KILN — A handful of school kids huddled in seats at the Hancock Performing Arts Center, tickled to see themselves on the big screen in the premiere of “The Hancock Community Quilt.” The video lived up to its metaphor — bright and warm, with new perspectives of landmarks and hopeful views from the next generation.
The video’s premiere at the county’s first Homegrown Literary & Arts Exchange was the culminating event of Mark Geil’s place-based artist residency in Hancock County, sharing footage collected over five months and 10 visits to the coastal county.
From tiny scraps to a broader canvas, Geil pieced together a community-engaged look at Hancock County using 360-degree cameras. Sweeping panoramas of the deeply rooted 100 Men D.B.A. Hall in Bay St. Louis, inside and out, were enlivened by song from the St. Rose de Lima Gospel Choir. A Tiny Planet perspective provided fun, loopy views from the Hancock County Fair. Children’s sweet words and imaginative artwork were affecting in their honesty and sincerity. “I was really fascinated with how children see their world,” Geil said.
Geil’s project was one of two artist-led, community-driven, place-based artist residencies in Mississippi this year, organized through the Mississippi Museum of Art’s Center for Art & Public Exchange (CAPE), an initiative supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
Residencies engage the artist and community in a collaborative exploration of Mississippi places and their history, producing art that builds deeper understanding. The projects grew out of listening sessions across the state, then a call for artist proposals and a selection from submissions. Projects need to reflect community challenges and aspirations, as well as CAPE goals of transparency, equity and truth. The short-term residencies were awarded grants of $10,000 each to support their execution.
Artist proposals can’t target their home communities. That outsider perspective brought curiosity and openness to the project, said Geil, who lives in Jackson and originally hails from Albuquerque. “Because I didn’t grow up there, I haven’t made decisions about it. In some ways, everything is new.”
The community quilt metaphor was a way in, he said — “How do you think about what people contribute to the fabric of the community?”
Geil, a Jackson State University associate professor of art and photography is steeped, too, in videography and image-making. He proposed the purchase of five handheld 360-degree cameras and their use in creating the community quilt. The small camera’s two lenses capture 180 degrees in all directions, and then stitch it together.
“It makes you pay attention to the landscape in a different way,” Geil said. Photography and traditional videography always leave something outside the frame, with decisions made on what to include and exclude. Here, “You’re capturing everything, both in front of you and behind you.
“By nature, it’s inclusive of everything.”
Collaborators included The Arts, Hancock County and Hancock Performing Arts Center director Catherine Tibbs, who connected him with area schools. “Getting our schools involved and our children involved — that was most important to all of us,” Tibbs said, “to give them the opportunity to share what was important to them.”
Geil worked with kids ranging from second through fifth grades; a high school visit is still on the horizon. He centered classroom visits around three themes, to draw out responses and connections in interviews and artwork: what kids loved about where they lived; the kindness of others; and, the most beautiful thing they’ve ever seen. “In their earnest way, they were telling their stories and what matters to them,” he said.
Interviews revealed a county split by Interstate 10, with rural piney woods on one side and the coast on the other. Children described the land, and the freedom exploring the woods — “that kind of enchantment, when you’re growing up in a forest,” Geil said. “Interviewing some adults, they echoed that sentiment of growing up in Kiln … that same kind of connection to the land and growing up in a rural area where your nearest neighbor could be half a mile away.” Their relationship to water — the Jordan River, the Pearl River and the Gulf of Mexico — was also a frequent topic.
Community resiliency came through, too, Geil said, as residents who once marked time before and after Hurricane Camille, now did the same with Hurricane Katrina. After the area’s tremendous losses with Katrina, “Material possessions stopped mattering in the same way, because so many people lost so many things. Witnessing that resiliency was amazing.”
The 23-minute video is one component of the larger community quilt project, which includes additional interviews and footage. That, along with the cameras, editing computer, interview equipment and VR glasses purchased in the residency, will stay in Hancock County as a community resource, “So they can continue the story,” Geil said, “in whatever way they want to.” The video was projected in 2-D for the premiere, but an app with pivot points will allow individual viewers to move through it at will, and, with VR glasses, they can see everything captured. Find a link to the video on the CAPE website, museumcape.org, in early January.
“It’s so cool,” said teacher Stacey Ferguson, recalling how her third graders at North Bay Elementary took to the project, Geil’s visit to their visual arts class and his interviews. “They got to draw their favorite places in Hancock County. It could be your backyard. It could be the beach. It could be the woods. They all did different things.” At one point, their art on vellum paper covered a clear rectangular box, with the camera inside, for a layered, collage effect. “They also interviewed each other — the kids did.
“They were very comfortable with the technology. It didn’t phase them at all,” she said, beyond an “Oh wow” at the start and some fascination with the little camera’s tripod. “They did a great job with their questioning, and their answering techniques. … I learned about them myself — that they don’t need all that scaffolding. Sometimes they just need to try it out, and go for it.
“The arts always open pathways that other means won’t,” she said. “When you use the arts, you’re going to reach everyone, because it’s so personal.”
Those featured in the video gave it a thumbs up. “Fantastic,” Allison K. Craig said, laughing that she got a little nervous when her self-portrait was coming up. Her pal Gracie Zimmerman concurred, adding that she, too, “was laughing in my mind.”
“It was good,” Aaliyah Labat said. “I’m going to tell my friends in the gifted program that it was fun, and tell the ones I saw” in the video.
“It made me feel very hopeful, because the children embraced the art,” said Hancock County Library System’s Nel Ducomb, who chaired the Homegrown Literary & Arts Exchange. She noted the joy in their self-portraits, and the way they talked about the kindness of other children who made them feel included.
“Art to me is a great unifier. It brings everybody together. So, just their kindness, their friendship, their art — I think the whole thing was a beautiful experience.”