Mississippi Murals: In This City, Public Art Shows the Way

Like most American cities, Hattiesburg temporarily closed at the start of the pandemic. One thing the city of Mississippi didn’t stop was its creation of public art. In fact, in a city where dozens of murals depict everything from its musical heritage to sprays of color depicting a poet’s hope, leaders have honed in on the idea that art boosts community health. .

This effort was recognized nationally this year when Travel & Leisure magazine rated Hattiesburg as one of the world’s top public art destinations, alongside creative capitals like Berlin, Paris and New York.

Why we wrote this

Seeking to build community spirit and prevent young residents from moving into greener urban pastures, where did Hattiesburg, Mississippi turn? To something as simple as paint on the walls – part of the growing global appreciation for the importance of public art.

But the main goal isn’t to please outsiders, says Shawn Harris, a board member of the Downtown Hattiesburg Association who has volunteered throughout the city’s beautification project since 2014.

“If you make your residents happy, tourists will come and enjoy those things, but you’re not ostracizing your residents at that price,” Harris says. “It’s really about community development, not economic development.

The story has bigger lessons, says Ellen Winner, a professor specializing in art psychology at Boston College. The process of viewing public art, she says, “lifts our spirits, connects us to the arts, connects us to each other, it makes us think and it lifts our mood.”

Hattiesburg, miss.

Madison Rux lives just outside of Hattiesburg, Mississippi, but she often finds herself in town. Sometimes it’s for work, sometimes for his social life. Sometimes it’s to have a moment for herself to think clearly, alone, as she strolls through the city until she stumbles across one of her favorite pieces of public art.

This is a large technicolor hummingbird, a painting by Texas artist Avery Orendorf titled “Spread Your Wings”. It reminds Ms. Rux of herself and the hardships she faced as a teenager. She moved from central Texas to Mississippi six years ago after her adoptive parents kicked her out of their home when she was 17. She had to reinvent herself and travel the world on her own.

“Growing up, I was always the person my parents wanted me to be,” says Ms. Rux. “I had to find out who I was again. It was a trip. I had to spread my wings and fly by myself.

Why we wrote this

Seeking to build community spirit and prevent young residents from moving into greener urban pastures, where did Hattiesburg, Mississippi turn? To something as simple as paint on the walls – part of the growing global appreciation for the importance of public art.

For a small town with a population approaching 50,000, Hattiesburg teems with life, and purposefully, through color. In some corners, luminous paintings like the hummingbird spring from the rays of the sun as if coming to life. On others, the paintings are nods to the city’s culture, like a mural by Mississippi artist Amy Giust — an abstract take on a weekend on the town. It is partly an ode to the place of the state in the history of American music.

Local artist Amy Giust used watercolor to paint this mural in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, depicting a night on the town.

Block after block, work after work, Hattiesburg declared public art as its theme. There are as many as 46 public art installations like these across the city – including at least 35 murals as well as sculptures and other mediums. The presence of public art is a defining element for a city best known for its student population split between the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey College. Led by the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art, the city aims to decorate its rustic streets so that they inspire those who honor them.

The city’s effort to immerse itself in art gained national recognition earlier this year when Travel & Leisure magazine rated Hattiesburg as one of the world’s top public art destinations, alongside capitals creative places like Berlin, Paris and London. In the United States, Miami and New York were the only cities ranked ahead of humble Hattiesburg; Philadelphia figured one place below.

But the goal isn’t necessarily to earn more dollars for tourists, says Shawn Harris, a board member of the Downtown Hattiesburg Association who has volunteered throughout the city’s beautification project. Rather, it is about creating a better space for the community.

“That’s the model we follow in Hattiesburg. If you make your residents happy, tourists will come and enjoy those things, but you’re not ostracizing your residents at that price,” Harris says. “It’s really about community development, not economic development.

Art “lifts our spirits, … connects us to each other”

In fact, researchers who study people’s response to aesthetics say that art affects our vision and thoughts.

