We clung to the coast of Mississippi like a bad Hooters outfit. The bland repetition of McWaffleMarts made old Highway 90 a numbing grind – a means to an end in reaching New Orleans. But as we pedalled west to the border of Louisiana we were awakened from our daze.
Tortured oak trees – casualties of hurricane Katrina – caught our eye in the middle of the coastal highway. The ancient trees, stripped of life, had been re-incarnated as angels, eagles, and sea creatures by master carvers Dayton Scoggins and Marlin Miller.
Marlin spent countless hours climbing, sawing, and sculpting the trees, without any intention of profit. “Most generations in Mississippi go eight or nine generations deep,” Marlin explained in American Profile. “When these people lost a giant tree, it wasn’t just theirs. It was something that their great-great-great grandparents played under as children. This token gesture from me represents a rebuilding of the spirit.”
With renewed enthusiasm we rode a series of deluxe, newly constructed bridges into Bay St Louis, the town that was perhaps hit the hardest of all by Katrina. Katrina’s fury still lingers in abandoned blocks, damaged buildings and broken dreams, but Bay St Louis is on the rebound. Out of a sea of debris an amazing creativity, spirit and sense of community has emerged. By the time we had explored the funky cafes and art galleries of this artist’s haven we had been offered three different places to spend the night. Our new record for hospitality!
We were very fortunate to spend time with Mary Kay, a generous soul with a big heart and a lust for life. She invited us into her beautiful ‘shotgun’ style house (a long, narrow house layout where one room follows on to the other meaning a bullet could be shot from the front door right through to the back door without ever hitting a wall). Mary Kay entertained us for days with her stories and love of art while our dogs Jack and Paco enjoyed making pals with Mary Kay’s two pint-sized poodles – Gabby and U2. (Paco particularly enjoyed helping his new pals keep a cheeky squirrel out of the bird feeder.)
We are pleased to tell you that Mary Kay has shaken off stage 4 cancer with the power of positive thinking and healthy living (ok… and a wee dose of chemotherapy). Here are some of the local artists and characters Mary Kay introduced us to. We hope y’all enjoy…
Spencer Gray Jnr – Spoon Man
Spencer Gray Jnr’s first designs were bird feeders and bird houses created with wine bottles, copper, and wood, mostly salvaged in the wake of the storm. Since then he has made a series of metallic characters which blew our stockings off. How does he get so much humour and playful expression from mundane, everyday metal objects like spoons, forks, pots, and garden hoses? Check out more of his work at “The Artists at 220” in Bay St Louis, or online.
Carter Church – A Maestro of the Mardi Gras
Carter Church is the king of costume. We were stoked to be invited into his studio in Bay St Louis where cats and dogs roamed among work benches swathed in fabric and sequins*. Carter and his creative team were busy preparing for the upcoming Mardi Gras. Hand sketched designs were being crafted into a series of stunning monstrosities, fit for king and queen (and I mean monstrosity in the nicest possible way!!!) Our favourite was the giant alligator head piece that must have weighed about as much as an er… alligator?
*Side note: this was not some kind of cat/dog peace loving utopia. Carter had the cat room. The dogs hung out next door with the rest of the creative team.
Walter Anderson – A Life Worth Living
Walter Anderson (1903-1965) was the odd sock who refused to be tossed into the laundry basket. He was a passionate and prolific artist with a deep love of nature. Walter expressed himself through writing, sculpting, and most famously painting. Sadly, much of Walter Anderson’s art was lost during Hurricane Katrina, but perhaps he would have preferred it that way. He was never one to seek out fame and notoriety, but ironically it is only a matter of time before his life story is turned into a feature film starring Tom Hanks (remember, you heard it here first). During his adult life Walter went on epic bicycle adventures in America, China and Costa Rica, escaped a mental hospital to walk over 1000 miles home, and rowed to isolated islands off of the coast of Mississippi where he did much of his painting before falling asleep underneath his overturned row boat.
Kat Fitzpatrick raises her own bees in Bay St Louis and then uses the beeswax (encaustic) as the base medium in her paintings. “This ancient medium is capable of translucency, opacity, layering, texture, incising…almost anything you can imagine,” she says. “I apply it to wood or to heavy watercolor paper… Because they (bees) are in deep trouble at this point in history, these paintings have a poignancy and urgency about them… also a “sweetness”. Watch the video below to see Kat in action.
Route Info: Old Highway 90
Don’t be fooled. Although much of old Highway 90’s traffic through Mississippi has been relieved by the muscled up Interstate 10, she is still a busy old highway. Her eastern stretches have wide boulevards with generous shoulders but there are sections where her shoulders disappear and old 90, your fickle friend, spits you back out onto the road amid a crescendo of honking, impatient drivers brandishing pistols. Ok, so not every driver is impatient and rude, and none were brandishing pistols, but you get the picture. The extra wide bum on Zoa’s trailer meant that our detours onto the curby, bumpy footpaths were a nuisance, as were the sand drifts which periodically covered the path. Still, Highway 90 gave us a 80 mile/130km short cut between Alabama and Louisiana en route to New Orleans and was not without its charms…