Match point: With simple supplies and respect for her past, Bessie Johnson passes on a lost art

July 25, 2009 8:57:00 PM

Jan Swoope - jswoope@cdispatch.com

 

Bessie Johnson has come to appreciate the humor in it. But when check-out clerks first suspected her of being up to no good after repeat store visits to buy armloads of wooden matches and bottles of glue, the moment wasn''t quite as amusing. 

 

Remembering it now, years later, she indulges in a long laugh. After all, the big-box employees were just doing their job. And they had no way of knowing the master artist and member of the West Point Hall of Fame was only stocking up to teach a forgotten art to students in the Mississippi Arts Commission''s Art in School program. 

 

"Match stick art is an old art, a lost art," the gentle-spoken Johnson said. "It''s what I call Depression art; people used it because it was inexpensive. Some refer to it as prison art; it was a way to keep prisoners busy and didn''t cost much." 

 

By simply manipulating the burned end of a wooden match, Johnson -- who is most known for her exquisite pine needle basketry -- is passing on a seldom-seen folk art. 

 

  

 

Unexpected places 

 

Few passing through the rural community of Tibbee as they cruise the back roads to West Point will know an artist featured on Mississippi Public Broadcasting''s "Mississippi Roads" lives in one of the neat, red brick homes. Fewer still will be aware anyone in this Clay County hamlet once exhibited at a World''s Fair (1984) or had her handmade work in the White House (1994).  

 

 Johnson, now 70 and proud of it, has had a rather extraordinary career. The charter member of the Craftsmen''s Guild of Mississippi has earned widespread recognition and numerous honors at major art shows and festivals.  

 

As a child growing up in Monroe County, she was inspired by her parents'' love of traditional arts. Her father re-seated chairs and made baskets with corn shucks and white oak, and her mother quilted. The quilts, in fact, are providing design inspiration for Johnson''s match stick art classes, especially one the wife and mother of three volunteers to conduct every Monday at her church, Jones Chapel United Methodist, in Tibbee.  

 

"When we first started this group three years ago, I intended to try a variety of art forms, but we began doing match stick art with the easiest design -- the match stick cross -- and it just mushroomed!" said Johnson, who, after graduating from Alcorn State University and earning a master''s degree at Mississippi State University, served as a 4-H youth agent and home economist with the Mississippi Extension Service for almost 30 years. 

 

 The ladies in the church outreach ministry group, all seniors, embraced the activity. 

 

 "It''s therapeutic -- you just forget the time," remarked Barbara Blair, of West Point, sanding a rough edge off a wastebasket she''s covering with match sticks for a 16-year-old grandson. Other women present patiently worked on a tissue box, a picture frame, a small jewelry box -- gluing match sticks, one by one. 

 

Betty House, of Starkville, observed sagely, "It''s best not to get in a hurry." 

 

  

 

Simple process 

 

The beauty of the art is in its simplicity. 

 

"All you need to get started is a box of matches, glue and some imagination," the comfortably dignified Johnson instructed. Unfinished items, like the frames and tissue boxes, can be inexpensively purchased at stores such as Hobby Lobby or Michael''s and are popular to cover.  

 

Burning matches requires some care. In class, Johnson and her proteges typically stand them closely packed in a small pimento jar. A damp towel is kept handy to help snuff them out. (At home, Johnson has a boiler she does this in, with a tight lid to shut off the oxygen.)  

 

"When you first light them, it zoops!" the artist said, with animated hands. 

 

For school programs, students are supplied with matches that have already been burned. 

 

With mirth, Johnson recalled a day she and then Columbus Arts Council director Heather Rowland lit so many in a downtown Columbus parking lot for an art program, the smell of smoke drifted into vents at a nearby office building, prompting worried employees, unaware of the source, to flock outside.  

 

 After a brief burn, blackened match tips are carefully cleaned with a paper towel or tissue to remove grainy soot. And then the gluing begins. 

 

 Designs vary; some were worked out for Johnson by an interested architect. A previous class participant thought of scorching match sticks in the center, to add design variety.  

 

"And we''ve used the eight-point star pattern from one of my mother''s quilts; the next ones from those will be the Drunkard''s Path and Dutch Girl," the instructor remarked. 

 

Some of the Monday enthusiasts have advanced to exhibiting at West Point''s Prairie Arts Festival Sept.5; Blair is even entering the juried fine art division. 

 

Proud of the group and the designs she''s seen developed since the class''s inception, their mentor pronounced, "I''ve never seen so much creativity just by turning the burned end of a match." 

 

  

 

Good for body and soul 

 

Some who have taken up match stick art feel it''s helped with joint issues. 

 

"I have arthritis, but my joints aren''t hurting like they used to," Alma Gray has observed. 

 

 "This is designed to stimulate physically, mentally and spiritually," Johnson stated, sitting in the church fellowship hall after class. "It promotes fitness of the mind; it''s one way to keep your brain going. The goal is to not only develop strength in the hands, but to encourage creativity, thinking and fellowship." 

 

The fellowship is apparent. 

 

"We laugh together and pray together," she smiled. 

 

  

 

Learning still  

 

Johnson''s lifelong passion for traditional arts and commitment to pass it on are evident. With no thoughts of retirement, she continues to take on apprentices through the Mississippi Arts Commission. She has been teaching in West Point''s public schools'' summer arts camps and completing work to exhibit at noted festivals like Kentuck in Northport, Ala., this fall. In 2008, she was awarded one of West Point''s coveted Hometown Hero Awards during the town''s sesquicentennial celebration. 

 

Through August, the West Point/Clay County Arts Council will exhibit some of Johnson''s basketry in the windows of the McClure Building on Commerce Street. The Macon Welcome Center will showcase her work in October. 

 

Even now, after a lifetime of achievement, the Mississippi native graciously acknowledges there is more to absorb. Participants of all ages in her workshops and classes remain a source of inspiration. 

 

"I don''t recall a single program when I didn''t learn something from them. They are always artistic, and I draw on their abilities. What you can do is only as limited as your imagination." 

 

Editor'' Note: Bessie Johnson is a member of the Mississippi Arts Commission Artist Roster and Mississippi Folklife and Folk Artist Directory. Learn more about this Tibbee resident at http://www.arts.state.ms.us. E-mail reaches her at bbj1@ebicom.net

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.