Ain't no party like a Gulf Coast party

by Brian Jewell 21. February 2012 22:01

Elaborate costumes, screaming crowds and police escorts — this must be what it feels like to be a rock star.

No, I'm not on tour with Lady Gaga. I'm in Biloxi, Mississippi for Mardi Gras, the yearly Fat Tuesday celebration that preceeds Ash Wednesday and the Lenten season. And on this warm, sunny February Tuesday, the people of Mississippi's Gulf Coast are preparing for a giant party.

Mardi Gras parades may be most famous in New Orleans, but the tradition originated in Alabama and has spread to cities all along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Florida. After New Orleans, Biloxi has one of the biggest Mardi Gras parades in the region, with more than 120 floats and a crowd of more than 100,000 onlookers. And while the idea of Mardi Gras has been tainted by some Big Easy debauchery, the festivities in Biloxi (and most other destionations) are safe and family-friendly.

That doesn't, however, mean that they are boring. Walking around the float staging area today before the parade began, I saw a motley assortment of characters loading up onto colorfully decorated floats. The cast ranged from the elaborately costmed King and Queen of Mardi Gras to pirates, soldiers, Angry Birds, bananas and many more. These folks are all affiliated with the various local businesses and "krewes" (social clubs) that sponsored floats in the Mardi Gras parade. In the hours before the parade began, they loaded untold millions of plastic beads onto their floats (as well as food and drinks), and pumped up music from on-board loudspeakers to help set a festive mood.

The real fun began when the floats took off down the parade route. The Mississippi Gulf Convention and Visitors Bureau enters a float in the parade each year, and invited me to join them and some other journalist as a participant in the parade. So I climed to the top of our double decker float, claimed my spot on the left side, and warmed up my throwing arm.

To describe the experience as exciting would be a severe understatment. From the time our float turned the first corner on the parade route, we were met with the enthusiastic screams of thousands of revelers. Of course, they weren't exactly screaming for us, but for the colorful strands of beads that we tossed out into the crowd. It's amazing how much excitement a strand of beads can stir up in the most unlikely of people. All along the parade route, we passed an endless number of people who eagerly clamored for our beads. The thrill seemed to transcend normal social barriers, uniting people of every age, sex, race and social circle into one giant party.

And so for two hours, I threw my heart out, launching hundreds or thousands of strands of beads into the crowd — in such an energetic atmosphere, it's impossible to keep count. Some parade-goers attracted my throwing attention with interesting costumes and funny signs. Others simply made me take notice with their wild hand-waving and enthusiastic screams. Many times, the person who caught the beads that I threw would shoot me a smile, a wave or a wink of gratitude. It's a fun and rewarding feeling.

At the end of the two-hour parade, my throwing arm was sore, and I wore a permanent smile plastered on my face. If you ever get a chance to ride a Mardi Gras float, you simply must do it. And anyone looking for a great mid-winter party should begin making plans to attend Mardi Gras in 2013.

 

Revelers loading up a parade float


A line of beads at my throwing station


Visitors check outthe floats before the parade begins


The Gulf Coast's 2012 King of Mardi Gras


Float riders get in to the spirit of Marid Gras


An elaborately decorated Mardi Gras float

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Mississippi Mardi Gras

Katrina who?

by Brian Jewell 20. February 2012 20:41

When Hurricane Katrina roared ashore in 2005, it made its mark on Mississippi's gulf coast. In Gulfport and Biloxi, the storm destroyed casinos, museums, homes and other structures; the nearby town of Bay St. Louis suffered incredible damage. But in the years since, the towns along the Mississippi coastline have rebuilt and renewed themselves, making the most of the story and welcoming visitors to learn about it.

I toured Bay St. Louis and parts of Biloxi today, seeing both evidence of the storm and the rebuilding that has taken place since then. We began in Bay St. Louis, the town that was hit the hardest. Though much of town has been rebuilt, several historic structures further inland survived. These include the Depot, a historic train station that now serves as a visitors center, and St. Rose de Lima Church. Another survivor is 100 Men DBA Hall, a historic music venue that was part of the "Chitlin Circuit" of blues joints throughout Mississippi in the early 20th century. Today the building is preserved as a historic site that groups can visit to learn about the rich African American cultural history of the area.

