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sojourn . Itta Bena, Mississippi

Back in May as our summer plans were just starting to materialize, I knew I wanted to take some opportunities to explore. We had already planned trips to the beach and Memphis, but I was determined that we would spend at least a few days on sojourns to Mississippi places we hadn’t seen before. I felt very blessed to have the children hanging out at home while school was out, and to have the flexibility in my freelance work to “schedule in” some unscheduled time.

So, on a Wednesday in the middle of June, we picked up breakfast donuts and headed west on Highway 82. It was the first day trip in our new car, which made for excitement with the kids in checking out all the bells and whistles, and I had heard that the B.B. King Museum in Indianola was pretty cool. Even though I was born and raised in Mississippi, I really haven’t spent a lot of time in the Delta, and the kids had never been to that part of the state. I was eager to take time without an itinerary, to soak up my little ones on the journey, and to explore some of that storied part of my home state.

There’s something mesmerizing about the sudden flatness of the land as you move out of the “hills” region of Mississippi. The sprawling farm fields, the succession of small towns popping up along the way, and so many broken down structures out of time. My children have tagged along on enough adventures to know my tendency to wander down side roads and stop on various Main Streets to capture photos of historic buildings, hand painted signs, and the curious sights of the small town South. This day trip had its share of those kinds of stops!

After pizza and visiting Indianola’s homage to Riley B. King, the kids indulged me in the short right turn onto Mississippi Highway 7 in Leflore County, down to Itta Bena. We wound past fields and water towers to a small square of a downtown with a city park surrounded by half cobblestone streets and nearly vacant storefonts – no evidence of the fast food spots and quaint downtown shops found in some of the other Delta towns we saw. It was late in the day and not many businesses were open. Not many businesses were there. We saw cars gathered around a few storefronts including a small convenience store, and a few folks were gathered on benches near the park. We drove around the square several times, across the railroad tracks and through the surrounding streets, stopping to capture the “place” of the place through my camera lens, and trying not to look too conspicuous.

Itta Bena seems to share part claim to Mississippi Valley State University with its neighboring county seat, Greenwood, just twelve miles East. The community also stakes claim to the birthplace of B.B. King, technically in Berclair, three miles to the West. I learned that Itta Bena comes from a Choctaw phrase, “iti bina,” meaning “forest camp,” and was named by a state senator who relocated his plantation there and built a home in the mid 1800s. He called it “Home in the Woods.”

We didn’t see much “woods.” We’ll seek that out for the next trip, but I enjoyed the glimpses into shops and businesses gone by and what I most often seek out on these adventures – the haunting and beautiful blight common in so many rural Mississippi towns. The gutted gas station. The vacant lunch counter featuring “Southern Cuisine”. The old structures you find give a hint to entrepreneurs and business folk who once made downtowns like these thrive. So that what you see is indelibly tied to what you imagine you would have seen twenty or fifty years ago. And sometimes the make and model of parked cars blur the difference.

The bricked pavement. The railroad tracks. There always seem to be railroad tracks. Military cannons and statues in the park memorializing one conflict or another. Buildings bear the remnants of their last use, sometimes overcome by weather and decay, but still vibrant with color. Sometimes the structures are just a shell with no roof remaining, and their own rural garden of weeds growing where countertops and store shelves used to be. Mom and pop restaurants, corner convenience stores and beauty salons are often the last hold-outs of downtown commerce, displaying store windows with the current price of a six-pack or posters of the latest beauty inspiration. Churches and public buildings are well-kept, but the interesting finds are those structures with a tell-tale hodgepodge of styles revealing their changes through the years. The boarded up remnants of stained glass windows and worn plaster ornament.

And, I love the signs. In addition to the faded out brands – logos that have since been updated to meet today’s visual appeal – small towns often show great examples of hand painted signs and repurposed banners showcasing a business owner’s pride. Somebody’s initials. Somebody’s name. Somebody’s stamp on the world. The local Big Star grocery became Big Star Tobacco, and even that has since gone defunct. Warehouses and old train cars usually provide an overlapping series of letters as the sun fades one generation of signage into the one before. The past, present and a citizen’s ingenuity.

Those glimpses of a small town – like the ones we captured in Itta Bena – are interesting and layered and sad and curious and indicative of how time passes. And sometimes passes by. Looking back through the images of our drive made me wonder what I keep trying to capture. When I seek out these broken and aged views of the small, worn South. I think maybe they are a glimpse of the greater challenges we have in our state. The wrestling of past and present, of sustaining opportunity, of growing and overcoming, of how we clean up our messes. Of capturing the moment in time. Or letting it go. All told, we spent less than an hour on our drive down to Itta Bena. That’s not enough time to know the place. Not enough to see what’s really gone and what remains. Not enough to see what might be emerging.

sojourn . Old Salem School

Very often while I’m working in my studio, I think about this historic brick structure. It’s the “Old Salem School” off Highway 14 in Noxubee County, and I think of it because the work table I’ve made a habit of painting and block printing on came from the school. Mr. Cotton, the caretaker from the Noxubee County Historical Society, is a long-time family friend, and he gave the kids and me permission to go inside the very dilapidated building last summer. For years, every time we drove by it on the way to Busy Bee, I said I wanted to go inside and see the space. Last summer, we finally did it.

