Paradox runs through Mississippi with as many bends and turns as the great river that churns through it. The amount of treasured American art that has comes out of this small southern state is surprising, for Mississippi is not graced with wealth or the advantage of big cities.
It’s ironic that Mississippi has the highest illiteracy rate in the U.S., yet it has produced by far the most Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. The state birthed and nurtured artists such as William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Eudora Welty, Walker Percy, James Baldwin and Shelby Foote.
With its population of nearly three million spread across genteel towns and lush green countryside, Mississippi captures the imagination with the romance of its deep Southern culture and the tragedy of great historic struggles.
In the streets of Jackson, the state capital, you can breathe in the city’s love affair with art that goes beyond literature, from Delta blues emanating from a little club to an international ballet competition hosted here, to the fried chicken at Two Sister’s Kitchen, to the museum that shows world-renown exhibits.
Almost anyone on the street will point with pride to the classical architecture of the Capitol building, the gargoyles on the insurance building, the famed corner store featured in Eudora Welty books, and the restored Victorian mansions dotting the landscape near the city center. Few buildings predate the Civil War, as the city was once dubbed Chimneyville because of Sherman’s triple torching of the city.
But it isn’t just the buildings that are works of art. Mississippi women are famed for their beauty as well as their genteel hospitality. So perhaps it’s only natural that there have been a large number of “Miss America” winners hailing from the Magnolia State.
The folks who live here pride themselves with the fact that their city of less than half a million people is rich in cultural offerings. With a city orchestra, opera and two ballet companies, visitors can indulge in fine arts in the comfort of a smaller setting.
Jackson’s latest art extravaganza honors another city reduced to rubble by war. Germany’s Dresden, like Jackson, gloried as a center for riches and culture before being brought to its knees, when it endured the bombing of World War II. In the first Dresden exhibit since East and West Germany united, more than 400 magnificent objects of art make their one and only appearance in North America in The Glory of Dresden at the Mississippi Arts Pavilion.
This exhibit displays famed works such as Vermeer’s The Procuress, Rembrandt’s Samson Proposing the Riddle at the Wedding Feast, Reuben’s Diana’s Return from the Hunt and other old master works. You have until September 6, 2004, to see it all, plus the 41-carat green diamond, the only large naturally green diamond ever found.
The Dresden dynasty of August the Strong collected voraciously during the height of the frilly Baroque period. Most famous is the Dresden Porcelain, made from a recipe highly guarded by Asians, but broken by a failed European alchemist imprisoned by August and forced to create something of worth. The oversized Meißen animals reflect cool realism in breakable form.
After you have seen Dresden, cross the parking lot to Paris and enter the world of the 1920s Art Déco. Seen outside of France for the first time, The Paris Moderne Exhibit at the Mississippi Museum of Art showcases an eclectic assortment of artwork – from more than 75 pieces from Picasso to Matisse paintings and even a sofa for 16. It runs through September 6.
Once you have traversed the world, head back to the heart of the South, the real Jackson, where curiosities and characters await. In addition to literary stories, there is the great oral tradition here in Jackson, and the city abounds with storytellers. Your best bet is to find a good table for sitting and gently engage almost anyone with a bit of gray hair in a conversation.
You can hit the Edison Walthall Hotel lounge around 5 p.m. when the politicos walk in, and its ancient bartender, 75-year-old Cotton Baronich, is ripe with stories. He has been mixing drinks for more than 50 years and has business cards titled, “Resident Mixologist.” He’s sure to offer a tale you’ll not soon forget.
Or in the dining room for lunch on any Wednesday, you‘ll catch Irene Breland, age 97, who loves to talk. Just don’t make the mistake of taking her regular table. Try to get past the crusty exterior by asking about Eudora Welty, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Optimist’s Daughter, and the old school teacher will come out—and so will the stories, as Southerners love to tell them.
“We look alike, and both of us have been called everything but pretty,” Breland says on a sultry afternoon. “But, you know, I am prettier than she was. But to know her was to love her,” Breland says.
