Growing up in Greenwood in the 1980s, Sue Anna Joe was an artsy person.
Joe, 45, remembers The Greenwood Little Theater, a non-profit community theater that is run by volunteers. Despite the theater’s presence, the Delta’s remoteness — it was common for people in Greenwood “to drive down to Jackson” — removed Joe from the hum of city life and new adventures.
“I think as a creative person that I like to try new things and see things from someone else’s perspective,” Joe said.
After working a couple of clerical jobs post-college, a friend recommended web design to Joe. Ultimately, she felt that Mississippi could not provide her the diverse lifestyle nor the higher pay found in other states.
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“When I was getting ready to move, I wasn’t really thinking about the graphic design thing, but I wanted to leave for two different choices: I wanted to leave for a place with a bigger variety of lifestyle choices, and I felt that no matter what type of job I got in Mississippi that the pay was going to be kind of low,” she said.
So she left. Today, she’s a front-page web developer in San Francisco. She says California connected her childhood artistic interests to web and graphic design and offered her a reasonable wage for her career.
Joe is among thousands of native Mississippians who have left the state to build careers in arts or other creative fields. The effects of this particular exodus undoubtedly leave a void in one of the state’s most appealing and successful aspects: its arts and culture scene. Dozens of creatives responded to Mississippi Today’s NextGen Mississippi survey and shared why they took their talents to other states.
Some creative Mississippians shared experiences of “belonging” when they left the state to pursue their crafts.
“I didn’t feel I was able to be completely open as myself (in Mississippi)”, said Ellice Patterson, a 26-year-old native of Boonesville who now lives in Boston.
Identifying as Black, queer and disabled, Patterson’s latest ballet production, FireBird, which premiered on Zoom on May 14-15, drew on the art administrator’s and director’s personal identity as it comprised a myriad of sub-cultures like BIPOC, LGBTQ and Disability.
However, the executive director and founder of Abilities Dance Boston focused on the conversation FireBird elicits surrounding intersectionality, a term that refers to understanding how a person’s social and political identity creates different modes of discrimination or privilege.
“It was inviting allies and folks who don’t identify with certain communities,” Patterson said. “I believe intersectionality is the key to a better future.”
When asked about creating a production like “FireBird” in Mississippi, Patterson highlighted the “lack of opportunities” and the “lack of support” for creative Mississippians.
“I think there are practical ways that the work can exist, but there’s no real theater,” Patterson said when referring to her hometown of Booneville. “There are no professional dance companies in Mississippi.”
Tony Adams Reimonenq III, a 23-year-old actor from Hattiesburg who now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, described acting as something that makes him “feel like a superhero.”
“What I have gathered is that it has always been my escape,” Reimonenq said. “In real life, I stutter. But when I act, I don’t stutter. So, it empowers me to speak in front of all these people.”
Since he was 3 years old, Reimonenq has acted and credited Mississippi for birthing talented “superheroes” because the state has “a special kind of power” to curate creative people.
But, Reimonenq also acknowledged that the state does not support its creative people in return.
“I knew I was always going to leave Mississippi because just seeing how the arts are supported elsewhere,” Reimonenq shared.
At Oak Grove High School in Hattiesburg, Reminoneq recalled his theater group receiving little funding, while “sports was supported more.” Beyond financial support for artistry, Reminonenq has experienced a sense of genuine community in Louisville.
“When it comes down to true love, empathy or support, everyone will not show that because of political or family backgrounds,” Reminonenq shared when describing the reasons young and older Mississippians are polarized from each other.
However, Reimonenq has hope for Mississippi and plans to open a performing arts theater one day to support upcoming actors and actresses.
“My advice is to cling on to this passion you have for this craft and don’t let your circumstances stop you,” Reimonenq said. “Use your experiences from Mississippi in your craft.”
Hanna Lane Miller, a 30-year-old documentary filmmaker, TV, and film producer from Collins, MS who now lives in Los Angeles, left the state to sharpen her artistic skills.
Previously working as a production assistant at Mississippi Public Broadcasting, Miller’s creative interests eventually transcended into documentary filmmaking, but the aspiring filmmaker sought outside educational opportunities to establish credibility.
“I just knew that if I wanted to have a name or credentials in this industry, then I knew I couldn’t go to a school in Mississippi,” Miller explained.
While Miller acknowledged the value of a Mississippi education, her words like “credentials” and “a name” reflect the sparse education for film and media studies in Mississippi because just four colleges — the University of Mississippi, Millsaps College, University of Southern Miss, and Mississippi University for Women — offer a film and media curriculum.
Additionally, Miller acknowledged the state’s complex history with social justice issues, which the native of Collins connected to hard but rich storytelling in Mississippi.
“While all Southern states are stigmatized, there’s a very special stigma for Mississippi. I think Mississippi particularly has a complex history of social justice,” Miller shared when asked about creating documentaries in Mississippi that deal with social justice issues.
After living in Jackson for just a year, Miller admitted that her short time in the capital city does not grant a current view of Jackson’s artistic community, but the “little interaction between Black and white creators” reflected a divisive atmosphere that still surfaces today.
Even though Miller went to a predominately Black school, she admitted being unaware of the intersection of race, art and politics where she recalled Black friends who entered majority-white, artistic spaces in Jackson.
Now, the 30-year-old documentary filmmaker recognized that “we have to be set on stepping out of our comfort zone” to bridge the gap between misunderstanding and collaboration.
Other creative Mississippians reflected on the lack of state support for Jackson, the capital city and state’s only large metropolitan area that serves as a cultural hub. They shared nuanced emotions towards the city itself and state leaders’ policies that drive young creatives out of the state.
“I’ve always wanted to support Jackson; I’ve never wanted it to fail, but people don’t want to invest in Jackson. They treat it like a lost cause,” said Maggie Hubbard, a 24-year-old Brandon and Flowood native who is now a graphic designe and animator in New York City.
Acknowledging that New York City is not perfect, Hubbard’s ability to find more jobs as a graphic designer, hear “different languages,” and “see many different types of art” — aspects that continued during the pandemic — appealed to her.
“All of the measures they took to make life bearable really stuck with people,” Hubbard explained, contrasting the divisive political leadership surrounding the Jackson water crisis during the pandemic.
All of the young creatives interviewed for this piece expressed hope for Mississippi.
Annsley McRae, a 25-year-old event coordinator and Tishomingo native who now lives in Nashville, looks forward to creating more events in Mississippi one day and acknowledged she “could quite have the market share in Mississippi” based on what she knows now about the state.
Other creative Mississippians like Miller have found a way to contribute their talents to the state from afar; Miller is currently working on her first Mississippi-based feature film that examines “a sense of belonging.”
“My advice for anyone who wants to be the best in this field is to leave Mississippi but to come back,” Miller said. “I still love Mississippi a lot, and the one thing about Mississippi I love when I work there is that I know exactly who I am and why I’m there because in Mississippi there’s no getting lost.”
Photo collage graphic by Bethany Atkinson / Photo credits: Annsley McRae, Mickey West Photography, Kyle Ware from Kentucky’s Shakespeare and flag design by Sue Anna Joe