One reason the school is very interesting to me is that my grandfather went to elementary school there in the early 1920s. Not long ago, we were looking through an old lockbox from my grandmother’s house and found his diploma from Salem Consolidated School, promoting him to high school on April 17, 1925. The school is one of the earliest remaining public schools in Noxubee County, and was officially confirmed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1990.

The structure is basically a four room school house in a dog-trot type plan, with stairs in the center hallway and two large rooms on each side of both stories. On one side the rooms have been divided into smaller spaces connected through a series of doorways. My mother said that during some of the years the building was in use, one side was used as housing for teachers or caretakers.

Upstairs on the east side, the remnants of a corner stage area are still there, and as a child, my mom remembers going to community Christmas suppers held in the room with entertainment and even a visit from Santa Claus on the stage. After the building was no longer used as a school, it became sort of a community center available to the Salem community, including Salem Methodist Church and Concord Baptist Church. From the looks of the chalkboard we found inside, Sunday School classes and church meetings were sometimes held there, and my mom remembers going to birthday parties on the property as well.

During our visit, layers of peeling paint and cracked wall plaster revealed the bones of the building, and the aging patina of old chimney pipes, metal ceiling panels and cornices. And although it is in very severe disrepair, we could still see the remnants of wooden bead board chair rails, shiplap walls, movable classroom panels, and even the brass nameplates of families who donated money to install windows and other features. You can see from the angles in the shiplap photo below, that the building is just on the edge of being structurally sound. I’m afraid it may not last much longer, and I’m very glad we were able to visit when we did. It was interesting to see my children explore the space and to imagine someone going to school there. I hope I was able to impart to them the importance of historic buildings and remembering their significance to a community, especially as they listened to their grandmother talk about her own memories there.

After our visit, I nearly begged Mr. Cotton to allow me to rescue two of the last pieces of movable furniture I found there before they were overtaken with weather and falling down ceiling materials. Mom and I loaded an old six-foot wooden table into Dad’s pick-up along with a large chalkboard that was made to hang on sliding panels in the school classrooms. Underneath the graffiti writing of other explorers, the chalkboard still had names on a list titled “To-Day’s Record”, where Sunday School member attendance and offerings were recorded during years when the building was still in use. We brought the table home, cleaned decades of dust and insect friends from it, and added a little reinforcement to the legs to accommodate printmaking duties. It has become a treasured part of my daily studio activities, inspired by the knot holes and rusted nails as reminders of the heritage I imagine happened there. One of this summer’s projects will be to restore the chalkboard to hang in our entryway, and in the repainting, I plan to replicate that Sunday School secretary’s hand-writing as we create a space to document our own “To-Day’s Record.”

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sojourn . Best of Busy Bee Summer 2017

As I posted last week, summertime for my crew has meant indulging in the season’s “lazy, hazy” reputation and taking advantage of some unscheduled down time. We started our summer vacation with a week at our farm house in Noxubee County, Mississippi. We spend a few weeks there each year, and one of them usually serves as our summer kick-off.

I love that when we visit the farm, we each have favorite places and experiences we want to enjoy. Whether it’s walking dirt roads, exploring pastures, climbing favorite trees or making a bonfire, I’m so happy that my children are learning this place in the same way I did as a child. Even though I’ve been to the farm countless times, it seems like every visit I see something new. This trip, it was a white wild rose that has popped up around some of the fence rows. (I brought some cuttings back to see if I can get it to grow in my backyard.) Because we’ve had kind of a wet start to the summer, the greens of the trees and the pastures seemed unusually green, and tons of wild blackberries were already starting to ripen. This trip, we took the time to clean up around some of our favorite “climbing trees” and we added some wood footholds to one of them with the help of our longtime family friend, Mr. Clarence. Of course, I brought along my camera. I’ve already posted about my search for toadstools, but I wanted to share a few more of my favorite photo captures…

 

found . Toad Stools and Fairy Baths

We spent last week at Busy Bee, enjoying farm wanderings. It was very rainy, which kept us inside much of the time, but we had a few opportunities to explore pastures and shady roads. With all the water, mushrooms were growing everywhere! Searches under the overgrown trees brought all kinds of glistening shapes and colors popping out from the leftover leaves from last winter. Many were still holding water from the rains, and I couldn’t help but imagine fairy baths and frog tea parties going on in these magical shapes. Here’s a collection of some of our finds. I need to look them up to see the official names, but for now, I’m too busy thinking of fairies and toads.

sojourn . Starting Spring at Busy Bee

March is coming to a close with all its fickle Southern tendencies! For a month that always ushers in the Spring season, this year’s has sure given us the full spectrum of Mississippi seasons from winter freezes to summer heat. My children were out of school for Spring Break a few weeks ago, and we were able to spend the week at Busy Bee, our family farmhouse in Noxubee County. I always enjoy taking time there to unwind, enjoy unstructured family time, and get my fix of pasture walking and breathing in country air. This year, our Spring Break weather included some cold and rainy days, but we made the most of it, squeezing in at least a few of our favorite farm adventures.