A bit more approachable is William Simmons, personification of the Southern gentleman and owner of the Fairview Inn, voted Most Outstanding Inn in North America by Condé Nast. Sitting among his collection of Civil War books in the drawing room, you can take a bit of tea and feel as if you were given an entrée into the graciousness that eludes capture in movies and literature. He is easy to catch at breakfast, served family style, at the Fairview.
If you call ahead, you can catch Mary Alice Welty White for a tour of the garden of her Aunt “Dodo,” author Eudora Welty. The lovingly restoring garden was so prominent in her childhood that White relates story after story about her favorite aunt, who wrote great literature between driving grade school carpool for White and her sister.
While the Welty house is under renovation and will open sometime next year for visitors, the modest beauty of the garden tells almost as much about the author and her city. Rescued plants from the roadside bloom in vivid red with a golden star center, the Indian Pinks.
Heirloom irises have been shared with a preservation society. Pink delphiniums with dolphin-shaped buds diving into blossoms form a border in this traditional Southern garden, not made for show. The deep blue bachelor buttons beside them must have reminded this maiden writer of the “subject that never came up,” as Welty often described marriage prospects.
In the garden room, Welty and her mother cultivated more than 30 varieties of camellias, so prized that the winter blooms were often carefully packed into train boxes and sent to New York to cheer friends. Welty most certainly received these shipments while attending Columbia University. Chestina (Welty’s mother) hopefully never knew that her daughter frequented Harlem night clubs, resulting in “Powerhouse,” one of her short stories.
From the elaborate green diamond setting to rescued wildflowers, the city of Jackson celebrates the beauty and charm of art in all its visible forms. But perhaps Jackson’s greatest art is its voice. Sitting in the Two Sister’s Kitchen restaurant, soft, Mississippi vowels spin lazily into stories all around. Men in starched shirts and ties, plumbers in blue jumpsuits, nurses in uniform, mothers with strollers, all exchange tales of the day. By the time you savor the bread pudding, perception awakens. You can understand where the legions of Pulitzer Prize winners found the words to describe the great human experience that touches us all.
The Welty Garden
If You Go
Jackson Visitor’s Bureau
For a personal tour with Welty’s niece, reserve a space in advance.
Where to Stay
Fairview Inn: Enter the romance of white columns and paneled libraries, with an excellent Civil War library. Here is where the King and Queen of Spain stayed during their visit to Jackson. The specially decorated rooms are exquisite, as are all the rooms. Voted the Top Ten Romantic Inn of 2000 by American Historic Inns. Rooms range from US$ 150 to US$ 365 and include breakfast. For more information, 888-948-1908 or www.fairviewinn.com.
Where to Eat
Edison Walthall Hotel: The bar is the place to be for political or business gossip and brags of a bartender, who is almost older than the town. Romantic dining in the evening with a good selection of steaks and Mississippi catfish. The chocolate mousse and cheesecake with strawberries round it out divinely. Entrees range from US$ 12.95 to US$ 16.95. For more information: 800-932-6161 or www.edisonwalthallhotel.com.
Keifer’s: Sit on the porch at this popular neighborhood hangout. Greek food with excellent hummus and good gyros. Casual, inexpensive dining with a homey atmosphere. For more information: 601-355-6825.
Two Sister’s Kitchen: Skinless fried chicken and southern buffet favorites right off the main drag of the capital. Contact: 601-353-1180
Don’t Miss These
The Glory of Dresden: Mississippi Arts Pavilion. Through Sept. 6. Tickets US$ 16, students US$ 8, children to age 18, US$ 4.
866-See-Miss or www.gloryofdresden.com.
Paris Moderne Exhibit: Mississippi Museum of Art. Through Sept. 6. A collection of Art Déco works from the Musée d’Art Moderne de la ville de Paris. Dramatic objects from a huge wall relief to furnishings. Tickets US$ 10, students US$ 5, children are free. For more information: 866-View-Art or www.msmuseumart.org.