Less than 48 hours before my Mississippi Delta trip, tornados ripped through Rolling Fork, Silver City, and other communities. I reached out to any grantee in our system in the affected areas to offer immediate assistance and pledged to be supportive after the dust settled to help stand up our beloved communities once again. To help support those in the affected areas, please consider giving to the Community Foundation of Washington County South Delta Disaster Recovery Fund.
On Sunday, I began my journey to the Delta. Of course, it was also conference report filing day for the Legislative Session, so the car ride was quite a lively ride. Ultimately, things turned out even better than we had originally hoped for, and we are so thankful for that.
Driving through the Delta is truly such a wonderful experience for me. I pull off in downtown Lexington and am greeted by a lovely mural inviting me to “Catch the Southern Spirit.” In the heart of downtown, as is with almost all county seats, the County Courthouse stands beautifully and prominently. I snap a few pics and send one image to my family, followed by a call from my dad. It turns out that he worked in a building there in Lexington a few days of the week early in his career. As I journey on, I pass the Tchula water tower and a sign pointing towards “Egypt” – both elements that add to the character of the Delta. I stop in Greenwood for a stretch and stroll along the Rail Spike Park walking trail that rests on a former rail line and features a beautiful outdoor public space with a wonderful recently-built pavilion. Spaces like these show how much is blossoming from these Delta towns. There is so much more to share with you and even more for me to learn. I stroll through downtown and pass the massive heron mural, the tiny gnome village outside of the ArtPlace Mississippi office, and the kid-designed skyline paper cutouts that line the windows of TurnRow Books (NOTE: TurnRow Books experienced a fire weeks after my travels. Please visit their website and follow them on social media to learn how you can support them in their recovery.) But too soon, storm clouds began to roll in, and I needed to make my way to Clarksdale to hunker down for the evening.
In Clarksdale, I stayed at the Traveler’s Hotel downtown. This hotel is a delightful addition to the community with its contemporary, art-led aesthetic and dynamic and fresh simple design concepts rarely found in Mississippi (we need more of this, y’all!). Dinner ended up being just a few steps away at Hooker’s Grocery – complete with fried green beans and live music.
I traveled to Indianola early the next morning to meet with Malika Polk-Lee at the BB King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center – one of two Southern Cultural Treasures sites in Mississippi. Verna Ransom, MAC Commissioner, and Robert Terrell, Deputy Director of the Museum, joined us for the tour. So much outstanding work and expansion have been done to the facility since I first visited in April 2019. The facility is a recipient of our Building Fund for the Arts grant, which allowed them to make much-needed waterproofing and repair to their community spaces. Malika and the team then treated me to an early look at the renovations of Club Ebony, which just reopened this week. This historic site for musical magic has been brought into the fold of the work the Museum is doing, and it will be one of the best places to catch a show when visiting the Delta. Do not sleep on this group’s work- they are making BB King and Mississippi proud.
Following the tour in Indianola, I stopped by the Indianola Pecan House to pick up some delicious goodies for family and the staff before I headed to Cleveland for the rest of the day. In Cleveland, I spotted their brand new first mural painted by DSU professor, MAC grantee, sculptor, and muralist Lawson King. For lunch, I joined MAC Commission and BPAC Director Laura Howell for an insightful and engaged conversation with artist Church Goin Mule, Visit Cleveland Director Sean Johnson, and Delta Arts Alliance Executive Director Lauren Powell. I was so appreciative to hear:
1. feedback on what MAC means to their community,
2. ways that we can improve, and
3. projects in the area that were soon to come online.
Afterward, we walked across the street from A La Carte Alley to the former Ellis Theatre, where the Delta Arts Alliance is headquartered. The Delta Arts Alliance is another recipient of the Building Fund for the Arts and will be working to transform the former balcony of the theatre into additional classroom and lecture space. Lauren showed us the gallery space up front that showcased the work of local artists and shared the exciting work of Cleveland’s blossoming community theatre group.
As if the day couldn’t get any more exciting and jam-packed, what came next was such a treat.
Laura and I headed to the Bologna Performance Arts Center on Delta State University’s campus, where we met up with local artist and legend Nan Sanders. Nan and one of the former DSU president’s wife started the Mathews-Sanders Sculpture Garden – a campus-wide project showcasing over 60 sculptures. Nan and her selection committee host an invitational to showcase 15-20 sculptures on campus every two years. They always purchase at least one at the end of each show, but the collection has grown to such a remarkable size. Nan drove us all around campus to see the beautiful works and then even took us to her art studio, where we got to see the inspirational space she works and creates.
After the long day, Abe’s hit the spot for dinner.
My last day began with a delightful breakfast at Yazoo Pass in downtown Clarksdale before I headed to Meraki Roasting Co to meet with Ryan Biles and the team with Griot Arts Inc. Ryan, an architect serving the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta regions. He introduced me to Rebekah Pleasant-Patternson, Executive Director of Griot Arts Inc, and Ben Lewis, Deputy Director of Griot Arts Inc. Griot Arts is one of the organizations that did not receive a Building Fund for the Arts grant when they applied last year. It is important for me to hear from these organizations just as much, if not even more, than from those who were recipients. I was one of them, having submitted a BFA grant application but not receiving funding. Rebekah, Ryan, and Ben walked me through their inspiring vision for revitalizing the historic theatre in downtown Clarksdale. We walked onto the stage and looked over the collapsed balcony and roof as the sun beamed in, casting a bright and hopeful wash of light over the theatre’s “house.” During this meeting, I learned never to schedule only an hour for visits like this – or at least not to schedule a meeting one after another. There is so much great work happening from organizations like Griot all over the state. I needed more time with them. I know will get it soon.
For lunch, Shelley Ritter, Director of the Delta Blues Museum, graciously invited me to join her for the Rotary Club meeting. After a quick lesson in local personalities and figures, the lunch provided a great platform for Shelley and me to talk about her work history in Clarksdale and with the Museum without the rush of a museum tour to begin. Afterward, we walked to the Museum for a more formal tour of the facility, which features a studio for music lessons that makes me wish I grew up in Clarksdale.
And so, it was time for me to meander my way back home after a few solid days of Delta immersion. I was already excited and primed for a return visit that I know will come very soon. Of course, I had to stop at the Delta State University campus bookstore to find a polo featuring the Fighting Okra logo – because I love a polo with a local logo on it.
Next stop: Washington, D.C.