I don’t know if it’s because of the burst of warmer weather we had early in 2017, but I can hardly remember a time at Busy Bee when the pre-Spring days were SO green! Although we had some freezing temperatures, the pasture carpet was full of new life. In these early Spring days, the green seems the most lush before summer’s heat has the chance to tire it out. Of course, I always have my camera with me, and it was fun to capture a few glimpses of how Spring on the farm cracks through the more stark color and contrast of winter. For us, it was a week of seeing two seasons at once, sometimes in the same frame. I came home with renewed energy and excitement for the ideas I’ve wanted to tackle this year.

go . Starting Christmas Vacation in Memphis

Merry Christmas! I hope you have all had as wonderful a Christmas celebration as we have. We are visiting with family and enjoying some down time — and for me, some time away from project work. I’m spending son little time thinking through ideas for 2017 and making plans for where I want to put my focus in the coming year.

This December, we were very excited to visit Memphis again to kick off our Christmas vacation! We spent the first few days of our holiday back in the 901 to catch a production of “Annie” at The Orpheum theater. It’s been a couple of years since we’ve been to Memphis during the holiday season, and it was fun to be there again this year. Weather for the trip was kind of typical for the South in that the first two days were warm, humid and rainy, and the last two were frigid! So, we were not able to visit some of our old favorite spots. However, we still did at least a little walking downtown, taking in the Christmas lights, enjoying the historic Orpheum, and visiting the Memphis Zoo for the annual Zoo Lights celebration. That zoo visit assure me that the fisherprice code a pillar I purchased will be a hit with the kids. We always love breakfast at the Blue Plate Cafe next to Court Square. It’s just a couple of blocks from our hotel in the historic William Len building. They serve breakfast all day, so my favorite french toast is always available. Also, the rain did not stop the hide-and-seek game in Court Square the kids play each time we stay downtown.

This trip, we also discovered a new little cupcakery next to Court Square, Cupcake Cutie, Etc, where you can build your own cupcake — choose your cake type, icing flavor and toppings! It’s been open about four months, and we’re definitely adding it to our list of favorite spots for our next visit. Here’s a glimpse at some of our views from this trip. Enjoy!

sojourn . Summer Days at the Farm

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[so many greens]

My oldest has been talking about memories a lot lately – not necessarily specific ones, but more the concept of having them. And how they’re associated with places. Busy Bee, as we call our family farm land, is one of those places that has instilled memories for me, and it’s always been my goal for my children to have them there as well. We’ve set aside weeks to spend at the farmhouse each year to help build those memories, and it was neat for me to realize again this summer that the memories are taking hold.

We usually take a week of farm fun around Memorial Day to kick off our summer vacation. This year, as we were driving on the gravel road leading to our property, Travis noticed the typical cows in the fields. They are almost always black ones like the ones my dad used to keep. Now my uncle keeps a similar breed on our property. I think what caught Travis’ attention was the unusual red cow in the field. After pointing it out, he commented that it wasn’t like the ones on “our farm.” And then, “See Mommy, we have memories here.” It was a small and unselfconscious declaration taking ownership of one of our places and experiences. And it brought a smile to my face. What joy to have my children enjoy some of the same experiences and build some of the same memories I had as a child!

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[fairy stages?]

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[growing wild all over, but not quite ripe]

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[trumpet vine, somehow this has made it to my yard over the last year]

We spent the week enjoying more of our favorite farm adventures… walking the gravel roads, throwing rocks in the creek, noticing a thousand greens, digging through fallen trees, exploring the woods, finding old animal bones, the tree bench, gathering sticks for a bonfire, s’mores, driving to the “back back” and checking out fences, rocking on the deck, picnics by the barn, discovering blackberries, cooling off with a dvd marathon, sleeping late, and lots of conversations. I try to document our journey with photos and sometimes paintings. This trip, I painted most days on the deck each day, and the kids joined me a couple of times. Maybe that will become another tradition.

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[found cow bones now repurposed to dig in a tree stump]

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[does anyone else see a fish?]

