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Archive for rural places

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 . Summer Farm Views

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The children and I are spending this week at the farm to celebrate the start of summer vacation. It’s a great excuse to enjoy some down time, play time with the kids, exploring, and good times free sketching and painting.

We were last here in March when the scenery was just beginning to show signs of spring. Now, we seem to see green in various hues peeking through every possible crevice, and the pastures look almost completely full of growth. This trip, I brought my Canon SLR, and I took a short walk to capture some of the scenes after we arrived. I loved these views of the “nail hole constellations” in the tractor shed walls. In a dark, shadowed space, the tiniest pin hole of light just seems to grow and vibrate.

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summer of water . Tuesday 060314

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I call this one Cow-ish 🙂
Happy Tuesday from the farm!

summer of water . friday 053014

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The kids and I are spending the next week at the farm with my parents for a change of scenery and a kick-off to summer vacation, so I’ll be posting paintings from here for a few days. We arrived late this afternoon when the sky had some gray clouds rolling in. But, that was only the weather — no reflection on our disposition.

We’re somewhat roughing it in the tech department at the farm – just using data plans for internet connection (and a personal hot spot for work pinches. At home, I’ve been scanning the paintings so you can see the more crisp and uniform color. Here, I’m relying on photos with farmhouse lighting, but you’ll get the idea.

I’m not sure how we’ll feel about art time over the weekend, and I’m not holding myself to the daily painting on Saturday & Sunday. We’ll see how the days go for the next Summer of Water installment,

Farm Days

Friday is here, and we’re all getting excited. Today, we’re heading back to the farm for the week of spring break. We haven’t been there since Thanksgiving, and I’m looking forward to seeing the changing light and landscape, and hopefully a little Spring in bloom. I was looking back at a few photos from our last visit. I hope I can share some of the same views next week!

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photo essay . Icy Puddles

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We’ve had a few milder Spring-like days this week — the typical January indecisiveness of Mississippi weather. It’s been fun to go out without coats, but we are anticipating the return of the cold tonight. Below-freezing temps had me thinking back to some icy walks we took during our Thanksgiving farm trip, and some photos I never shared. What began as an alert that “there’s GLASS on the road!!” ended with some chilly fun looking at the patterns water makes as it freezes. (And of course, the sound it makes as we break it!)  Winter has its own frosty beauty, even for those of us in the Deep South. Happy Wednesday!

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log . Farm Journey One

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I think I mentioned that we are spending the week at our family farmhouse for Thanksgiving holidays. I’ve taken care of a few client details remotely this week, but for the most part I’m enjoying some down time and concentrated time with my kiddos. I brought a few arts and crafts projects that we’ve been enjoying, like the stamping designs I shared yesterday — a good thing because we’ve had a few rainy, cold days. Still, not much can keep us from exploring gravel roads and hay yards while we’re here, so I thought I’d share part one of views from our farm journeys. Overcast November days make for a nicely monochromatic palette, at times. I love the mood that flat light and neutral colors create. I hope you’ve have a chance to wander this week.

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I experimented with some “plein air” watercolor yesterday while the kids played tag at the farm hay yard. Kind of a fun way to capture this 3 x 5″ memory.

log . Wood, Stone and Water

As I mentioned a few posts ago, we are at our family farm house in Noxubee County for spring break. We’ve been enjoying some great weather and time together. Through our outdoor escapades, the kids have decided to curate a “science exhibit” of interesting finds. The finds have been interesting, indeed, and the process of collecting them even more inspiring for me. I thought I’d share a little documentation of our pasture journeys in search of water, wood & stone. Our “finding” has including walking, jumping, climbing, painting, building, talking about family history, playing impromptu instruments, searching, laughing, discovering… Fun times! I hope you have the chance to do some of the same this week
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