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Laurin Stennis didn’t set out to design a new flag for the state of Mississippi any more than she set out to be a block print artist. But, when events present themselves in her life, Stennis knows how to listen, and she’s always willing to take a path untraveled to see where it may lead.
And, though she prefers not to be in the spotlight, she’s become a pied piper of sorts, leading others down the path with her, all champions for a cause to unite our state through the waving of a new flag.
Mississippi’s flag, which is the last in the nation containing the Confederate battle emblem, has been criticized for more than a decade. The Mississippi Economic Council led the charge to change the flag in 2001, but Mississippi voters voted to keep the current design. In October, Gov. Phil Bryant urged the Legislature to put the state flag issue back on a statewide ballot in 2018.
Many residents and businesses throughout the state have taken hold of Stennis’ Mississippi: I Declare design, which features a large blue star in the middle surrounded by 19 smaller stars on a field of white.
On her website, Stennis, who earned a master’s degree in social work from Millsaps College in 1998 before pursuing art full-time, explains that the 19 stars circling the larger star represents Mississippi as the 20th state to join the Union in 1817. The centered blue star is an inverted “Bonnie Blue,” a reference to the state’s secession (1961-1865). The circular shape symbolizes wholeness and continuity and is also drawn from artifacts of indigenous people to our region, particularly the Choctaw Nation. The red bars on either side stand in opposition, recognizing the passionate differences we sometimes harbor, as well as in honor of those who have given their lives in pursuit of liberty and justice for all.
Stennis’ flag flies above businesses and graces bumper stickers of vehicles across the state. A few months ago, Stennis put out a call for entries for an art show called “Mississippi Made,” an exhibit featuring some of Mississippi’s finest artists’ interpretation of Stennis’ flag design. The Mississippi Museum of Art After Hours pop-up event will be Thursday, with a reception from 5:30 to 8 p.m.
Stennis, the granddaughter of former Sen. John C. Stennis, for whom Stennis Space Center is named, was raised to love her state. After living away for 20 years, she decided to move back to her native state, and she quickly was reminded of all the reasons why she loves Mississippi.
“The people here are so wonderful, and they all greeted me with open arms,” she said.
Eager to show her pride of place, Stennis wanted to fly a state flag in front of her home.
“But I had to look at the flag and realize that our current state flag has become a spiritual and economic burden. I was a middle-aged woman and, as I reflected on how Mississippi had changed, I just didn’t think the flag was a good symbol for our state.”
It was her political upbringing that influenced her crusade to change Mississippi’s flag.
So, a determined Stennis set out to design an alternate flag, one she hoped people would rally around in a united way.
“I believe a flag can represent a lot of different things to a lot of different people, and I wanted to design a flag that all Mississippians will be able to relate to.”
Stennis went to the state’s Department of Archives and History building and did a lot of research on both the state of Mississippi as well as what makes a good flag.
There’s both art and science to good flag design. Through her research, Stennis has become a vexillologist, someone who studies flag designs. Her research also led her to consult with Ted Kay, “an international flag design guru” who literally wrote the book on flag design called “Good Flag, Bad Flag.”
“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 said.
Summer Nation is one of the artists in the pop up show Thursday. A ceramicist, Nation became fascinated with Mississippi houses when she lived in Scotland.
“I grew up and lived in Mississippi all my life, but all I ever wanted was to move away, mostly because I was embarrassed to be from Mississippi,” Nation said. “I felt like a black sheep. But, when I moved to Scotland, I was surprised that the Scots love all things Mississippi, especially our music. I began to miss the houses and the people and Mississippi’s laid-back way of living. That made me think about making little spirit houses. I studied Asian spirit houses, and the spirit houses for garden spirits, and I started making little juke joints, because my spirits loved to party!”
When she saw the call for entries from Stennis, Nation immediately started. She created a ceramic sharecropper shack that has a large Stennis flag on the roof. In front is a sign that demands “Be nice or leave.” On the side is written “Mississippi needs to be for everybody.” Nation says she is “pro new flag” all the way and hopes this show will make a positive impression on all who see it.
Also in the show is Mary Bess Gloria, a Mississippi “ex-pat” who lives in Oregon.
“Mary Bess collects found objects and makes beautiful collage art,” Stennis said.
Her piece includes found objects, paper and coins on a gesso panel.
Twenty artistic interpretations will make up the show, from a concertina book to ceramic, glass, textiles, paintings, jewelry and sculpture.
“I’ve been so excited by the generosity of spirit of these artists,” Stennis said. “People have responded with such enthusiasm and joy. I’m so grateful to these artists and what they’ve come up with. As an artist myself, I always realized that, as Mississippians, we must often communicate our truths through circuitous routes. I am fortunate that I grew up knowing there is power in the arts.”
Stennis stresses that the show is a new and different way of telling the Mississippi story.
“It’s a grassroots effort, and it’s a positive way to bring Mississippians together in a unique way. Getting this flag idea out there has been a bi-partisan, positive grassroots effort,” she said. “I want people to relax and have fun, to dive in and celebrate all that Mississippi has to offer. My goodness, we test rocket engines here, and we have incredible singers and writers.
“I believe this flag design is something we can all benefit from. It’s not a protest flag by any means — this is a flag we can all feel good about.”
Stennis plans to tour the art around the state with the ultimate goal of having the flag become official, then donating the pieces to the newly opened Mississippi History Museum.
“I want to show how art and artists contributed to putting the jewel on the crown,” she said.
The event on Thursday will also feature the newly opened bicentennial exhibitions, and jazz vocalist Pam Confer will perform. The museum store, café’ and galleries will remain open until 8 p.m.
Herb Willey215 Main StreetTransparent watercolor
Ron DillMississippi Beer CoolerMississippi cypress and reclaimed tin
Pete HalversonStennis FlagAcrylic on board
H.C. PorterFlag and ButterflyMixed media
Anne Scott BarrettStennis Rocket FlagWatercolor on paper
Josh HaileyMississippi NowPhoto collage
Mary Bess GloriaPhillippians 2:15Found objects, paper, coin on gesso panel
Pat BrownMississipp I Declare Concertina BookHandmade and watercolor specialty paper
Yolande van HeerdenYesterday, Today, and TomorrowAntique, vintage, and new textiles
Ellen LangfordThe Importance of PruningAcrylic on canvas
Melanie Mitchell TuckerChanging SeasonsEmbossed and recycled papers
Elaine MaiselStennis FlagAcrylic on Mississippi guinea fowl feather
Cathy TalbotMississippi DeclareVitreous/glass enamel on copper, mounted on wood
Michelle AlleeMississippi I Declare, United We StandAcrylic on canvas
Harold MillerDeclare MississippiClay
Summer NationMississippi HouseCeramic
Anne BrunsonMississippi I DeclareAcid-etched copper and leather
Monique DavisI Dream of a United MississippiCopic marker on paper
Tawny Johnson MintonMississippi I DeclareFace Painting