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Art part of the fabric, future of South Mississippi communities

As Coast residents were busy rebuilding homes, businesses and lives during the past three years, art was not forgotten. Always an integral part of the area, art galleries and museums re-opened and artists resumed creating their work. Art was even used on the new Bay St. Louis and Biloxi-Ocean Springs bridges as important symbols to the area’s rich artistic heritage.

An artistic support organization, The Arts, Hancock County, was instrumental in getting artists working soon after the storm. Gwen Impson, the group’s immediate past president, says the organization restructured and formed the goals of helping find artists who had been displaced, finding venues for them to exhibit their work and helping them sell their work.

‘Working again’

“We collected $50,000 worth of supplies and distributed them first to our members and them to artists all along the Coast,” she said. “We wanted to get them working again.”

As for venues, shows were arranged in far flung places including New York and Washington, D.C., where some artists sold 50 to 60 percent of their pieces. Impson says that’s unheard of in a one-month show.

“A spin off is that the artists became known outside this area,” she said. “It was a case of turning lemons into lemonade and building on the arts community that we had. Art is coming back strong. Remember, the artists lost their homes, too, and studios.”

She says The Arts, Hancock County is pleased with the public art incorporated into the new Bay St. Louis bridge. The group worked with the Mississippi Department of Transportation to secure 10 brass art pieces for the bridge’s pedestrian pathway. They were made by local sculptor Greg Moran from recovered brass bearing plates of the Biloxi-Ocean Springs Bridge and will be used on both of the Coast’s new bridges.

As a member of the Bay St. Louis bridge design team, Marty Wilson, a Gulfport marine artist, did the artwork that’s used on the bridge’s pylons. “It was an honor to be involved in that project, and I was flattered to be asked to be the artist,” he says. “Art is so very important to the Coast.”

For inspiration, Wilson considered the two towns united by the bridge. He endeavored to capture the flavor of Bay St. Louis and Pass Christian with typical scenes including wildlife, boats and the tradition of fishing passed down in families.

“We were looking for something aesthetically pleasing and something to make people feel good crossing the bridge,” he said. “People are thankful they don’t have just an interstate slab leading into their towns, and that makes me feel good.”

Wilson and his mother, Jacqueline Wilson, have owned Art FX Gallery in Gulfport for 13 years.

‘Hunger for artistic work’

The Ohr-O’Keefe Museum in Biloxi was beginning the construction of a new museum on U.S. 90 when Katrina struck destroying the progress that had been made. The museum, home to works of famous potter George Ohr, lost its old location in the Biloxi Municipal Library building, too. It is temporarily located in the city-owned Swetman House at 1596 Glenn Swetman Drive. Ohr pottery is on display and the small museum is open seven days a week.

“The good news is that we’ve started rebuilding our new campus, including three of the five Frank Geary-designed buildings,” executive director Marge Gowdy said. “We hope to open in late 2010. The Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center will open on September 29. It replaces the historic Pleasant Reed House that we lost.”

The Ohr pottery is also being shown in traveling exhibits inside and outside the state.

“Attendance is steady at the temporary museum with visitors coming from all over,” Gowdy said. “There’s a real hunger for artistic work here.”

The Walter Anderson Museum in Ocean Springs is popular with locals and visitors too. “We’re doing pretty well and reaching out as much as possible to new audiences,” Executive Director Gayle Petty-Johnson said. “We have three major exhibits going around the country.”

A Community Development Block Grant of $100,000 from the state for tourism revitalization is being used to market the traveling exhibits. The shows are doing a good job of attracting new audiences to the work of Anderson.

At the Ocean Springs museum, attendance is up 35% over the previous year, and the month of July had a whopping 50% increase over July of last year.

“We’re seeing a strong revival of visitors coming here despite the price of gas,” Petty-Johnson said. “We’re almost back to full staff and hope to upgrade some part-time staff to full time in 2009.”

The museum is seeing a significant increase in the cost of insurance and utilities. With valuable artwork at stake, constant climate control must be maintained whether the museum is open or not. In light of that, the museum staff decided to be open to the public seven days a week.

“Art is part of the fabric of the Gulf Coast and Ocean Springs in particular. Shearwater Pottery was founded here and has been a Mecca for artists with the museum being the centerpiece of that,” she said. “People look to us to provide that, and it’s cultural tourism, which has the highest spending per day of all tourism. That income is vital to the town.”

Contact MBJ contributing writer Lynn Lofton at llofton656@aol.com.

About Lynn Lofton

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