Written by Whitney Gilchrist | Photographed by Frank Farmer
Toward the end of her college years, a professor at William Carey University in Gulfport told artist Ginger Williams-Cook that she didn’t have to move to New York or Los Angeles to be an artist, she could work wherever she felt a “creative pulse.”
Williams-Cook took a job teaching art at a Gulfport school while she was still in college. She didn’t want to teach, but saw it as another odd job. “After I got into it, I wound up realizing how much I was enjoying it. At the end of the day, I realized that for that school year I was that school’s art teacher.” She adds, “And I could still do my art.”
After that year, she felt confident that she could continue to make art and always supplement an income with teaching.
She took a summer job as studio art teacher at Camp Windhover in Crystal Springs. Fellow counselor Josh Hailey brought her to Jackson on a weekend off and in the course of 24 hours, she found the kind of conversations that are the lifeblood of the arts community. She met fellow artists and dreamed about future projects. After that summer, she moved back home to Jackson and rented a studio in the Fondren Corner building.
“Being a part of a neighborhood that was so up-and-coming, [with] people establishing their own businesses, we operated off of a bartering system,” she says of Fondren. “You build deep relationships with people like that because you’re valuing what they do in exchange for your services.”
Williams-Cook also worked for a program at Mississippi Museum of Art. When Hurricane Katrina hit the gulf coast home she had just left, the work became personal.
“I was a complete wreck because that was my home and that’s where I had a huge time of my life where I was healing (after my mother’s death),” she remembers. So with the museum, Williams-Cook helped to organize a community art therapy program called “Life Shards” for people affected by the storm. “We did a mosaic feature in which we used ceramic pieces that were found along the Gulf Coast. It’s a permanent installation at the museum of art now,” she explains. Other projects and programs followed, each presenting a fresh challenge.
“It was really life-changing to be engaged in all those projects and in the meantime also working as an artist and trying to follow that path. That’s always so unpredictable and challenging.”
After starting a family, Williams-Cook worked out of her home studio for several years before renting a new studio in Fondren overlooking The Capri Theatre. “There’s enough noise outside to make it feel like I live in a big city,” says Williams- Cook of the space that is “more than [she] could have dreamed of.”
From inside and outside her studio, Williams-Cook continually collaborates with Jacksonians. She and Dr. Megan Clapton lead a mindfulness workshop at Clapton’s Ridgeland office using a Japanese marbling technique called suminagashi, she is illustrating a children’s book for a self-published author, and she and Malcolm White recently signed a contract with the University Press of Mississippi to publish an illustrated history of Hal and Mal’s.
Williams-Cook expects that these forays into book illustration will inspire her to illustrate stories of her own. “Hopefully by taking other people’s projects on, I’ll be able to clear the way to help some of mine come out in a more natural kind of way,” she explains. “I let the end process keep me from just starting when it really is just sitting down going page-by-page.”
On Risk-Taking and Personal Growth
The Fondren neighborhood is the landscape of transformation and healing in Ginger Williams-Cook’s story as an artist. Like many in the neighborhood, she went away to school, traveled, and returned to find that “the creative pulse” remained in place to nourish her with collaboration and energy to help sustain the ever-challenging balance that is the life of an artist.
Williams-Cook muses, “I think that the challenges that come with being an artist and the risks you take in the meantime… pays off really well…You can easily bounce back from the growing pains that happen in your twenties living as an artist. I reflect a lot on that and how teaching art helped me carry through those really hard times. I knew no matter what I could always find work teaching or doing a new program.”