Silvery, coppery structures twist among old live oak trees near the shore of the Mississippi Sound, close to where the Biloxi Schooner docks. This is the site of the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art, a complex of buildings that includes four metallic pods that torque like ancient, hurricane-battered trees. It also serves as a welcome center to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
Massive trees and the life they shelter recur as a motif in local art from Shearwater Pottery in Ocean Springs to the vibrant arts community of Bay St. Louis. After Hurricane Katrina in 2005, chain-saw artists turned dead live oak trees along Highway 90 into sculptures of native birds and wildlife. They are in the medians along stretches of the 62 miles of highway, also known as Beach Boulevard.
Two long bridges of Highway 90 connect the Gulf Coast, both adorned with bronze reliefs depicting coastal wildlife posted along pedestrian walkways. One bridge connects the city of Ocean Springs to Biloxi. The other connects Pass Christian to Bay St. Louis. In between the bridges are numerous galleries, little theaters, classical music organizations and arts lovers in the cities of Gulfport, Long Beach and Pass Christian.
Painter Norma Seward, who grew up in New Mexico, moved to Ocean Springs 38 years ago. "I always felt like I picked the right city," she said. "It's a community that loves art and buys art. And this extends beyond Ocean Springs." She paints acrylic landscapes and bayou-scapes. She also has worked with the Gulfport Symphony Guild.
Artists who congregate along the Coast seem to multiply. "There's serious beauty here. That's my pet theory," said Kat Fitzpatrick, a painter who lives and works in Bay St. Louis.
Much of the work she does now uses the encaustic technique. This involves melting beeswax to create paint, a 2,000-year-old practice. She keeps a beehive on her property. Living on the coast inspires her work, and many of her recent encaustic paintings are portraits of old oak trees with personalities.
"When you stand and stare at the horizon and look at the sky, it helps you focus," Fitzpatrick said. "It's a quality of life that's deep and rich."
The barrier islands mesmerized Walter Inglis Anderson, who was born in 1903 and died in 1965. Anderson lived in Ocean Springs, making many trips to nearby Horn Island. He would row the 12 miles across the Mississippi Sound to the primitive site in a small boat.
When he landed, he would paint and draw crabs, seagulls, pelicans and twisted oak trees.
Anderson, who trained at the Parsons Institute of Design in New York City and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, studied in Europe, visiting primitive sites as well as the top art museums in the western world. These interests show up in his work along beach and marsh scenes. He painted mythological figures and used classic elements, such as repeating motifs in borders or profiling his human subjects as if they were forgotten Persian kings.
He also created pottery, etchings and block prints. Early in his career, Anderson worked at Shearwater Pottery, a studio and business his brother, Peter Anderson, owned.
Now, each fall, Ocean Springs is home to the Peter Anderson Memorial Arts and Crafts Festival, one of the most respected arts events in Mississippi. Shearwater Pottery (102 Shearwater Drive, Ocean Springs; 228-875-7320) is still open, and the family still operates the business. The artists make the vases, plates and mugs by hand, and no two are alike.
Walter Anderson lived in a small house on the same site as the pottery studio and painted murals on the walls and ceiling while he was there. Hurricane Katrina knocked the house off its blocks, but it survived. The murals survived as well, and are now at the Walter Anderson Museum of Art, also in Ocean Springs. The museum (510 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs, 228-872-3164) has a large collection—900 pieces—of his watercolors, pencil, ink and crayon drawings, ceramics, wood sculptures, linoleum block prints, oil paintings and furniture.
But the museum is not the only place to experience Walter Anderson's art.
Adjacent to the museum is the Ocean Springs Community Center (512 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs, 228-875-4236). Anderson painted large murals on the interior walls that show Native American and natural life before 1699 and the settling of the French on Mississippi coast that came after. He included American Indians, pelicans, dolphins, alligators and cats in this larger-than-life storybook.
At the edge of town at the base of the Highway 90 bridge to Biloxi, a 120-foot-long mosaic dominates the scene. On it, sailboats drift on blue tiles. Local artists Chris Stebly, Ching Walters, Susie Ranager and Patt Odom all contributed to the mural.
The Mad Potter of Biloxi
Frank Gehry, the famous architect who has designed some of the world's most notable modern buildings, intended to make the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art in Biloxi "dance with the trees." Gehry, famous for avant-garde masterpieces such as the Guggenheim Museum in Bilboa, Spain, visited the Biloxi site more than 10 years ago and scribbled his vision of how the new museum (386 Beach Blvd., Biloxi, 228-374-5547) would fit in the landscape right across the highway from the beach.
"They gave me a site filled with live oak trees. You can't build next to them or be in the drip line," Gehry told Charlie Rose in a 2001 television interview.
So he chose to dance with them.
The Mad Potter of Biloxi, George Ohr (1857-1918), had much in common with the celebrity architect who envisioned a whimsical museum to house Ohr's fragile pottery. "I loved his work. I loved his work," Gehry twice told Rose. So did many private art collectors. Ohr created as many as 10,000 pieces of pottery, but only about 400 are in the museum's collection.
