While in Biloxi this past weekend for the Mississippi Press Association’s annual convention, I experienced both the high and low cultures of the Gulf Coast.
On the refined side, I toured the Ohr-O’Keefe Museum of Art. It features a lot of fancy works, few of which I understood, and is housed in buildings designed by world-renowned architest Frank Gehry. It’s in view of the beach, and you walk between five distinct structures over bricks covered by the long branches of live oaks.
On the — what shall we call it? — everyday, routine, plebian, crude side, I visited a less culturally significant site, but one that nonetheless plays an important economic function: Biloxi Pawn & Jewelry. It’s a concrete block building painted light yellow (I’m not sure, but I’m guessing Gehry did not play a role in its design) and promises, “WE BUY GOLD, Top $.”
The museum is along Beach Boulevard (U.S. 90), which hugs the coast. Big oaks and small palms (they’re growing back after Hurricane Katrina) line the road. The waveless sound stretches out in view, and the huge casinos — monuments to fortunes lost by many (gamblers) and gained by a few (casino owners) — are there, too. This is where the tourists come to play.
The pawn shop is on Pass Road, a block and a world away. It’s near Keesler Air Force Base and features many of the establishments you expect near military installations: fast food, tattoo parlors, seedy shops. This is where the real residents of Biloxi come to live.
The museum had guides in each of the buildings to explain the artists’ backgrounds and the motivation behind their work. It was very helpful for a novice such as myself. I always feel while looking at art like the Ethiopian eunuch felt while reading the Old Testament: “How can I understand this unless somebody explains it to me?”
The pawn shop, suffice it to say, did not have guides, although the staff, which seemed to be a family, was very friendly. My father is a connosseiur of pawn shops and can tell you the difference between a good one and a bad one. I don’t know enough about jewelry, musicial instruments or power tools to tell if they were high-quality or reasonably priced.
But, there in the corner, golf clubs! I know those well. And most all of them were knockoffs of name brands and outdated by more than a decade. They seemed to have pulled clubs from sundry manufacturers into hodgepodge sets, which they were asking $150 each for. I would guess their actual value at more like $25. Although prices are surely negotiable, I didn’t see that gulf being spanned — or any of those sets being sold anytime in the next 100 years.
As for the rest of the stock, I noted many, many guitars, but just three violins (they may have been fiddles; there’s no way to tell the difference unless someone’s playing them). It struck me that aspiring rock and rollers are more likely to get into a financial pinch than classical musicians.
The wares at the museum were decidedly different. The first exhibit I saw featured, uh, twisted pieces of metal and wood. The guide explained the artist wanted it to be like hearing a language you don’t understand, where you’re confused but also curious to understand what is being said. I guess it accomplished its purpose on me.
Another building had amazingly lifelike portraits sewed onto tapestries. They take up to 19 months to make, and the artist had explanations of how she crafts them.
Then there was the namesake Ohr collection of pots by George “The Mad Potter of Biloxi” Ohr (1857-1918). He created ingenious shapes and colors in a sort of abstract style and did sideshow-like attractions to try to sell, making crazy faces and hairstyles in promotional photos and challenging people to pottery-making competitions at the World’s Fair in New Orleans. It didn’t work, and he got discouraged and quit pottery. But he was rediscovered in the 1970s and is now considered one of Mississippi’s most innovative artists.
So if you’re at the beach this summer, stop by the museum for a taste of Mississippi’s rich culture. And since vacations are expensive, if you get in a tight spot, I know a place that pays top dollar for gold.