Toccopola Sam: Mississippi Painter Creates Houston’s First Art District

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     By Lindsay Daffron

     To Toccopola artist Samantha Baldwin, painting is tentative. Or, at least its essence is. Whether she must catch a fleeting idea or gain legal permission to paint public property, her craft is indefinite, provisional. That’s why good art relies on prompt action.

     “Creation, and inspiration and artistic things, they’re almost like a breeze. If you don’t stop and appreciate it right then, it’s going to leave you. It’s going to be gone. So you’ve got to stop everything that you’re doing and get it down,” Baldwin said.

     And so she did—for 40 hours, across three-and-a-half days—with nine gallons of exterior paint. The Toccopola native painted Houston, Mississippi’s first public mural collection atop an ashen storm shelter. 

     Alderwoman Kelly Atkinson recruited Baldwin to paint the four-sided building in December of last year. Officials wanted to implement Houston’s first art district, a tool to potentially decrease crime and generate positive attention to the area. Once Baldwin agreed to paint, the community granted her control.

     “Houston was the first community who told me, ‘You have artistic freedom. We want you to do your thing. Just try to incorporate Houston in a way that’s interactive,’” Baldwin said. “They were thinking of other interactive murals, like Nashville with the wings.”

     She liked their vision, but she wished to create something novel. Little did she know, Houston natives—who brought water, donuts, gatorade, or invitations to eat at their restaurants—would shape her artistic method. Her work does not simply incorporate their kindness, generosity and good, Southern hospitality. It is made of it.

      “I really got encouraged as people would come. I wanted them to paint a brushstroke on the walls as well, so they could come back and say, ‘Hey, I did this,’” she said. “It’s been a community event for the people here.”

     Baldwin’s work consists of four separate pieces: the poignant face of a Native American woman; a whimsical spray can spewing out the cosmos (which she affectionately calls her “imagination” piece, designed especially for children); a wall of larger-than-life flowers; and two hands, different in race, uniting as one heart. 

     “The hands were the first thing that came into my mind and the first thing I wanted to get out,” she said. “I knew above anything else that I had to get those right, because it was the most powerful statement that I have on these walls.”

     Perhaps just as striking is the Native American woman, left purposefully ambiguous. Fittingly, the mural faces the Chickasaw County Heritage Museum, a resource which inspired Baldwin to paint the woman and pay homage to local history.

     “She’s not necessarily anybody in particular, which I like. People imagine that she is their family, that she is their grandmother, that she is part of their lineage,” Baldwin said. 

     She explained photography’s expense and accessibility precluded many families of the past from taking photographs. This proves disappointing for present families who recognize Native Americans as an important part of their genealogy. Touched by the mural, one woman even told Baldwin she envisioned the painting as her grandmother—a compliment, considering the artist prioritized celebrating Houston’s history and nuance. 

     “I think part of art is being able to make it something other people can put themselves in. That’s part of how you know you might be doing it right,” she said.

     People have responded to her art with tremendous positivity, driving by on their lunch breaks, posting her work on social media or traveling from other communities to see it. Their warmth has mattered to the artist. 

     “It was just a beautiful and refreshing reminder that people are kind. And they’re kind because they’re kind,” Baldwin said. “They’re kind because they’re breathing. And that in itself has been just a really nice reminder that this world, this place, this moment is not so bad.”

     At the last brushstroke, she cried—for gratitude, for relief and for her renewed faith in others. She had finally fulfilled a lifelong dream of painting public art, and with it came a chance to know others, to be known and to spread her light. 

      “It was really a special and precious moment,” Baldwin said. “I finally got this out of my heart and on to a storm shelter, of all places.”

 

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