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[my grandmother’s fig tree still producing]

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[old milk barn window with vines]

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[Elisha’s tiger]

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[Maggie’s sun]

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farmpainting6 [Memorial Day 2016]

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go . Memphis in June

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Memphis has become one of “our” places. It feels like we’ve visited it enough that we don’t feel like tourists, but more like friends coming to town again. It’s only a couple of hours from Starkville, and I love seeing productions in the Broadway Series at The Orpheum. So, over the last couple of years, we’ve visited the city a couple of times each year, and my children have begun to call it their own. They’re starting to know their way around Downtown, and they each have their own experiences they look forward to — restaurants, stores, museums, the park. I feel very blessed to have the opportunity to enjoy their excitement about their own experiences of a place!

Earlier this month, we went to Memphis again to see The Wizard of Oz (amazing!), and it was our first time to visit during the summer months. Our last trip was in January, so it was a real treat to see flowering trees and so much green on Main Street where we like to stay. The weather was that Southern summertime mix of sweltering heat and billowing clouds that brought a couple of quick thunderstorms in between plenty of sunshine.

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We enjoyed walking to dinner at the kids’ favorites, Aldo’s Pizza Pies with its plates of dough, and Huey’s with the challenge of shooting your toothpick into the ceiling tiles. We also tried Bayou Bar & Grill in midtown in Overton Square on our way out of town, and it did not disappoint! This trip, we had time for our first visit to the Fire Museum of Memphis, which is located in the old Fire Station No. 1 Downtown. It has a fun mix of Fire Department artifacts, photos, trucks and equipment, as well as some neat interactive exhibits the kids really enjoyed — especially the rescue simulation driving the fire truck through Downtown streets!

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We usually stay at the Marriott Residence Inn, which is located in the old William Len Hotel, built in 1927. In addition to some great Art Deco details, the hotel includes a nice rooftop space for views of Downtown landmarks (and the occasional game of hide-n-seek). For some reason, my children always request one evening just to play in our hotel suite with delivery from Aldo’s and Westy’s, and an evening thunderstorm provided the perfect opportunity this trip.

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So much of these experiences with my kids inspire me. All the shapes and colors of a more metropolitan downtown. And mostly their reactions to everything – when they make me laugh out loud, when they embrace each moment and make the little things fun. I’ve been going through lots of photos from our Memphis adventures, and I want to share a few more posts of some of the themes that are popping out – our latest views of Beale and The Orpheum, the amazing public art that’s everywhere, the architectural details from the era of early high-rises, a couple of other unique experiences I’m just now remembering. Stay tuned!

 

go . Sightseeing Beale

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Last weekend, we visited Memphis to see the amazing Broadway musical, Matilda! I would highly recommend this award-winning production if you have a chance to see it. While we were in town, we had a lot of fun in our favorite downtown activities, and this visit, we also did a little sightseeing on Beale Street — soaking up the sights and colors of one of Memphis’ iconic destinations. Baby Girl got her air guitar on, and we took in the cacophony of signs, neon, letters and curiosities. A new favorite Memphis activity was definitely added to the list for future trips! Enjoy a few of the sights…

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go . Dinner in Restored Gulf Port

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I’ve been organizing some photographs lately, and it’s been a nice little inspirational escape in what has been a pretty busy Fall season. Between photos from our trip through the Gulf Coast this summer and the crazy number I took during our visit to Memphis last weekend, I am awash in some of the semi-local sights! I’m planning to share several posts over the next couple of weeks with some of my favorite memories, places to see, and happy accidents, so I hope you’ll stay tuned. And, let me know your favorite spots in some of these Southern towns!

While we were in Gulf Port, Mississippi this summer, it was very nice to get to walk around some of their restored downtown for dinner one evening. The area won several 2015 Mississippi Main Street awards, and of course, I enjoyed snapping a few of the details. Many of the old buildings remained vacant after the devastation of Katrina, and it was really neat to see the area coming back to life. As I’ve written, this was our first trip to the Coast since Katrina, and the resilience of Mississippians there is so, so evident in all the rebuilding that’s been accomplished. As difficult as it was to see so much changed, I suppose that change and the new things happening were also the most encouraging as well.

We were in Gulf Port in July and had dinner at the Half Shell Oyster House, located in the historic Kremer Building. We happened to be there on the Fourth, and we were able to watch fireworks being launched from the beach while we waited for our table and explored the corner of 13th and Highway 49. We got to see a few of the building details, revitalized street lighting, tree plantings and brick work, and the awesome corner neon sign — a wonderful vintage throwback. Inside, the restaurant had a great French Quarter look with brick walls, two levels, wrought iron and a colorful mural. The kids enjoyed drawing the wrought iron patterns on our table covering, and everyone found a favorite to eat. My favorite was the Bacon and Pecan Crusted Redfish topped with orange beurre blanc — the best meal of the 10-day trip! Enjoy a few glimpses, and be sure to try it out when you’re in the Gulf Port area…

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