Ohr's thin ceramics amaze art experts. Some of his pottery looks like fine, gathered fabric. Some pieces have unusual glazes that resemble exquisite Venetian glass rather than the clumpy Mississippi clay Ohr mined himself from the Tchoutacabouffa River. Skilled artists have a hard time replicating his glazes.
The Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art complex includes a ceramics studio, a state Welcome Center, a contemporary art gallery, an African American art gallery and the George Ohr Gallery. It also includes the Pleasant Reed House, a replica of a historic home. Reed was a freed slave who became a successful Biloxi businessman. His built his family's house as well as many others in the community. He was also a contemporary of Ohr's.
Some Biloxi residents aren't crazy about the unusual buildings on the waterfront, much like some of their great grandparents who shook their heads at Ohr's insane pottery.
An Arts Haven
Bay St. Louis doesn't have a permanent arts museum, but it does have almost 50 galleries and at least 200 artists who belong to the Hancock County art association, simply called The Arts. Many artists in Bay St. Louis brag that Malcolm White, executive director of the Mississippi Arts Commission, has a home here.
"There are so many artists here," Marilynn Masters Arseneau, association president, said. To accommodate them, the association has five galleries in various spots. Arseneau paints a little herself and displays her work at the Mockingbird Café and Bakery (110 S. 2nd St., Bay St. Louis, 228-467-8383).
Second Saturday is a monthly arts festival in downtown Bay St. Louis the second Saturday evening of each month. Niche shops in small cottages open their doors for visitors. Some serve wine and cheese. Some sell pottery and watercolors. Children run under massive oak trees, and old friends sit on front porches to catch a breeze blowing in from the Gulf of Mexico. Local bands play to provide a sound track for this arts community.
Bay St. Louis also has larger festivals, such as the Bay BridgeFest in the fall. It's a fairly new festival celebrating the community's reconnection to Pass Christian after Hurricane Katrina. Pieces of the old bridge have become part of the public art in the new bridge.
"We have a beautiful mosaic at the base of the bridge," Kat Fitzpatrick said. It's a different mosaic than the one at the base of the Ocean Springs bridge, although the theme is familiar––a tall sailboat on the water. The bright mosaic is near the entrance of pedestrian path to Pass Christian.
Hurricane Katrina destroyed Fitzpatrick's home. Crews dismantled what was left and reconstructed her home on another site, a better site, she says. At her new house, she has a studio that she sometimes shares with other artists. She teaches various arts workshops throughout the year. The oak trees left on the Coast fascinate Fitzpatrick.
"They are still rooted, but they have this amazing movement and torque in the trunks. I'm learning from them how to stand strong," she said.
"It's a perfect allegory for survivors on the Coast."
Gulf Coast Exhibits
Events at Ohr-O'Keefe Museum of Art (386 Beach Blvd., Biloxi). Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday. $10; $8 seniors, students and military; $5 ages 6-17; 5 and under free; call 228-374-5547.
• "Looking Ahead: Portraits from the Mott-Warsh Collection" through May 28, in the Beau Rivage Gallery and the Gallery of African American Art. Exhibitors include Chuck Close, Romare Bearden, Robert Mapplethorpe and Elizabeth Catlett. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday.
• "Alisa Holen: Confluence" through June 2. Holen's ceramics are on display in the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center.
• "Earth, Sea and Sky: Southern Ceramics from the Dod Stewart Collection" through June 2. See more than 70 pieces of Newcomb, Shearwater and Singing River pottery in the IP Casino Resort Spa Exhibitions Gallery.
• "Geoff Mitchell: Chaos at the Confessional" June 12-Nov. 24, in the IP Casino Resort Spa Gallery. The exhibit features a selection of mixed-media works and contemplative videos.
• "The Art of Eugene Martin: A Great Concept" June 5-Dec. 1, in the Beau Rivage Gallery and the Gallery of African American Art. The late artist's mixed-media collages contain allusions to animal, machine and structural imagery.
• "Trailer McQuilkin: An Uncommon Beauty" June 5 –Nov. 24, at the Mississippi Sound Welcome Center. McQuilkin uses copper, oil paint and found objects to create images of plants.
• "Mortal To Mythic: The Transforming Power Of Art" Permanent Exhibitions. Exhibitions include "George Edgar Ohr: Selections from Gulf Coast Collections" in the Star Gallery; works by Ohr and "Frank O. Gehry: Dancing with the Trees" in the Welcome Center Gallery; and "My House: The Pleasant Reed Story" and "The Native Guard: A Photographic History of Ship Island's African American Regiment" in the Pleasant Reed Interpretive Center. Free.
Events at Walter Anderson Museum of Art (510 Washington Ave., Ocean Springs). $10, $8 seniors and military, $5 children ages 5-15; call 228-872-3164.
• "River and Reverie" through Aug. 15, see Rolland Golden's paintings of southern waterways.
• The Artwork of Chris Stebly Aug. 1 – Dec. 31. Stebly, Walter Anderson's grandson and a nationally known artist, exhibits 40 artworks in a variety of media.
Downtown Ocean Springs Arts and Crafts Market, on Washington Avenue. Gulf Coast artists and crafters sell their creations on third Saturdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Call 228-875-8407.
Check out our Arts & Culture Blog for gallery openings, art shows, and musical performances. Also, click on over to the JFP Events page and the JFP Events Calendar.