Meet the Mississippi Artist Paradise You Had No Idea Existed
A creative hub is quietly brewing on the last coast you might expect.
Mississippi’s Gulf Coast is an hour closer to Bourbon Street than to the statehouse in capital Jackson, which is maybe why the unassuming, 62-mile shoreline is one of the most artistic stretches in the state—and perhaps even in the South. If you’re following the Mississippi Blues Trail, eight of the state’s 200 blues joints are in cities along the coast like Biloxi, also home to a Frank Gehry-designed museum dedicated to the self-proclaimed “Mad Potter of Biloxi,” ceramic artist George Ohr.
But coastal Mississippi isn’t just championing the prouder parts of its past, it’s also inspiring a new generation of makers, musicians, brewers, chefs, and other creative types who are leading by example in a state that seriously needed to find a better direction.
Everyone is welcome here—no cap
The black sign on the front door of The Government Street Grocery in Ocean Springs reads “Everyone.” Not too long ago, you would have thought it was some kind of droll meta-humor, like a sign reading “door” or “piece of glass.” But at this moment, in mid-2016, the simple black sticker with white lettering sends a serious message: We're not the Mississippi you think we are—everyone is welcome here.
The “Everyone” sticker is a reference to Mississippi House Bill 1523. Somewhat lost in 2016’s election year shenanigans, this law allows anyone with a “sincerely held religious belief” to deny LGBTQ+ individuals a host of services related to marriage, adoption, or foster care. It allows employers to fire or refuse to hire them, allows doctors to refuse to perform any treatments associated with gender reassignment, and allows landlords to deny tenants housing based on moral convictions. Really.
During the year Trump was elected, when people were judged more harshly by how they order their steak than by whom they choose to date, the law rings archaic—especially to the Mississippians who live south of I-10.
“Down here, it's easy to exist and just do your thing,” says Corey Christy, who was then the marketing director for the Walter Anderson Museum of Art in Ocean Springs, as well as a bass player in the Blackwater Brass band. “It's relaxed, it’s friendly. In the rest of the state, you don't get that."
It is to Mississippi what pre-hipster Austin was to Texas before Dallas allegedly became cosmopolitan. Within sight of where Christy sits, on the patio outside Government Street Grocery, live music is streaming from three bars. A few hundred yards away is the museum dedicated to the legendary American painter Walter Inglis Anderson. Further down Government is The Mary C O’Keefe Cultural Arts Center, a community effort devoted to arts education. All of this, in coastal Mississippi.
Young entrepreneurs are changing the game
Government Street, Ocean Springs’s main drag, stretches only about four blocks, but it has enough bars and restaurants to fill an entire weekend. Nearly all are run by young entrepreneurs, most of whom grew up in the area and returned when they saw the creative vibe emerging in the region. “The owners of these places could be successful anywhere,” says Chris Vignes, who works in the mayor's office in nearby Gulfport. “But we've got a lot of young people coming back because they know this is a great time to be here. They know the wonders of this area.”
Just west of Ocean Springs, Gulfport is the second largest city in Mississippi, and emblematic of what this region is becoming. The historic Downtown, like an old lava field now overrun with wildflowers, is a place of ruin dotted with life. While some buildings were boarded up a decade after Hurricane Katrina, many are now filled with small businesses and inventive restaurants. The city even opened bar- and restaurant-lined Fishbone Alley downtown in the model of Cleveland’s East Fourth St., making it closed to traffic so people can enjoy the coastal sunshine sans cars as they sip. Around the corner is Chandeleur Island Brewing Company, a craft brewery and beer hall run by local construction magnates who made good elsewhere then came back home to the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
It started after Katrina
The new spirit of the Gulf Coast was born out of ruin. While New Orleans got the bulk of the Hurricane Katrina attention, cities along the Mississippi Gulf Coast—Biloxi, Long Beach, Gulfport—were also demolished. But the adversity—and the people who came along to help fix it—are a big part of why the Gulf Coast has become a hub of creativity.
“A lot of artists have been through some sort of struggle and they identify with the people here,” says Martha Whitney, who runs The French Potager floral and bridal shop in Bay Saint Louis, in addition to heading the city’s arts organization. “Just being around people who’ve reconstructed and repainted the canvas that was their lives, it inspires those kinds of people. It brings them down here because of the vibe and community spirit.”
Next door at the Starfish Cafe, a pay-what-you-want local foods restaurant staffed by culinary students and volunteers, owner Di Fillhart agrees.
“The blues began here,” says the missionary-turned-restaurateur, who came to help after Katrina and stayed. “To me, it was a broken community that rebuilt itself with the treasures it always had: art and music.”
The shop and cafe share a block along Main Street in Bay Saint Louis, a sort of Sausalito-on-the-bayou where antique shops, art galleries, and cafes like Starfish lead to an expansive beach and sparkling waterfront. It’s an artist colony that feels like California, and has effectively become an extension of New Orleans.
Diversity runs deep
The unique local makeup plays a large part in why the Mississippi Gulf Coast is not the Mississippi you'd expect.
“We're a port, and we've got a military base, which means we've got people from all over who've experienced things other Mississippians haven't,” says Jessie Zenor, who opened Greenhouse on Porter, an events venue and performance center.
“There's a huge Asian population here, too,” says Christy, the bass player, referring to the immigrant communities who came to work on shrimping and oyster boats. "We've got a community built on all kinds of people moving here for casinos, military, whatever, so it's economically, culturally, and racially diverse. We've got a lot of layers."
Natural beauty stimulates creative minds
The drive east from Bay Saint Louis along Highway 90 is one of the most stunning, underrated scenic road trips in the country. The Gulf Coast had the sense to leave most of the coastline void of high-rises. So, as you drive through Long Beach and on into Gulfport through minimal traffic, your left flank is grand old mansions, and your right is 27 miles of white-sand beach and blue water.
Further east runs the Pascagoula River and the pristine old-growth swamps along its tributaries. A day trip through here is a glimpse of a unique ecosystem, one that may have inspired native Gulf Coaster Jim Henson to create his world-famous frog.
"We rank pretty low in pretty much everything," says Jeff Wilkinson, who, along with his wife, run Eco-Tours of South Mississippi. "But when it comes to management of natural resources, I'd put the southern part of our state up with anywhere.”
There’s Mississippi… and then there's Mississippi below I-10
While the people of Southern Mississippi are decidedly Southern, and therefore aren't likely to badmouth their neighbors to the north, their frustration with how the rest of the state runs is obvious.
“Mississippi's really good at giving the rest of the world the impression that we're small-minded," says Kait Sukiennik, co-owner of The Greenhouse in Biloxi. "But I don't think that's reflective of the population in general. I haven't met one person who agrees with 1523 in this entire state—not one. It's really just the politicians looking out for themselves.”
Whatever the impression, the people of the Gulf Coast are quick to let you know they welcome anyone and everyone to their shores—hence the “Everyone” stickers on the doors of countless businesses throughout the region.
“People wrote us off a long time ago,” says Whitney, of The French Potager. “But to not come here is just going to cripple the people who want to change it. And it takes us longer to get things in Mississippi. But we'll get there, and when we do, this place is going to be wonderful.”
From what I experienced, it already is.