She plunges heart-first into whatever idea motivates her.

Joyce took out an ad in the local newspaper. She invited area artists, writers, musicians and crafts people to bring their goods to a small space in her Hairport salon that once was a children’s party room, Maggie Doodle’s, named for her granddaughter Maggie.

Then she waited.

First came the crocheted baby blankets and bonnets, smartly stitched aprons and bibs. Then the floodgates opened. Peggy Roach brought in intricate German scissor art called “scherenschnitte.” Who could have expected that?

Stan Plaxico arrived with beautiful wooden toys that he guarantees for a lifetime. Chuck Clark brought his gospel CDs. Now there are birdhouses and dog soap and whimsical wooden cabin art and local photographs. There are prints of

Tishomingo County landmarks by the late artist Chris Hoover. There are books and hot-pink doll furniture. There are lots of paintings by Louise Bonds.

Nothing made in China here. Nothing mass-produced. People like to buy locally produced fruits and vegetables. Why not birthday and wedding gifts?

Maggie Doodle’s now has a higher calling. Joyce Park has a kaleidoscopic gallery that changes daily and already is bursting at the seams. Local artisans have a place to display and sell their wares.

And Louise Bonds finally has paintings hanging in a real, if diminutive, gallery. “That makes me feel so good after all this work.”

RHETA GRIMSLEY JOHNSON is a syndicated columnist who livces near Iuka. Peacher her at Iuka, MS 38852. To find out more about Rheta Grimsley Johnson and her books, visit www.rhetagrimsleyjohnsonbooks.com.