Downtown, Bay St. Louis has been almost completely rebuilt. Visitors will find numerous art galleries, craft shops and antique stores, which make an afternoon downtown a colorful event. The area also has a number of restaurants that serve seafood fresh from the Gulf, as well as other Southern specialties.

In Biloxi, several landmarks along the coast symbolize the city's resilience and recovery. During the storm, a surge of saltwater flooded inland areas, and many of the area's live oak trees died as a result of soaking in saltwater for eight hours or more. Rather than uproot these trees, locals fired up their chainsaws and carved them into beautiful outdoor sculptures, which both decorate the area and serve to memorialize the events of 2005.

Another symolic structure is the 1848 lighthouse that stands outside of Biloxi's visitors center. This white metal lighthouse has been an icon of the city for years, and locals and visitors alike were thrilled to see that the lighthouse survived the storm. Today, groups can take a tour of the small lighthouse, clmibing the circular stairway to the top for a look at the historic lamp and magnification lens, as well as a great view of Biloxi and the coastline.

Groups should also make time to visit Biloxi's Hurricane Katrina Memorial. Constructed by the crew of TV's "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition," this monument combines a colletion of items found scattered around town after the storm with a stately monument honoring those who lost their lives in the hurricane. The monument also has live oak that was masterfully carved and painted to create a tribute sculpture.

A tour of the Katrina sites in the area gives visitors an understanding of the storm and the damage it created in the community. But more moving than that lesson in history is the beauty of the communities that have reemerged, stronger and prouder than ever.

 

100 Men DBA Hall is part of Mississippi's Blues Trail


Clay Creations is one of sevral art galleries in Bay St. Louis


A colorful gift shop in downtown Bay St. Louis


Biloxi's 1848 lighthouse


Found objects on display at Biloxi's Hurricane Katrina Memorial

Museum for a 'Mad Potter'

by Brian Jewell 19. February 2012 22:53

Most coastal destinations are known more for their beaches and resorts than for art and architecture. But in Biloxi, the Ohr-O'Keefe Museum is one of the region's cheif attractions, showcasing the work of a famous local artist in an architectural setting that is an acheivement in itself.

I'm spending a few days on the Mississippi Gulf Coast to celebrate Mardi Gras. While the big festivities are still a couple of days away, the Mississippi Gulf Coast Convention and Visitors Bureau staff is showing me and some other journalists around the area, beginning with a reception and tour of the Ohr-O'keefe Museum.

The museum highlights the work of George Ohr, a local artist who billed himself as the "Mad Potter of Biloxi." Ohr's "madness" was probably more of a marketing ploy than a real mental illness, but the artwork he produced was brilliant nonetheless. The museum displays numerous pieces of Oh'rs pottery inside a star-shaped gallery, which also features some funny Orh quotes painted on the walls.

The unusual shape of the gallery is part of its architectural design. World-renowned architect Frank Ghery designed the museum, adding a touch of high architecture to the Gulf Coast skyline. Rather than creating one large museum building, Ghery designed the museum as a campus of several small gallery buildings, seperated by landscaped outdoor areas. Passing from one gallery to the next, visitors get a great view of beach, which sits just across the highway from the museum.

In addition to Ohr's pottery, the museum has a gallery with a wonderful collection of African American art. A changing exhibit gallery hosts two different exhibitinos each year, which can feature painting, sculpture and other works by area artists. The museum also has a great visitors center and gift shop, as well as a re-creation of a cabin built by a Biloxi African American family in the 1880s.

Ongoing work at the museum is repairing damage from Hurricane Katrina and opening new buildings that will enable the staff to expand exhibition space.

 

The museum's African American art gallery

 

Orh pottery displayed in the star-shaped gallery


A George Ohr quote

 

Inside the museum's Pleasant Reed House, a re-created 1880s home

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