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Laurin Stennis loves Mississippi. It’s in her blood.
After all, she is the granddaughter of the late Sen. John C. Stennis, whom she loving called “PawPaw.” After living out of state for 20 years, she returned in late August 2013 when the health of her father, John Hampton Stennis, was failing.
“He passed away in September of that year, and I wasn’t sure how long I was going to stay,” Stennis said. “I was staying with a friend and thought about renting an apartment in Fondren when someone told me about a house for sale in Belhaven. It was a small house with a fenced back yard, perfect for my dog, and the house number was the same as my birthday. I felt it was meant to be.”
Stennis’s return to Mississippi reminded her of all she loved about the state.
“Everyone was so nice, and I was greeted with open arms,” she said.
As a show of celebrating her return to her home state, Stennis wanted to fly a Mississippi flag in front of her house.
“But I had to take a long, hard look at it. I realized that this flag, to me, is a spiritual and economic burden to our great state,” she said. “I was a middle-aged woman, moving back and reflecting on how Mississippi has changed, and I just didn’t think the flag was a good symbol for our state.
“I believe a flag can represent a lot of different things to a lot of different people, so I went to the state’s Archives and History building and did a lot of research,” she said.
The debate over the state flag was heated long before Stennis returned to Jackson. On April 17, 2001, voters reaffirmed the use of the flag adopted in 1894 that contains the Confederate battle cross.
There was a push by some people for a flag with a magnolia design, but during her research, Stennis discovered that design was adopted after Mississippi seceded from the United States. It was adopted in 1861.
“That was like trading apples for apples, and graphically, I didn’t think the magnolia design worked well,” she said.
Stennis knows a thing or two about design. She makes her living as an artist, although she didn’t plan to pursue that career.
“The only advanced placement class I had at St. Andrews (Episcopal School) was in art,” she laughed.
The Jackson native had natural talent and interest in art, yet she went to Tulane after high school to study religion.
“I loved New Orleans, but the Tulane campus was a bit overwhelming to me after going to a small school like St. Andrews, so I transferred to Millsaps,” she said.
She eventually earned a master’s degree in social work in 1998.
After earning her degree, Stennis did “a 20-year tour of the South,” living in New Orleans twice, in the Raleigh-Durham area of North Carolina and, finally, in Birmingham, where she both volunteered and worked for Meals on Wheels.
Throughout that time, Stennis did pen and ink work on the side, often on commission. One fateful project dramatically changed the direction of her art.
“I was doing a special project for a neighborhood association in Birmingham, and I thought it would look good as a block print,” she said.
Stennis had never taken classes in making block prints, so she had a trial-and-error period as she taught herself the technique.
“I really liked it, so I did Christmas cards that year, and I just kept going,” she said.
Stennis entered her work in juried art shows regionally and had good success.
“I gave myself two years to see where this would go, and the rest is history.”
Now branded as Laurin Stennis, Ink, the artist created and produced wood block and linocut prints in an art studio in downtown Jackson above Hal & Mal’s restaurant before moving recently to a new space in Bottletree Studios, just down the street.
“I’ll still spend a lot of time with my Hal & Mal’s family,” she said. “It’s exciting to me to see the upswing in living spaces and vitality that’s happening in downtown Jackson.”
Her “Southern-fried block prints created with candor” are both whimsical and intricate. Her inspiration comes from a variety of places. Nature is seen in her bird and animal prints. Other subjects include Southern flora and fauna laced with subtle social commentary; dancers; Jackson landmark buildings; celebrities, including David Bowie and Eudora Welty; and Dia del Muerte (Day of the Dead)-inspired school mascots.
“Day of the Dead was a much-looked-forward-to celebration in Birmingham,” Stennis said. “I’ve done Colonel Reb, Bully — as well as mascots for Florida and LSU. I’m working on carving Alabama now.”
For four years, Stennis has been a juried member of the Mississippi Craftsmen’s Guild but has not participated in the annual Chimneyville Craft Festival.
“I used to do several shows every spring and fall in and near Birmingham, but it’s very difficult to set up and break down a booth,” she said.
Today, her work is shown in three galleries in Mississippi, including the Attic Gallery in Vicksburg, Caron Gallery in Tupelo and Art Hunt in Oxford. Stennis will soon have work in galleries in New Orleans and Birmingham. Her prints are also available online at www.laurinstennis.com.
“I’m excited that I’ll be in a couple of more markets this year,” she said.
Stennis’s upbringing in a political family has influenced her crusade to have Mississippi’s state flag changed.
“PawPaw’s personal motto was ‘Look Ahead.’ It’s what he always taught me, and it has both influenced my life and this effort to create a new flag that all Mississippians can be proud of,” she said.
After much study, Stennis created her own design for a potential new Mississippi state flag.
“I’ve become a vexillologist,” she said. “That’s someone who studies flag designs.”
She also has consulted with Ted Kaye, “an international flag design guru” who literally wrote the book on flag design called “Good Flag, Bad Flag.” Stennis’s design is in the hands of a committee at the State Capitol.
“I have always been fascinated by the power of myth and imagery to both illuminate and inspire — something necessary when designing a state flag,” Stennis explained. “I believe the flag will be changed, eventually. This will be a grassroots effort — with people purchasing the flag and flying it.”
Last year, two flag initiatives failed to receive enough signatures to make a statewide ballot. Twenty-two flag-related bills were introduced in the Mississippi Legislature this session offering to change, keep or let voters decide on the current state flag. None passed out of committee.
The Mississippi Economic Council has introduced a Mississippi bicentennial banner that several schools, businesses and municipalities fly instead of the state flag.
“What I’ve learned in talking to people about our flag is that it is not a discussion issue along party lines,” she said. “There is an overriding sense of pride in being a Mississippian. Just look at what is happening now in the Hattiesburg area (after a tornado ravaged homes, schools and businesses). People of all political parties, races, socio-economic backgrounds are coming together to help those in need. That’s what we do here. When people see my flag design, I want them to see hospitality, camaraderie, rocket engines, Leontine Price, Jimmy Buffet and Margaret Walker.
“When they see our current flag, the message is violence, wrenching and Jim Crow. It doesn’t allow the mind to go anywhere else. We have to embrace our whole story, and encourage people to be a part of history and hope. I don’t want Mississippians to be stagnant and looking over our shoulder. We need to look forward — as PawPaw taught us to.”