“The arts are somewhat on the fringes” of traditional psychological studies, says Ellen Winner, a professor specializing in psychology of art at Boston College. “But they’re coming more to the center now, because people realize the importance of art.”

Even momentary encounters with art can be healthy.

As Professor Winner explains, public art can help us feel more connected to our immediate surroundings and to the artists. It awakens us to the world around us. This leads us to wonder how another person interprets the same work through their own lens. It makes us wonder.

The process of viewing public art “lifts our spirits, connects us to the arts, connects us to each other, it makes us think, and it improves our mood,” Dr. Winner says.

This was one of the main goals for the creation of the Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art in 2014.

This mural on the streets of Hattiesburg, Mississippi depicts the impact of COVID-19 on the community, Jan. 30, 2022. Artist Andrea Kostyal began this painting, titled ‘New Normal’, at the start of the pandemic. The city unveiled the mural as its final project of the year in 2020.

Sculptures and murals began to light up downtown streets, inviting life and excitement for residents. As the facilities grew, city leaders began exploring ways to better allow residents and tourists to explore them. Then came the pandemic.

Like most American cities, Hattiesburg has temporarily closed. His public art exhibit did not. In fact, city leaders decided to look into commissioning more public art, creating an escape for residents. The creators are about half local, with the other half coming from other Mississippi artists and those working on the national scene.

The Hattiesburg Alliance for Public Art and Visit Hattiesburg collaborated last year to implement the Hattiesburg Public Art Trail, a socially distanced outdoor activity. Lately, the city has also begun transforming its utility boxes – those gray metal boxes often seen on city medians – into public art installations.

It’s about “making things look better,” says Ricardo Moody, a local high school art teacher who has several public facilities in Hattiesburg, including several murals and a utility box.

The theme of community is central to his abstract work. Mr. Moody shows off a mural he was asked to do on the side of a local business owner’s building. It’s titled “Wonderful Day” – a splash of warm color, centered around a quote from civil rights pioneer Maya Angelou: “It’s a wonderful day. I have never seen this one before. Several local high school students came to help Mr. Moody produce it, resulting in a design incorporating their school colors.

“The plants I painted there, the leaves, have to do with growth,” Moody says of his work. And just like Hattiesburg, “as things grow, they mature and prosper.”

Building the future of a city

Over the next five years, Hattiesburg hopes to become “the city of 100 murals”. This is the directive issued by Mayor Toby Barker.

It’s an achievable goal, says Kristen Brock, director of programs and promotions for community advocacy group VisitHBURG.

“Hattiesburg has embraced this public art endeavor that we are in,” Ms. Brock said, noting how the effort has received support from residents, business owners and organizations. “However, we have seen tremendous interest from visitors coming to Hattiesburg. We estimated that we had the interaction of approximately 300,000 people last year who were interested in our public art.

For residents like Mr. Harris of the Downtown Association, it’s gratifying to see Hattiesburg receive national attention.

“It’s so easy to make national news for something negative,” Harris says. He describes their efforts as “a testament to following a plan and understanding the needs of your community.”

Residents and community leaders also hope their efforts will counter some of Mississippi’s lingering obstacles, such as the brain drain, with emigration that has included a period of the nation’s highest millennial out-migration rate.

“I think public art plays a role in creating [talented individuals] realize they can have a future in Hattiesburg,” says Brock.

It’s how the city builds community, she adds.

But for community members like Ms. Rux, the city’s art exhibit is a way to build themselves.

On her walks alone through Hattiesburg, Mrs. Rux makes it a point to visit the Hummingbird Mural. She also likes to take the time to stroll a little further through the city towards a painting representing a red cardinal. She grew up believing that cardinals were the souls of deceased loved ones.

Ms. Rux likes to think of the Cardinal as her deceased grandmother who watched over her.

“Whenever I don’t see a cardinal for a little while,” Ms. Rux says, “I go there.”

Christopher S. Washington