By Emma Kent
Vicki Burnett has always painted — since she was 12 years old, in fact — but it wasn’t until 2013 that she decided to make her love of painting a full-time gig. Except she doesn’t paint canvases for walls and frames. She paints cowbells for cheering on the Mississippi State Bulldogs.
Burnett painted her first cowbell when she was in college in the 1980s. It was for her late husband, who was then just a friend. She still has the cowbell, which features an older version of MSU’s Bully mascot.
“That was back when you had to sneak them into the games,” she said.
Once cowbells were officially allowed back into Davis-Wade Stadium, Burnett started painting them again. She would paint them to take to Bunco as prizes and for family and friends who asked. As friends told friends, the orders began to pour in.
“It has not stopped,” she said of her business. “I paint almost every single day. I get orders from Texas, Florida, Colorado, Texas — just all over the country.”
Burnett takes orders and communicates with clients mostly through Facebook. She can be contacted via her Facebook page, Burnett Cowbells and Calligraphy.
Burnett begins by sketching her design onto the cowbell. Then, she paints over it with acrylic paint. Before paint can be applied to the cowbell, she must prep the surface by sanding it down so that the paint will stick to it. She typically uses thicker layers of paint to help her work stand the test of time.
“These are keepsake cowbells, so I want them to last,” Burnett said.
A recent commission is a cowbell that features a couple’s portrait in honor of their 50th anniversary. The couple’s daughter sent Burnett their photo from when they were first married, and Burnett sketched the portrait onto a cowbell and painted it. She even translated the black-and-white photo into color. The result is a keepsake honoring the couple’s 50 years of marriage in true Bulldog style.
“I’ve done proposal cowbells — that’s a lot of fun — where they tie the ring onto the cowbell,” Burnett said.
MSU also commissions a lot of bells from Burnett, especially the President’s Office. Burnett’s bells are often given by the university as retirement gifts.
“That’s what I love about what I do — I get to be a part of all of these celebrations,” Burnett said.
Burnett earned her associate’s degree in art from Hinds Community College before transferring to MSU, where she majored in communication. She graduated from MSU in 1986. She admits now that she was trying to be practical in choosing her major, but she wishes she would have continued studying art.
“Whatever you’re passionate about you should do,” she said. “God is good. He has blessed the work of my hands.”
In the years before she began her business, Burnett said she often painted simply for pleasure. She loves painting landscapes and other scenes using oil paints.
“I don’t paint as much for myself as I used to, and I really miss that,” she said.
She still makes time every now and then for her own personal development as an artist, though, attending workshops and other classes. She also takes on other projects, like a mural she is currently working on at the Claiborne Retirement Community in Starkville.
“I try really hard to continue to develop professionally,” she said.
Painting cowbells has expanded her skill set in some ways. Before, Burnett admits she wasn’t confident in her ability to paint portraits. Now, after being commissioned to paint so many portraits on cowbells, Burnett feels like she’s gotten the hang of it.
“I’ve been doing a lot of portraits lately,” Burnett said. “I’ve never really been a portrait artist, but I’ve realized that I love portrait painting. Every portrait grows me and expands and challenges me because it forces me to look and paint carefully.”
Burnett paints anything and everything onto her cowbells — from landscapes to buildings to meaningful messages and words. One of her favorite designs is an MSU bulldog outlined in a range of bright colors against a white background. She’s painted the Chapel of Memories, Lee and McCool halls and nearly all of the athletic facilities.
When the MSU baseball team made it to the College World Series in June, Burnett joined the fun by making custom bells featuring the team’s good luck charm: the rally banana.
“That was so much fun to paint,” she said. “I had a lot of interest in that one.”
Burnett applied to become licensed to use MSU’s trademarks shortly after starting her business, which means she can use the MSU logo, players’ images and Bully in her work.
She’s gotten to paint a lot of things on a lot of cowbells, but there’s still one commission Burnett hopes to do one of these days. Onlookers ring cowbells at the winter Olympics for skiiers and snowboarders so that they can be heard by the athletes, even at the top of the slopes.
“I would love to paint a cowbell for an Olympic skiier or snowboarder,” Burnett said.